Burgess the gay-lit god

Burgess was, at the very least, bisexual. That’s if you believe the novelist and blogger Rupert Smith, who places Earthly Powers at the top of the league of the world’s great homosexual novels. Mr Smith writes:

Sometimes I’m asked to list the best gay novels ever, and I often put [Earthly Powers] at Number One. Burgess isn’t thought of as a gay writer, though you don’t have to dig too far to figure out that he was, at the very least, bisexual.

Mr Smith writes well on Burgess. He states that ‘even [Burgess’s] slighter novels have more to them than the works of Barnes, Rushdie, McEwan et al.’ Very true.

Describing the ‘extremely funny and erudite’ Earthly Powers as ‘a 20th-century history viewed through the prism of homosexuality and homophobia’, Mr Smith points out that it is the finest post-war novel in English written by the greatest post-war British novelist.

On Burgess’s sexuality, Mr Smith is in good company: in Tangiers (described by Burgess as ‘all junkies and pederasts’), Burgess’s own wife felt she had cause to offer similar observations. Burgess writes:

A trip to Morocco, it is said, where Moslem juveniles will offer their brown bodies for 10 dirhams or so, may even make men waver who have been heterosexual all their lives and made bad jokes about ‘poofters’. Greece in its most golden days had a homosexual culture. The young men who sat with Socrates, and argued about truth and goodness and illusion and reality, were all given to the embraces of boys or of each other. Women were for begetting more Greeks, but young males were for sexual pleasure. And, in some regions, goats were for ecstasy.

And Burgess states in You’ve Had Your Time, Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (p. 70):

After a drinking session Lynne turned her sharp blue eyes on me (sa-rupa pisau, Alladad Khan had used to say: like a dagger) and put the straight question: was I perhaps really a closet homosexual?

Burgess says he ‘denied the charge’, but Lynne had seen the manuscript of a novel he had been writing in which Shakespeare appeared to be characterised as a gay syphilitic, and she suggested that Burgess’s ‘true sexual nature was beginning to come out’.

This, I said, was all nonsense. What I would have liked in Tangier was to seize one of these kohl-eyed houris in a yashmak and kiss her from the neat brown ankles up. One evening…I said to hell, I was going to visit the kasbah. Ah, she said, to find little boys.

Guy Burgess

There is also the problem that the great writer shared the surname of the homosexual spy and traitor Guy Burgess, which has given rise to confusion over the years. (Guy Burgess is played here by an actor who shares Burgess’s Christian name. I refer to Anthony Hopkins, whom I would quite like to see play Anthony Burgess.)

However, with the greatest respect both to the late Lynne Wilson and to Mr Smith, I don’t believe Burgess was gay, or in the slightest degree bisexual, despite the fact that he was pleased and honoured to discover that Earthly Powers had ‘found its way to the shelves of Gay Lit in American bookshops’.

Burgess’s own self-assessment, that he had ‘always been afflicted with a powerful but banal heterosexual drive, unmodified by the sight of Greek or African boys lying naked in the sun’, can be accepted as accurate, especially in view of the fact — as a commenter points out below — that in the 20 years since Burgess’s death not a soul has come forward to say he had any kind of homosexual encounter with him, even in childhood.

(Don’t miss the hilarious anecdote about Burgess and the son of a Chiswick greengrocer in You’ve Had Your Time, pp. 117-118.)

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  • Rupert Smith  On October 5, 2012 at 10:22 am

    I don’t think he was ‘practising’. But he certainly understood homosexual desire and, I think, respected it. I’m not one of those people who tries to claim the illustrious dead as ‘one of ours’. Just think it’s an overlooked strand in AB’s work.

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