biographical sketch

Novelist, critic, composer, librettist, screenwriter, biographer, translator, linguist, educationalist and man of letters. Born in Manchester, England, he lived for long periods in Southeast Asia, the USA and Mediterranean Europe. His fiction includes the Malayan Trilogy (The Long Day Wanes) on the dying days of Britain’s empire in the East; the Enderbyquartet of novels about a poet and his muse; Nothing Like the Sun, a recreation of Shakespeare’s love-life; A Clockwork Orange, an exploration of the nature of evil; and Earthly Powers, a panoramic saga of the 20th century. He published studies of Joyce, Hemingway, Shakespeare and Lawrence, produced works on linguistics such as Language Made Plain and A Mouthful of Air, and was a prolific reviewer, writing in several languages. He translated and adapted Cyrano de BergeracOedipus the King and Carmen for the stage; scripted Jesus of Nazareth and Moses the Lawgiver for the screen; invented the prehistoric language spoken in Quest for Fire; and composed the Sinfoni Melayu, the Symphony (No. 3) in C, and the opera Blooms of Dublin.

Childhood

Burgess was born “John Burgess Wilson” on February 25, 1917 in Harpurhey, a northeastern suburb of Manchester, to a Catholic father and a Catholic convert mother. He was known in childhood as Jack. Later, on his confirmation, the name Anthony was added and he became John Anthony Burgess Wilson. He began using the pen-name Anthony Burgess in 1956.

His mother, Elizabeth Burgess Wilson, died when Burgess was one year old, a casualty of the 1918—19 Spanish flu pandemic, which also took the life of his sister Muriel. Elizabeth, who is buried in a Protestant cemetery in Manchester (the City of Manchester General Cemetery, Rochdale Road), had been a minor actress and dancer who appeared at Manchester music halls such as the Ardwick Empire and the Gentlemen’s Concert Rooms. Her stage name, according to Burgess, was “The Beautiful Belle Burgess”, but there has never been any independent verification of this. His grandmother, Mary-Ann Finnegan, is thought to have come from Tipperary.

Burgess described his father, Joseph Wilson, as descended from an “Augustinian Catholic” background. Burgess’s father had a variety of means of earning a living, working at different times as an army corporal, bookmaker, pub piano-player, pianist in movie theaters accompanying silent films, encyclopedia salesman, butcher, cashier at a meat market, and tobacconist. Burgess described his father, who later remarried a pub landlady, as “a mostly absent drunk who called himself a father”. The adjective he used to describe the relationship he had with his father was “lukewarm”. Burgess’s grandfather was half-Irish.

Burgess was raised by his maternal aunt and later by his stepmother, whom he detested (he was to include a slatternly caricature of her in the Enderby quartet). His childhood was in large part a solitary one, during which he felt “perpetually angry” and resentful, but he taught himself to play the piano and violin, and learned to read music. He lived in Dickensian circumstances, his home being shabby rooms above an off-licence and newsagent’s-tobacconist’s shop that his aunt ran, and above a pub.

 Youth

Burgess was to a large degree an autodidact, but nevertheless received a formal education of a high standard.

He first attended St. Edmund’s Roman Catholic Elementary School and moved on to Bishop Bilsborrow Memorial Roman Catholic Primary School in Moss Side. For some years his family lived on Princess Street in the same district.

Good grades from Bishop Bilsborrow resulted in a place at the Manchester Catholic secondary school Xaverian College, run by the Xaverian Brothers along religious lines. It was during his teenage years at this school that he lapsed formally from Catholicism, although he cannot be said to have broken completely with the church. His history teacher at Xaverian College, L.W. Dever, is credited with introducing Burgess to James Joyce’s writings.

Burgess entered the Victoria University of Manchester in 1937, graduating three years later with the degree of Bachelor of Arts (2nd class honours, upper division) in English language and literature. His thesis was on the subject of Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

Burgess wrote that as a child he did not care at all about music. One day he heard on his home-built radio “a quite incredible flute solo, sinuous, exotic, erotic”. Eight minutes later the announcer told him he had been listening to Debussy’s ”Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune”. He refers to this as a “psychedelic moment… a recognition of verbally inexpressible spiritual realities. Suddenly music was very important to him. He eventually came to hold the opinion that music before the time of Wagner was orchestrally naive – it had little appeal to him.

He announced to his family that he wanted to be a composer (“like Debussy” he said), but they were against it because “there was no money in it.” Music was not taught at his school, so at about age 14 he strove to become a self-taught pianist, and in his spare time he would eventually turn himself into a composer.

Burgess’s father died of flu in 1938 and his stepmother of a heart attack in 1940.

 War service

In 1940 Burgess began a wartime stint with the military, beginning with the Royal Army Medical Corps, which included a period at a field ambulance station at Morpeth, Northumberland. During this period he sometimes directed an army dance band.

He later moved to the Army Educational Corps, where among other things he conducted speech therapy at a mental hospital. He failed in his aspiration to win an officer’s commission.

In 1942, in Bournemouth, Burgess married a Welshwoman named Llewela Jones, eldest daughter of a high-school headmaster. She was known to all as “Lynne”. Although Burgess indicated on numerous occasions that her full name was Llewela Isherwood Jones, the name “Isherwood” does not appear on her birth certificate, and this appears to have been a fabrication. Burgess also on occasion – consciously or unconsciously – gave the impression that Lynne may have been a relative of Christopher Isherwood, but both the Lewis and Biswell biographies confirm that this was not so. Lynne and Burgess were fellow students at the University of Manchester. Their by all accounts tempestuous marriage was childless.

“I really do think, allowing for everything, Lynne was one of the most awful women I’ve ever met”, one friend of the Burgesses once declared. But as Burgess’s biographers have pointed out, Lynne provided much unacknowledged help to Burgess as he sought to establish himself as a writer – both financial and as his muse. Lynne died of alcoholic liver cirrhosis in 1968.

Burgess was next stationed in Gibraltar at an army garrison (see ”A Vision of Battlements”). Here he was a training college lecturer in speech and drama, teaching German, Russian, French and Spanish. An important role for Burgess was the help he gave in taking the troops through “The British Way and Purpose” programme, which was designed to reintroduce them to the peacetime socialism of the post-war years in Britain and gently inculcate a sense of patriotism. He was also an instructor for the Central Advisory Council for Forces Education of the Ministry of.

On one occasion in the neighbouring Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, Burgess was arrested for insulting General Franco. He was released from custody shortly after the incident.

Burgess’s flair for languages was noticed by army intelligence, and he took part in debriefings of Free Dutch and Free French who found refuge in Gibraltar during the war.

During Burgess’s wartime stint, Lynne was raped by three American AWOL soldiers who had invaded their home.

 Early teaching career

Burgess left the army with the rank of sergeant-major in 1946, and was for the next four years a lecturer in speech and drama at the Mid-West School of Education near Wolverhampton and at the Bamber Bridge Emergency Teacher Training College (known as “the Brigg” and associated with the University of Birmingham), which was situated near Preston.

At the end of 1950 he took a job as a secondary school teacher of English literature on the staff of Banbury Grammar School (now defunct) in the market town of Banbury, Oxfordshire (see ”The Worm and the Ring”, which the then mayoress of Banbury claimed libelled her). In addition to his teaching duties Burgess was required to supervise sports from time to time, and he ran the school’s drama society.

The years were to be looked back on as some of the happiest of Burgess’s life. Thanks to financial assistance provided by Lynne’s father, the couple was able to put a down payment on a cottage in the village of Adderbury, not far from Banbury.

Burgess organised a number of amateur theatrical events in his spare time. These involved local people and students and included productions of T. S. Eliot’sSweeney Agonistes(Burgess had named his Adderbury cottage Little Gidding, after one of Eliot’s Four Quartets) and Aldous Huxley’s The Gioconda Smile.

It was in Adderbury that Burgess cut his journalistic teeth, with several of his contributions published in the local newspaper the Banbury Guardian.

The would-be writer was a habitué of the pubs of the village, especially The Bell and The Red Lion, where his predilection for consuming large quantities of cider was noted at the time. Both he and his wife are believed to have been barred from one or more of the Adderbury pubs because of their riotous behaviour.

 Malaya

At the end of 1953 Burgess applied for a teaching post on Sark, but did not get the job. However, in January 1954 he was interviewed by the Colonial Office for a post in Malaya as a teacher and education officer in the British colonial service. He was offered the job and accepted, being keen to explore Eastern lands. Several months later he and his wife travelled to Singapore by the liner Willem Ruys from Southampton with stops in Port Said and Colombo.

Burgess was stationed initially in Kuala Kangsar, the royal town in Perak, in what were then known as the Federated Malay States. Here he taught at the Malay College, dubbed “the Eton of the East”.

In addition to his teaching duties at this school for the sons of leading Malayans, he had responsibilities as a housemaster in charge of students of the Preparatory school, who were housed at a Victorian-era mansion known as “King’s Pavilion”. The building had once been occupied by the British Resident in Perak. It had gained notoriety during World War II as a place of torture, being the local headquarters of the Kempeitai (Japanese secret police).

As his novels and autobiography document, Burgess’s late 1950s coincided with the communist insurgency, an undeclared war known as the Malayan Emergency (1948-60) when rubber planters and members of the European community–not to mention many Malays, Chinese and Tamils–were subject to frequent terrorist attacks.

In the aftermath of an alleged dispute with the Malay College’s principal, J.D.R. (“Jimmy”) Howell, about accommodation for himself and his wife, Burgess was posted elsewhere. The couple occupied an apparently rather noisy apartment in the building mentioned above, where privacy was supposedly minimal, and this caused resentment. This was the professed reason for his transfer to the Malay Teachers’ Training College at Kota Bharu, Kelantan. Kota Bharu is situated on the Siamese border (the Thais had ceded the area to the British in 1909 and a British adviser had been installed).

Burgess attained fluency in Malay, spoken and written, achieving distinction in the examinations in the language set by the colonial office. He was rewarded with a salary increment for his proficiency in the language. Malay was still at that time rendered in the adapted Arabic script known as Jawi.

He devoted some of his free time in Malaya to creative writing—”as a sort of gentlemanly hobby, because I knew there wasn’t any money in it” – and published his first novels, Time for a TigerThe Enemy in the Blanketand Beds in the East. These became known as The Malayan Trilogy and were later published in a single volume as The Long Day Wanes. During his time in the East he also wrote English Literature: A Survey for Students, and this book was in fact the first Burgess work published (if we do not count an essay published in the youth section of the London Daily Express when he was a child).

Borneo

After a brief period of leave in Britain during 1958, Burgess took up a further Eastern post, this time at the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin College in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, a sultanate on the northern coast of the island of Borneo. Brunei had been a British protectorate since 1888, and was not to achieve independence until 1984. In the sultanate Burgess sketched the novel that, when it was published in 1961, was to be entitled Devil of a State. Although it dealt with Brunei, for libel reasons the action had to be transposed to an imaginary East African territory the like of Zanzibar.

About this time Burgess “collapsed” in a Brunei classroom while teaching history. He was expounding on the causes and consequences of the Boston Tea Party at the time. There were reports that he had been diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumour, with the likelihood of only surviving a short time, occasioning the alleged breakdown. Burgess has claimed that he was given just a year to live by the physicians, prompting him to write several novels to get money to provide for his widow. This was misleading – there was no tumour, nor was a tumour ever diagnosed – and has been explained by Burgess’s biographers by reference to his (mild and mischievous) mythomania.

He was, however, suffering from the effects of prolonged heavy drinking (and associated poor nutrition), of the often oppressive Southeast Asian climate, of chronic constipation, and of overwork and professional disappointment. As he put it, the scions of the sultans and of the elite in Brunei “did not wish to be taught”, because the free-flowing abundance of oil guaranteed their income and privileged status. He may also have wished for a pretext to abandon teaching and get going full-time as a writer, having made a late start.

Describing the Brunei debacle to an interviewer over twenty years later, Burgess commented: “One day in the classroom I decided that I’d had enough and to let others take over. I just lay down on the floor out of interest to see what would happen.” On another occasion he described it as “a willed collapse out of sheer boredom and frustration”. He gave a different account to the British arts and media veteran Jeremy Isaacs in 1987 when he said: “I was driven out of the Colonial Service for political reasons that were disguised as clinical reasons.” He alluded to this in an interview with Don Swaim, explaining that after his wife Lynne had said something “obscene” to the UK Queen’s consort, Prince Philip, during an official visit, the colonial authorities turned against him. He had already earned their displeasure, he told Swaim, by writing for the newspaper of the revolutionary opposition party the Parti Rakyat Brunei, and for his friendship with its leader A.M. Azahari.

Repatriate years

Burgess was repatriated and relieved of his position in Brunei. He spent some time in the neurological ward of a London hospital (see The Doctor is Sick) where he underwent cerebral tests that, as far as can be made out, proved negative.

On his discharge, benefiting from a sum of money Lynne had inherited from her father together with their savings built up over six years in the East, he decided he had the financial independence to become a full-time writer.

The couple lived first in an apartment in the town of Hove, near Brighton, on the Sussex coast (see the Enderby quartet of novels).

They then moved to a semi-detached house called “Applegarth” in the inland Sussex village of Etchingham. This was about a mile from the Jacobean house in Burwash, East Sussex where Rudyard Kipling lived, and one mile from the Robertsbridge home of Malcolm Muggeridge.

Finally, when Lynne came into some money as a result of the death of her father, the Burgesses decamped to a terraced town house in the Turnham Green section of Chiswick, a western suburb of London. This was conveniently located for the White City BBC television studios of which he was a frequent guest in this period.

During these years Burgess became a regular drinking partner of the novelist William S. Burroughs. Their meetings took place in London and Tangiers.

A cruise holiday Burgess and his wife took to the USSR, calling at St Petersburg (then still called Leningrad), resulted in Honey for the Bearsand inspired some of the invented slang “Nadsat” used in A Clockwork Orange.

Five weeks after Lynne’s death in 1968 at the age of forty-seven of liver cirrhosis (see Beard’s Roman Women), Burgess remarried, at Hounslow register office, to Liliana Macellari (“Liana”), an Italian translator. They had begun an adulterous affair in London, several years before Lynne’s death. After they married, Burgess acknowledged Liana’s son Paolo Andrea as his and became a “belated father”. However, the father was identified in Paolo-Andrea’s August 9 1964 birth certificate as Roy Lionel Halliday, a previous lover of Liana’s. Halliday is described in the certificate as a teacher, though other reports have him as an unemployed drifter.

Exile

By the end of the 1960s Burgess had quit England and become a tax exile. He occupied grander accommodation this time (at his death he was a multi-millionaire and left a Europe-wide property portfolio of houses and apartments numbering in the double figures).

His first place of residence after leaving England was Lija, Malta (1968-70), where he bought a house. Problems with the Maltese state censor later prompted a move to Rome. He maintained a flat in the Italian capital, a country house in Bracciano, and a property in Montalbuccio. There was a villa in Provence, in Callian of the Var, France, and an apartment just off Baker Street, London, very near the presumed home of Sherlock Holmes in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories.

Burgess lived for two years in the United States, working as a visiting professor at Princeton University (1970), where he helped teach the creative writing program, and as a “distinguished professor” at the City College of New York (1972). At City College he was a close colleague and friend of Joseph Heller. He went on to teach creative writing at Columbia University. He was also a writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1969) and at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York at Buffalo (1976). He lectured on the novel at the University of Iowa in 1975.

Eventually he settled in Monaco, where he was active in the local community, becoming a co-founder in 1984 of the Princess Grace Irish Library, a centre for Irish cultural studies.

Although Burgess lived not far from Graham Greene, whose house was in Antibes, Greene became aggrieved shortly before his death by comments in newspaper articles by Burgess, and broke off all contact. Gore Vidal revealed in his 2006 memoir Point to Point Navigation that Greene disapproved of Burgess’s appearance on various European television stations to discuss his (Burgess’s) books. Vidal recounts that Greene apparently regarded a willingness to appear on TV as something that ought to be beneath a writer’s dignity. “He talks about his books”, Vidal quotes an exasperated Greene as saying.

Burgess spent much time also at one of his houses, a chalet two kilometres outside Lugano, Switzerland.

A plot to kidnap Burgess’s stepson Paolo-Andrea in Rome is believed to have been one of the factors deciding the family’s move to Monaco.

Death

Burgess wrote: “I shall die somewhere in the Mediterranean lands, with an inaccurate obituary in the Nice-Matin, unmourned, soon forgotten.”

In fact he died in the country of his birth. He returned to Twickenham, an outer suburb of London, where he owned a house, to await death. He died on November 22, 1993. His death (from lung cancer) occurred at the Hospital of St John & St Elizabeth in the St John’s Wood neighbourhood of London. He is thought to have composed the novel Byrne on his deathbed.

It is believed he would have liked his ashes to be kept in Moston Cemetery in Manchester, but they went to the cemetery in Monte Carlo.

The epitaph on Burgess’s marble memorial stone, behind which the vessel with his remains is kept, reads “Abba Abba”, being

* “Father, father” in Aramaic (and in Hebrew as well as in other Semitic languages), that is, an invocation to God as Father (”Gospel of Mark 14:36 etc.)

* Burgess’s initials forwards and backwards

* part of the rhyme scheme for the Petrarchan sonnet

* the Burgess novel about the death of Keats, Abba Abba

* the abba rhyme scheme that Tennyson used for his poem on death, In Memoriam

Paolo Andrea (also known as Andrew Burgess Wilson) died in a London hospital of natural causes at the age of 37 in 2002. The rumour that he died by his own hand continues to circulate, but the coroner’s records indicate that there was no inquest into his death, as there would have been if suicide had been suspected.

Burgess had delivered the eulogy at the memorial service for Benny Hill in 1992; the eulogies at his own memorial service at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, London in 1994 were delivered by the journalist Auberon Waugh and the novelist William Boyd.

 

 

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