Burgess was an English novelist and critic. He was also active as
a composer, librettist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist,
essayist, travel writer, broadcaster, translator and educationalist.
Born John Burgess Wilson in the northern English city of Manchester,
he lived and worked variously in Southeast Asia, the United States
and Mediterranean Europe. His fiction includes the Malayan trilogy
(The Long Day Wanes) on the dying days of Britain's empire in the
East, the Enderby cycle of comic novels about a reclusive poet and
his muse, the classic speculative recreation of Shakespeare's love-life
Nothing Like the Sun, the cult exploration of the nature of evil
A Clockwork Orange, and Earthly Powers, a panoramic Tolstoyan saga
of the 20th century.
wrote critical studies of Joyce, Hemingway, Shakespeare and Lawrence,
produced the treatises on linguistics Language Made Plain and
A Mouthful of Air, and turned out large quantities of journalism
in several languages. The translator and adapter of Cyrano de
Bergerac, Oedipus the King and Carmen for the stage, he scripted
Jesus of Nazareth and Moses the Lawgiver for the screen and composed
the Sinfoni Melayu, the Symphony (No. 3) in C and the opera Blooms
John Burgess Wilson was born on February 25, 1917 in Harpurhey,
a northeastern quarter of Manchester, to a Catholic father and
a Protestant mother. He was known in childhood as Jack. Later,
on his confirmation, the name Anthony was added and he became
John Anthony Burgess Wilson. It was not until 1956 that he was
to conceive and to begin to use the pen-name Anthony Burgess.
lost his mother, Elizabeth Burgess Wilson, at the age of one.
She was a casualty of the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic ("Spanish
flu"), which also took the life of his sister Muriel. Elizabeth,
who is buried in a Protestant cemetery in Manchester (the City
of Manchester General Cemetery, Rochdale Road), had been a minor
actress and dancer who appeared at Manchester music halls such
as the Ardwick Empire and the Gentlemen's Concert Rooms. Her stage
name, according to Burgess (there has never been any independent
verification), was "The Beautiful Belle Burgess".
described his father, Joseph Wilson, as descended from an "Augustinian
Catholic" background, which probably refers to recusancy.
Burgess père was among other things an army corporal, a
bookie, a pub pianoplayer, a pianist in movie theaters (accompanying
the silent films of the era – see the novel The Pianoplayers),
an encyclopaedia salesman, a butcher, and a tobacconist. Burgess
described Joseph, who remarried (to a pub landlady), as "a
mostly absent drunk who called himself a father".
was raised by his maternal aunt, and later by his stepmother.
His childhood was in large part a solitary one. His home was rooms
above an off-licence and newsagent's-tobacconist's shop that his
aunt ran, and above a pub.
Burgess was schooled at St. Edmund's Roman Catholic Elementary
School, and later at Bishop Bilsborrow Memorial Roman Catholic
Primary School in Moss Side. For some years his family lived on
Princess Street in the same district.
grades from Bishop Bilsborrow resulted in a place at the noted
Manchester Catholic secondary school, Xaverian College. It was
during his teenage years at this school that he lapsed formally
from Catholicism, although he cannot be said to have broken completely
with the Church.
entered the University of Manchester in 1937, graduating three
years later with the degree of Bachelor of Arts, 2nd class honours,
upper division, in English language and literature. His thesis
was on the subject of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.
had originally wanted to study music, but his grades in physics
– then a requirement for the subject – were deemed
not high enough to qualify for a place on the programme.
father died of flu in 1938 and his stepmother of a heart attack
In 1940 Burgess began a rather unheroic wartime stint with the
military, beginning with the Royal Army Medical Corps, which included
a period at a field ambulance station at Morpeth, Northumberland.
During this period he sometimes directed an army dance band. He
later moved to the Army Educational Corps, where among other things
he conducted speech therapy at a mental hospital. He failed in
his aspiration to win an officer's commission.
1942 the marriage took place in Bournemouth between Burgess and
a Welshwoman named Llewela Jones, eldest daughter of a high-school
headmaster. She was known to all as "Lynne". Although
Burgess indicated on numerous occasions that her full name was
Llewela Isherwood Jones, the name "Isherwood" does not
appear on her birth certificate. Nor was Lynne related to the
writer Christopher Isherwood as many people had believed. Lynne
and Burgess were fellow students at Manchester University. Their
marriage was childless, and, to put it mildly, tempestuous. She
died of cirrhosis in 1968.
was next stationed in Gibraltar at an army garrison. Here he was
a training college lecturer in speech and drama, teaching German,
Russian, French and Spanish, and helped instruct the troops in
"The British Way and Purpose". He was also an instructor
for the Central Advisory Council for Forces Education of the UK
Ministry of Education.
Burgess left the army with the rank of sergeant-major in 1946,
and was for the next four years a lecturer in speech and drama
at the Mid-West School of Education near Wolverhampton and at
the Bamber Bridge Emergency Teacher Training College (known as
"the Brigg" and associated with the University of Birmingham)
the end of 1950 he took a job as a secondary school teacher of
English literature on the staff of Banbury Grammar School (now
defunct) in the market town of Banbury, Oxfordshire (see The Worm
and the Ring, which the then mayoress of Banbury claimed libeled
her). In addition to his teaching duties Burgess was required
to supervise sports from time to time, and he ran the school's
years were to be looked back on as some of the happiest of Burgess's
life. Thanks to financial assistance provided by Lynne's father,
the couple was able to put a downpayment on a cottage in the picturesque
village of Adderbury, not far from Banbury.
organised a number of amateur theatrical events in his spare time.
These involved local people and students and included productions
of T.S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes (Burgess had named his Adderbury
cottage Little Gidding, after one of Eliot's Four Quartets) and
Aldous Huxley's The Gioconda Smile.
was in Adderbury that Burgess cut his journalistic teeth, with
several of his contributions published in the local newspaper
the Banbury Guardian.
would-be writer was a habitué of the pubs of the village,
especially The Bell and The Red Lion, where his predilection for
consuming large quantities of cider was noted at the time. Both
he and his wife are believed to have been barred from one or more
of the Adderbury pubs because of their riotous behaviour.
In January 1954 Burgess was interviewed by the British Colonial
Office for a post in Malaya (now Malaysia) as a teacher and education
officer in the British colonial service. He was offered the job
and accepted with alacrity, being keen to explore Eastern lands.
Several months later he and his wife travelled to Singapore by
the liner Willem Ruys from Southampton with stops in Port Said
was stationed initially in Kuala Kangsar, the royal town in Perak,
in what were then known as the Federated Malay States. Here he
taught at the Malay College, dubbed "the Eton of the East"
and now known as Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK).
addition to his teaching duties at this school for the sons of
leading Malayans, he had responsibilities as a housemaster in
charge of students of the preparatory school, who were housed
at a Victorian mansion known as "King's Pavilion". The
building had once been occupied by the British Resident in Perak.
And the edifice had gained notoriety during World War II as a
place of torture, being the local headquarters of the Kempeitai
(Japanese secret police).
his novels and autobiography document, Burgess's late 1950s coincided
with the communist insurgency, an undeclared war known as the
Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) when rubber planters and members
of the European community – not to mention many Malays,
Chinese and Tamils – were subject to frequent terrorist
but not necessarily consequent upon, an alleged dispute with the
Malay College's principal about accommodation for himself and
his wife, Burgess was posted elsewhere – the couple occupied
an apparently rather noisy apartment in the building mentioned
above, where privacy was supposedly minimal. This was the professed
reason for his transfer to the Malay Teachers' Training College
at Kota Bharu, Kelantan. Kota Bharu is situated on the Siamese
border; the Thais had ceded the area to the British in 1909 and
a British adviser had been installed.
attained fluency in Malay, spoken and written. The language was
still at that time rendered in the adapted Arabic script known
as Jawi. He spent much of his free time engaged in creative writing,
"as a sort of gentlemanly hobby, because I knew there wasn't
any money in it". He published his first novels, Time For
A Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket and Beds in the East. These
became known as "The Malayan Trilogy" and were later
to be published in one volume as The Long Day Wanes. During his
time in the East he also wrote English Literature: A Survey for
Students, and this book was in fact the first Burgess work published
(if we do not count an essay published in the youth section of
the London Daily Express when Burgess was a child).
After a period of leave in Britain in 1959, Burgess took up a
further Eastern post, this time at the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin
College in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, a sultanate on the northern
coast of the island of Borneo. Brunei had been a British protectorate
since 1888, and was not to achieve independence until 1984. In
Brunei Burgess sketched the novel that, when it was published
in 1961, was to be entitled Devil of a State. Although the novel
dealt with Brunei, for libel reasons the action had to be transposed
to an imaginary East African "sultanate" the like of
this time Burgess "collapsed" in a Brunei classroom
while teaching history. He was expounding on the causes and consequences
of the Boston Tea Party at the time. There were reports that he
had been diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumour, with
the likelihood of only surviving a short time, occasioning the
alleged breakdown. This turned out to be wrong. He was, however,
suffering from the effects of prolonged heavy drinking (and associated
poor nutrition), of the often oppressive Southeast Asian climate,
of chronic constipation, and of overwork and professional disappointment.
he put it, the scions of the sultans and of the elite in Brunei
"did not wish to be taught", because the free-flowing
abundance of oil guaranteed their income and privileged status.
He may also have wished for a pretext to abandon teaching and
get going full-time as a writer, having made a late start in the
art of fiction.
the Brunei debacle to an interviewer over twenty years later,
Burgess commented: "One day in the classroom I decided that
I'd had enough and to let others take over. I just lay down on
the floor out of interest to see what would happen." On another
occasion he described it as "a willed collapse out of sheer
boredom and frustration". But he gave a different account
to the British arts and media veteran Jeremy Isaacs in 1987 when
he said: "I was driven out of the Colonial Service for political
reasons that were disguised as clinical reasons."
He was repatriated and relieved of his position in Brunei. He
spent some time in a London hospital (see The Doctor Is Sick)
where he underwent cerebral tests that, as far as can be made
out, proved negative.
his discharge, benefitting from a sum of money Lynn had inherited
from her father together with their savings built up over six
years in the East, he decided he had the financial independence
to become a full-time writer.
couple lived successively in an apartment in the town of Hove,
near Brighton, on the Sussex coast (see the Enderby quartet of
novels); in a semi-detached house called "Applegarth"
in the inland Sussex village of Etchingham, just down the road
from the residence in Burwash once occupied by Rudyard Kipling;
and in a terraced town house in Chiswick, a western inner suburb
of London, conveniently located for the White City BBC television
studios of which he was a frequent guest in this period.
cruise holiday Burgess and his wife took to the USSR, calling
at St Petersburg (then still called Leningrad), resulted in Honey
For the Bears and inspired some of the invented slang for A Clockwork
By the end of the 1960s Burgess was once again living outside
England, as a tax exile. It was in grander accommodation this
time; indeed, at his death he was a multi-millionaire and left
a Europe-wide property portfolio of houses and apartments numbering
in the double figures.
lived in a house he had bought at Lija, Malta, for a time, but
problems with the state censor prompted a move to Rome. He maintained
a flat in the Italian capital and a country house in Bracciano,
and a property in Montalbuccio. There was a villa in Provence,
in Callian of the Var, France, and an apartment just off Baker
Street, London, very near the presumed home of Sherlock Holmes
in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories.
lived for two years in the United States, working as a visiting
professor at Princeton University (1970) and as a "distinguished
professor" at the City College of New York (1972), and teaching
creative writing at Columbia University. He had also been writer-in-residence
at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1969) and
at the University at Buffalo (1976). He lectured on the novel
at the University of Iowa in 1975.
he settled in Monaco, where he was active in the local community,
becoming a co-founder in 1984 of the Princess Grace Irish Library,
a centre for Irish cultural studies (http://www3.monaco.mc/pglib/).
He spent much time also at one of his houses, a chalet, in Lugano,
Lynne's death in 1968 at the age of forty-seven of liver cirrhosis
(see Beard's Roman Women), he had remarried, to Liliana Macellari,
an Italian translator, adopting the latter's son from a previous
relationship. An attempt to kidnap the boy, called Paolo-Andrea,
in Rome is believed to have been one of the factors deciding the
family's move to Monaco.
Burgess once wrote: "I shall die somewhere in the Mediterranean
lands, with an inaccurate obituary in the Nice-Matin, unmourned,
soon forgotten." In the event he was to die in the country
of his birth. He returned to Twickenham, an outer suburb of London,
where he owned a house, to die on November 22, 1993. He was 76
years old. His actual death (of lung cancer – he was a lifelong
heavy smoker) occurred at the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth
in the St John's Wood neighbourhood of London. He is thought to
have composed the novel Byrne on his deathbed.
is believed he would have liked his ashes to be kept in Moston
Cemetery in Manchester, but in the event they went to the cemetery
in Monte Carlo.
epitaph on Burgess's marble memorial stone, behind which the vessel
with his remains is kept, reads "Abba Abba", which has
several denotations: (1) the Hebrew for "Father, father",
that is, an invocation to God as Father (Mark 14:36 etc.); (2)
Burgess's initials forwards and backwards; (3) part of the rhyme
scheme for the Petrarchan sonnet; (4) the last words Jesus uttered,
in Aramaic, from the Cross; (5) the Burgess novel about the death
of Keats, Abba Abba.; and (6) the famous abba rhyme scheme which
Tennyson used for his great poem on death, In Memoriam.
stepson Paolo-Andrea survived him by less than a decade, dying
aged 37 in 2002.
I happy? Probably not. Having passed the prescribed biblical age
limit, I have to think of death, and I do not like the thought.
There is a vestigial fear of hell, and even of purgatory, and
no amount of rereading rationalist authors can expunge it. If
there is only darkness after death, then that darkness is the
ultimate reality and that love of life that I intermittently possess
is no preparation for it. In face of the approaching blackness,
which Winston Churchill facetiously termed black velvet, concerning
oneself with a world that is soon to fade out like a television
image in a power cut seems mere frivolity. But rage against the
dying of the light is only human, especially when there are still
things to be done, and my rage sometimes sounds to myself like
madness. It is not only a question of works never to be written;
it is a matter of things unlearned. I have started to learn Japanese,
but it is too late; I have started to read Hebrew, but my eyes
will not take in the jots and tittles. How can one fade out in
peace, carrying vast ignorance into a state of total ignorance?"
perverse nature can be stimulated by anything. Any book can be
used as a pornographic instrument, even a great work of literature
if the mind that so uses it is off-balance. I once found a small
boy masturbating in the presence of the Victorian steel-engraving
in a family Bible."
human life is here, but the Holy Ghost seems to be somewhere else."
just a city like anywhere else. A vastly overrated city, I'd say.
It trades on belief just as Stratford trades on Shakespeare."
"The aura of
the theocratic death penalty for adultery still clings to America,
even outside New England, and multiple divorce, which looks to
the European like serial polygamy, is the moral solution to the
problem of the itch. Love comes into it too, of course, but in
Europe we tend to see marital love as an eternity which encompasses
hate and also indifference: when we promise to love we really
mean that we promise to honour a contract. Americans, seeming
to take marriage with not enough seriousness, are really taking
love and sex with too much."