Burgess on Patrick White

In a letter to Geoffrey Dutton, Patrick White writes amusingly about Burgess’s second wife. And in one in the same year to Marshall Best, he writes:

Anthony Burgess seems to have ruffled the Australian Writers in a talk he gave, in which he said: ‘A country is only remembered for its art. Rome is remembered for Virgil, Greece for Homer, and Australia may be remembered for Patrick White.’ The newspaper report continues: ‘The entire gathering of writers, which did not include Patrick White, held its breath in shock for a moment before releasing it in a smothered gasp. No one clapped.



Burgess on Burns

Extract from Anthony Burgess’s ‘English Literature’ (1958; 2nd edition 1974). The Ballarat statue of Robert Burns was unveiled in 1887.

Anthony Burgess’s buttocks

According to Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess’s gusto and exuberance sprang from his brilliant bum.

How Burgess nearly became a Mohammedan

It was ’57, independence year. Burgess was living and working in Kota Bharu, and he he resisted repatriation*. He writes:

I wanted to be accepted as a Malayan. I proposed entering Islam, which would have entitled me to four wives but barred me from eating ham for breakfast. My name was chosen for me — Yahya bin Abdullah — and I started to study the Koran. It was an agreeable prospect. The tropics bestow on white men a great appetite for sensuality — food, drink, and sex†.

He would marry four Malay wives

and beget a host of particoloured children who would respect me and call me bapa. I would make the pilgrimage to Mecca and come back wearing a turban with the title Hajji. Hajji Yahya bin Abdullah. I would be a known and beloved figure at the mosque meetings on Friday.

* unlike in Borneo in ’59, when he craved repatriation, and indeed staged a nervous breakdown to facilitate it.
† In his Confessions, he writes:
I had better say a little about love-making in the East. With Malays there were certain restrictions on the amatory forms, laid down by Islam, so that only the posture of Venus observed was officially permitted. Islamic women were supposed to be passive houris. The demands of Islamic wives for frequent sexual congress did not indicate true sensual appetite: they were a test of the fidelity of their husbands. A Malay female body, musky, shapely, golden-brown, was always a delight. Malay women rarely ran to fat, which was reserved to the wives of the Chinese towkays and was an index of prosperity. Malay women kept their figures after childbirth through a kind of ritual roasting over an open fire, tightly wrapped in greased winding-sheets. They walked proudly in sarongs and bajus, their glossy hair permanently waved, their heels high. They were seductive as few white women are. Lying with Rahimah I regretted my own whiteness: a white skin was an eccentricity and looked like a disease. Simple though Malay sex was, it had an abundant vocabulary. To copulate was jamah or berjima or juma’at or bersatu (literally to become one), or sa-tuboh, asmara, betanchok (this term was peculiar to Perak), ayut, ayok and much much more. There was even a special term for sexual congress after the forty-day birth taboo — pechah kepala barut — and there were two for the boy’s initiation after circumcision — menyepoh tua, with someone older, menyepoh muda, with someone younger. The orgasm was dignified with an Arabic loanword, shahuat, or colloquially called rumah sudah ratip — literally, ‘the structure has gone into an ecstatic trance’, ratip or ratib being properly the term for the transport produced by the constant repetition of the holy name Allah. Where the Western term for experiencing orgasm is, in whatever language, ‘to come’, the Malay mind, using keluar, thinks of going out, leaving the body, floating on air.


Visiting Australia, Burgess discovered that

the chip on the shoulder was still there, and I wondered why. It was hard for this Pom to say the right thing. My commendation of Patrick White’s achievement aroused snarls about the ‘Keep Australia Patrick White Society’.

White gave Burgess and his second wife dinner,

exquisitely cooked by his Greek companion. He spoke highly patrician English and made no secret of his homosexuality.

Burgess apprehended that

the digger prejudice was so strong that one had to suspect an occult vein of homosexuality in the most ostentatiously virile.

There was

a lower-middle-class shame about sex.

The prudery, along with anti-intellectualism,

seemed to be British colonial legacies.

The moral and mental climate of Australia

did not do justice to the land itself, vast, with bewilderingly rich flora and fauna.

The politicians could have been respected

if they had made their philistinism an aspect of a policy.

One writer said to Burgess,

I’m a lowbrow and I write for lowbrows.

Another writer, Frank Hardy,

trembled with resentment of Patrick White, who had let Australia down by viewing it through the prism of a Pommy education.

A literary woman came up to Burgess and said,

We don’t want whingeing Poms like you here. We want blokes like Yevtushenko.

Burgess asked her,

You understand his Russian?

She screamed:

That’s not the bloody point!

Australia, Burgess felt,

seemed a country that was doggedly determined to honour no-bloody-nonsense rather infantile masculinity.

Amis on Burgess’s wives

Lynne, a translator and Burgess’s first wife, wanted Burgess to beat up Terence Kilmartin (who produced among other things a translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu). Liana, a translator and Burgess’s second wife, ballocked Kingsley Amis for presumptuously thinking he understood the problem faced by Czech Marxists whose country had been occupied by the USSR.

Australia: the beach

By the time Burgess caught up with D.J. Enright in Singapore, the professor of English was

resigning, along with other expatriates, from the university.

Talking of Australia, Enright told Burgess: ‘You’ve been to worse places.’ Down under, Burgess found that this was

an understatement. This was the country for young Andrea [Burgess’s stepson] to grow up in, bare brown toes splaying on the beaches under the sun.

Australian women, Burgess noted with delight, were

well-built and beautiful.

He was particularly interested in

a very beautiful waitress, with sumptuous long legs exposed in a miniskirt,


leaned over a table to collect a plate and displayed those legs to the limit.

Burgess was, he confesses,

unholily moved.


I lived for a long time on the same busy square, and I would probably still be living there if the landlord had not thrown me out.

Burgess lived here at 16A Piazza Santa Cecilia (the third floor flat) from 1970 or 1971 (after his return from Malta) until about 1976, when he moved to Monaco — while returning often to the Rome area to his residence at Bracciano.

The apartment was at Number 16A, on the third floor, and it had a salon, two bedrooms, a workroom, a bathroom, and a cold water kitchen. In the 1970s, Italian, or Milanese, furnishings were at their best, and the flat soon became a model of chic, what with wall bookshelves in the shape of a half-globe, a huge metal light-picture with beaten bronze doors to shut off or open up individual luminous patches; a great Italian letto matrimoniale, of the deep wide kind in which the wives of Mafia bosses dictate midnight policy; tables, chairs and desks of lucid cream or crimson; floor lamps in body-shaped parchment of the kind called ghosts or fantasme. The elegance was unabetted by tidiness: Liana said that life was not the making of beds but the unmaking of them. The untidy life of the piazza and of the narrow abutting lanes, car-honks, song, the labour of the makers of fake antiques, was answered by the baroque beauty of the basilica of Santa Cecilia, where the bones of the patroness of music were said to lie. We looked out on the flaking golden putti who guarded her church, some of whom made minute obscene gestures at such rulers of Rome as would pass or enter. There was a baroque organ within, and on this I was occasionally to play, though not the tunes of Cyrano. Gazing out, I felt happiness stirring like a threat. Despite the thieves, the streets and piazzas of Rome were a joy. I was always addressed as professore. To be a writer in Rome was no small thing.

The planet Kartoffel

Burgess on how to plot your SF novel

Burgess on why most SF is so damned dull

Science fiction plots, writes Burgess, are

easily devised. We are a million years into the future, and the world is run by the Krompir, who have police robots called patates under a grim chief with a grafted cybernetic cerebrum whose name is Peruna. There is a forbidden phoneme. If you utter it you divide into two identities which continue to subdivide until you become a million microessences used to feed the life system of Aardappel, the disembodied head of the Krompir. But there is a phonemic cancellant called a burgonya, obtainable on the planet Kartoffel. You can get there by Besterian teleportation, but the device for initiating the process is in the five hands of Tapuach Adamah, two-headed head of the underground Jagaimo. Man must resist the System. The Lovers, who amate according to the banned traditional edicts of Terpomo, proclaim Love. Type it all out and correct nothing. You will find yourself in the Gollancz SF constellation.