Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Review: Conversations with Anthony Burgess, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll and Mary C. Ingersoll

Readers of this blog will know that I have a real soft spot when it comes author interviews. While the vast majority of the ones found on the blogosphere these days are uniformly awful—often choked with stock questions that could be asked of any writer at any time, cringe-inducing obsessions with process, lots of literary back scratching, and a relentless need to fetishize the writerly life (“Do you have a day job? … “Do you write in the morning or at night?” … “Where do you get your ideas? … “Isn’t that interesting …” etc) rather than focus on the writing it produces—it’s good to be reminded of a time when author interviews were still treated as serious journalism. A good interviewer will ask questions that prove conclusively that he or she has read the author’s work closely. A good interviewee will provide answers that are thoughtful, engaging, tangential and most importantly, unique to the interview at hand.

Readers also know I have a real soft spot for Anthony Burgess, so when I discovered this collection of interviews edited by Earl G. Ingersoll and Mary C. Ingersoll, I jumped at the chance to read it. The editors wisely acknowledge in their introduction that Burgess had a penchant for mythomania, and part of the fun of reading these interviews (which run from 1971 to 1989) is catching him in his various flights of exaggeration, contradiction, playfulness and outright apocrypha-making.

One of the great feats of the Ingersolls’ anthology is compiling interviews with Burgess that cover a wide range of the polymath’s interests. There are interviews revealing his frustrations over the success of his best-known novel, A Clockwork Orange; there is an interview discussing his views on education (Burgess worked for many years as a teacher before devoting himself to writing full-time); there is an interview detailing his literary criticism on Joyce (his analysis of the inconsistent diction of the Molly Bloom soliloquy in Ulysses is inspired); and there are lots of disclosure about his personal life.

One aspect of these interviews that stuck out for me was the emphasis and importance that Burgess put on book reviewing. He saw it as another form of journalism, which it is. Indeed, there are several instances where Burgess says he engages in journalism to “pay the bills”, and what he means by that is book reviewing for pay. He says that reviewing did his fiction no harm, and in fact made him a deeper thinker and more astute reader. Reviewing also earned him his fair share of enemies, which of course good reviewing always should.

Still, despite the wide swath of this anthology, I did feel there were a few areas of Burgess’ life that the book beats to death. There are too many interviews, for example, that deal with the subject’s capital-C Catholic background and not enough that deal with his small-c catholic interests. After all, this was a man who spoke at least a dozen languages fluently. He composed music and had vast chunks of the classical repertoire committed to memory. He was an expert on D.H. Lawrence, various areas of linguistic theory, and East Asian culture. He also reviewed wine, food, films and even cars for the popular media. Yet the interviews tend to spend too much time on Burgess’ exploration of good and evil and free will through the prism of his Catholicism that helped shape his fiction. When the questions surround his magnum opus Earthly Powers, they at least come off as a propos. But there are times when the theological discourse just goes round and round, and come off as repetitive.

I was also curious to see how the Ingersolls transcribed Burgess’ 1985 audio interview with Don Swain, which is available freely online. Here Swain’s various flubs (he at one point confuses Monte Carlo with Monaco; at another he accuses Burgess—wrongly—of leaving Styron out his Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939) have been cleaned up, and much, I have to say, to the detriment of the interview.

Still, this was a deeply enjoyable read and a great portal into the life, work and thoughts of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating and enigmatic writers. As a Burgess fan, I found this anthology to be a welcome addition to my growing shelf of Burgess texts.

The quotable Burgess

Here are some wonderfully aphoristic blurbs from the interviews that, for whatever reason, really resonated with me:

  • “It’s typical of a young man brought up in the provinces, living in the provinces, that he should try and make a bigger man of himself than he is by indulging in fantasies and by lying.”
  • “I like authority, because children can rebel against authority. It’s much more difficult to rebel against red tape.”
  • “The counter-culture is producing a vacuum into which anybody can march.”
  • “The practice of being on time with commissioned work is an aspect of politeness. I don’t like being late for appointments; I don’t like craving indulgence from editors in the matter of missed deadlines. Good journalistic manners tend to lead to a kind of self-discipline in creative work. It’s important that a novel be approached with some urgency.”
  • “The U.S. presidency is a Tudor monarch plus telephones.”
  • “Always invent your own dialects if you can.”
  •   “One should go through a great deal of trouble to be cunningly clumsy. Joyce is cunningly clumsy … In fiction there should be an element of doubt in the sentence.” 

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