Sunday, July 6, 2014

Review: Anthony Burgess, by Roger Lewis

The one thing that is truly admirable about Roger Lewis’s 2002 biography of Anthony Burgess – perhaps the only truly admirable thing about it – is that Lewis was able to sustain such a vitriolic attack for nearly 500 pages. A less-obsessive biographer, looking to chop down as tall a poppy as Burgess, would probably want to do it quickly, fiercely – penning a short, concise text to make us rethink the man’s reputation. He certainly wouldn’t want to spend well over a decade thoroughly researching the life, and reading and rereading the many works, of his subject in the hopes of pulling off English literature’s biggest literary slag. So Lewis gets props for his effort, at the very least.

The end result is, of course, another matter. Whether Lewis had ever been a genuine fan of Burgess’s writing becomes immaterial within the first few pages of his flailing, incompetent prologue. He tells the story of meeting Burgess for the first time in Oxford in 1985, when Lewis was a 25-year-old grad student studying under famed literary biographer Richard Ellmann. Lewis seems gravely offended that Burgess does not show more interest in him, or in any other individual he encounters during his visit to Oxford. And this perceived snub becomes the launching pad from which the rest of Lewis’s digs at Burgess come.

But it seems a strange thing to get upset about. Had Lewis not spent any time around writers before? Did he not know that most – no matter how successful they are – are deeply insecure people and compensate by talking about themselves and their work obsessively while not really paying attention to what others are saying, doing, thinking or writing? I mean, that’s just how many of them operate. He also slags Burgess for other qualities that lots of writers possess: the need to repeat certain themes, tropes or even scenes over several books; the fictionalizing of their own experiences; the heavy drinking; the questionable fashion sense. Even if these were flaws – which they aren’t – they certainly aren’t limited to Burgess.

There were several times as I worked my way through this book that I really wondered why Lewis could not just walk away from Burgess’s oeuvre if he found it so disagreeable. He nails his subject for, among other things, privileging language over emotion, ideas over individuals, structure over story. But if these things bother Lewis so much, perhaps Burgess just isn’t the author for him. Lots of British writers (Austen, Woolf, McEwan, among many others) emphasize the emotional lives of individuals in their stories. Burgess wasn’t one of them; his novels had other preoccupations. But it doesn’t make the works that resulted from those obsessions any less literary.

Lewis also seemed to take issue with both the Catholic and catholic sides of Burgess’s personality. He sums up, with this incoherent sentence, the wide net of interests that Burgess cast: “Though his work demonstrates great versatility, the versatility is all the same.” (He goes on later to refer to it as a “monotonous” versatility.) Really? Could he not see it as one of the many things that set Burgess apart? Lewis also can’t seem to wrap his mind around the fact that Burgess was a lapsed Catholic and most likely an atheist at heart. He treats the man’s religious background not as a deep well from which he drew a lot of his creativity, but rather as an ethnicity that he accuses Burgess of being deeply self-conscious about.

Hypocrisies abound in Lewis’s book. He accuses Burgess of snobbery but then chastises him for not attending Oxford like Kingsley Amis did. He ribs him for bringing an air of feigned bohemia to his job as a teacher in small-town Banbury, but then goes on to show just how quirky and different Burgess was from his colleagues there. He calls Burgess a bigot despite the fact that the man travelled to the Far East and immersed himself in various cultures, mastering several foreign languages along the way.

I think what galls most about Lewis’s book, though, is that his prose actually takes on a type of linguistic pyrotechnics – lots of complex sentence structures played for humour, and a slew of arcane five-dollar words – that comes straight from the style of Burgess himself. Lewis even tries his hand at a few Burgessian neologisms. “Lunatrix,” anyone? (That may be a play on Burgess’ creative term “translatrix.” Which at least makes sense, suffix wise, in the way that ‘dominatrix’ connotes a female dominator.)

Despite the countless flaws undermining this very long book, I have to point out that I actually did finish it. There are some keen observations scattered throughout Lewis’s text, and I did manage to learn some things about the life of Anthony Burgess that I didn’t already know. (That someone would even hint that he had once been a spy for the CIA, and that clues to that background may exist in the very language of his most famous work, A Clockwork Orange, was new to me. Completely unfounded nonsense, of course. But new, nonetheless.) And there are times when Lewis’s approach to the narrative of Burgess’s life is downright compelling.

Still, the bad definitely outweighs the good here. I could go on – and on, and on, and on, and on, and on – about everything that’s wrong with this gimcrack biography. But the truth is I’ve already made most of my points, and in less than a thousand words. Time to go find something else to read that I’ll actually enjoy.

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