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Rediscovering Anthony Burgess — naughty, controversial, brilliant, dead!

November 24, 2011

Anthony Burgess may have died in 1993, but thanks to the vast archive he left behind new work is coming to light –almost, it seems, daily.

The archive, left to the Anthony Burgess Foundation by the author’s widow Liana, is “newly housed” in a renovated building, located in a resurgent area of Manchester, England, according to the Guardian, which calls it “a bulging testament to the writer’s prolific literary and musical talent.”

During his lifetime Burgess, who had a knack for annoying people, was often criticized for writing too much. He discussed the charge in this 1972 interview reprinted in the Paris Review, where he said:

“It has been a sin to be prolific only since the Bloomsbury group—particularly Forster—made it a point of good manners to produce, as it were, costively. I’ve been annoyed less by sneers at my alleged overproduction than by the imputation that to write much means to write badly. I’ve always written with great care and even some slowness. I’ve just put in rather more hours a day at the task than some writers seem able to.”

Anthony Burgess was the pen name of John Burgess Wilson, who labored as a novelist, poet, playwright, composer, linguist, translator, and critic. He was an expert on Joyce, Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Lawrence, as well as the 17th greatest British writer since 1945, as chosen by the Times of London.

Beginning in 1956, Burgess produced more than 30 published novels. The most famous is A Clockwork Orange, a dystopian novel of a degenerate future written in a youth jargon Burgess invented for the purpose. Burgess, however, considered it among his lesser works.

Burgess also produced 25 works of non-fiction, two volumes of autobiography, three symphonies, and more than 250 other musical works including a piano concerto, a ballet, and stage musicals.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of A Clockwork Orange, which was made into an acclaimed but controversial film by the British auteur Stanley Kubrick.

Burgess once wrote that he knocked off A Clockwork Orange in three weeks “for money” and disparaged the film version a a distortion of the book that glorified violence. But that’s hard to credit, and not only because Kubrick rejected Burgess’s screenplay and replaced it with his own.

A “small team” boring into the archive has uncovered “a greatly expanded slang lexicon” for A Clockwork Orange, suggesting to me, at least, that Burgess worked harder on the book and valued it more highly than he let on. My guess: He was peeved its success drew attention from his other work.

In a long essay at Open Letter Monthly, novelist John Cotter, agrees that Clockwork is Burgess’s “most uncharacteristic novel.” He names Earthly Powers as the author’s “best, longest, and funniest book.”

Recent discoveries in the archive include an unknown opera about Leon Trotsky, the script for an unproduced TV series about Attilla the Hun, musical material for a series of concerts and for an operatic version of A Clockwork Orange that had its first studio performance at Manchester University last week. A play about the life of Napoleon debuts on BBC Radio next year.

More gems come to light all the time, according to Andrew Biswell, the director of the foundation and Burgess’s biographer.

“Last week we opened up a case and inside we found a piece of music we didn’t know about, a pair of driving gloves belonging to Liana and a tape recording for his music The Eyes of New York, which is not transcribed anywhere,” Biswell said.

Burgess was famed in his lifetime as a difficult man with a violent imagination who had an unreconstructed attitude toward women and vilified feminism. But the Guardian reports the archive has produced warm correspondence with feminist writers like Angela Carter and Erica Jong.

Regardless of what the man may or may not have been like, his work has an enduring power to delight, terrify, entertain and edify. Now is as good a time as any to discover it anew.


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