Clockwork Orange painting hanging on a pub wall in Arizona.

A Biography’s Tale: On Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis

by | February 7, 2023

When I studied abroad at New College, Oxford, for a term in 2010, one of my three tutorials focused on contemporary British fiction (the other two were on Shakespeare and Joyce’s Ulysses). The curriculum for the course provided me with my first encounters with Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith, and A.S. Byatt (we also read Zadie Smith, but by then, I’d already devoured her books). The Byatt novel I read was The Biographer’s Tale, a lesser-known work from 2000. In a typically Byattian bit of meta layering, her protagonist is a biographer writing a biography of a biographer. The narrator, Phineas G., begins the novel by quitting academia, telling a professor, “I’ve decided I don’t want to be a postmodern literary theorist.” He yearns not for abstractions but for things, real, tangible things. The professor responds by giving Phineas a three-volume study of a (fictional) English author named Sir Elmer Bole, written by an (also fictional) academic named Scholes Destry-Scholes. “The art of biography,” the professor explains, “is a despised art because it is an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts.” Phineas initially dismisses biography entirely as “tales told by those incapable of true invention,” but soon Destry-Scholes’s dense trilogy convinces him of “the superiority of the form.” He goes from dismissing the “gossipy,” “dilettante pursuit” of constructing a narrative out of a person’s life to hero-worshiping this great biographer, envisioning him “sitting over a desk in lamplight, deftly twisting a Rubik’s cube into shape.”

After deciding to write a biography of Destry-Scholes, an excited Phineas considers how he’s “about to embark on new ways of working, new kinds of thought.” His goal is not to “hunt or penetrate” his subject but rather to “get to know him, to meet him, to make a kind of friend of him. A collaborator, a colleague.” Aware of the difficulty of his endeavor, Phineas compares his potential relationship with Destry-Scholes to Destry-Scholes’s relationship with Elmer Bole. “I think it is clear from his writings,” Phineas notes, “that most of the time he liked [Bole], or liked him well enough. Bole didn’t annoy him, morally or intellectually, even when he betrayed friends, even when he wrote badly.”

Before reading The Biographer’s Tale, I had never considered, in depth, the role of the biographer and the many quagmires that come with it. To me, biographies were often bricks of dry facts, stuffy tomes too occupied with ancestry and childhood in which the personality of the author is muted if not wholly absent. But here I glimpsed behind the scenes to realize that of course biographers are just as idiosyncratic and prone to judgment as anyone, and that, moreover, their work is not—in fact, cannot be—purely academic; values, preferences, and opinions inevitably play a part.

“It’s a little like falling in love,” Leon Edel told The Paris Review in 1985. “At any rate that’s the way it usually begins.” Edel, who spent decades writing a five-volume biography of Henry James, knew what he was talking about. As one who will potentially spend many years reading and rereading and investigating and interpreting and describing the same writer’s work, it seems understandable—even obvious—that the undertaking would require no small amount of love for the subject. Later, Edel elaborates:

There are endless mementos, a kind of created relationship, because biographer and subject move on the same level of history. You read your subject’s letters, you make friends and enemies with the subject’s friends and enemies, you are often as identified with the image as a novelist is identified, while writing a novel, with the hero or the heroine. Sometimes the love collapses during the research; at other times it is reinforced. There is always an air of mystery—every box of letters you open, every attic in which you rummage, becomes filled with the emotions of the biographer’s involvement.

Now this sounds like love—real love: mementos you cherish early on, the meeting and accepting of friends and enemies, the ultimate identification, and, as the years pass, a collapse or a renewal. It is almost hypnotic, too, the way Edel describes the process—the “air of mystery” that must, for the completion of a lengthy biography, be sustained, or at least recalled once the research subsumes the emotion.

After reading The Biographer’s Tale, I found myself spending more time in those sections of bookstores. While living in England, I visited numerous cities and in each one found a bookshop to peruse. At a secondhand spot in London, a series of small shelves stood outside the entrance, on which sat the clearance titles, and from which I plucked a volume with a £1 sticker pasted on its bright orange and yellow cover: Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis. It’s ironic to recall my initial misgivings about the book. I had never read anything by Burgess and only knew him as the author of A Clockwork Orange, so I wondered how it could possibly engage me. Mostly, though, I worried it would be dense and dull.

But the lessons of Byatt’s novel motivated me to push past my reservations and pony up the pound. If biography was an art, one’s knowledge about the subject should be irrelevant. The complex love Edel described should come through. If I wanted to learn how they worked, here was a cheap introduction.

Little did I know, of course, that if I was looking for a biography that either exemplifies a biographer’s love or at least employs the conventions of the form, I couldn’t have stumbled upon anything worse.

Right away, there were two things that tipped me off that Anthony Burgess wasn’t going to be a standard biography: a thin slip of paper inserted like a bookmark between its pages, and a description from the Prologue.

The slip of paper is just an unassuming two-inch strip cut from an ordinary sheet of computer paper, with the following printed on it:

Mrs Diana Gillon – correction and apology

Diana Gillon wishes to make it clear that she was not Anthony Burgess’s ‘dark lady’ as alleged in this book. In the late 1960s she and her late husband were good friends of John and Lynne Wilson (Mr and Mrs Anthony Burgess) but no sexual relationships were involved. In 1947 Diana Gillon did not know John Wilson/Anthony Burgess in any sense at all, contrary to the speculations on pages 151-153 of this book – they did not meet until the early 1960s.

The author and the publishers regret any embarrassment or confusion caused.

Why, you might rightfully wonder, would such a note require inclusion? To begin with, the edition I stumbled onto is a first edition hardcover, which means this error was caught after the book went to the printers but before all copies were distributed to sellers. But aren’t nonfiction books fact checked? Not always, and (clearly) not always thoroughly. Could Roger Lewis be trusted if such an easily verifiable (and potentially scandalous) mistake as this makes it all the way to bookshelves? What else might he have gotten wrong?

The description from the Prologue: it turns out that Lewis met Burgess in 1985 at Oxford, where Lewis was a Fellow at Wolfson College. The book opens with Lewis standing at a train station with Richard Ellman, the esteemed biographer of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, chatting as they wait for Burgess and his wife Liana to arrive. Ellman supervised Lewis’s “doctoral dissertation on Ezra Pound, of which,” Lewis informs us in a footnote, he “wrote not one word.” As the foursome stroll around the “grassy quadrangles” of New College, Lewis takes a moment to capture Burgess’s appearance, which—sorry, not sorry—I must quote in full:

…Burgess’s gaunt, wan features and red-rimmed eyes were certainly vampiral. I’d expected him to be tanned—otherwise what is the point of living in the Mediterranean?—but he looked waxy and pallid, long deprived of the sun. And how are we going to describe his hair? The yellowish-white powdery strands were coiled on his scalp like Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s peruke, not maintained since Price Vlad the Impaler fought off the Turk’s in the Carpathian mountains in 1462. What does it say about a man that he could go around like that, as Burgess did? Though he was a king of the comb-over (did the clumps and fronds emanate from his ear-hole?), no professional barber can be blamed for this. I thought to myself, he has no idea how strange he is. What did he think he looked like? He evidently operated on his own head with a pair of garden shears.

No other bit of writing has made me laugh harder in my entire life, specifically the sentence “What did he think he looked like?”, which will pop into my head at random moments, accompanied every time by an audible guffaw. It is a savage rendering, yes—a cruel one, even—but its wit is undeniable. And Lewis seems genuinely perplexed by Burgess’s style, as if the less than charitable portrait were inadvertent and merely the result of accuracy.

Once I finished laughing, it struck me how odd this was: Lewis didn’t just seem to not love his subject, he seemed to downright dislike him. Lewis never misses a chance to characterize Burgess as a ridiculous figure, comparing, for instance, “the ugliness of the rest of his face” to a “snapper turtle.” Burgess possesses a “fanatic pedantry” that he wields over his readers and students and friends with polymathic self-aggrandizement; he’s “a frightful show-off” who “aimed for grandeur but instead what he was getting was grandiosity, a different thing”; and he’s a “bad-tempered and obstinate” penny-pincher who “fell out with Graham Greene over the matter of a bill.” Burgess constantly complains about not being celebrated enough; he boasts about every minor success and holds life-long grudges for perceived slights. Why would Lewis want to write a book about such a ludicrous blowhard?

The answer is surprisingly straightforward: Lewis once really did admire Burgess’s work. Lewis first encountered his books in the early 80s while on his honeymoon in Gozo, an island in the Mediterranean. Born in 1960, Lewis was 22 and “wallowed in Burgess’s fecundity and catholicity.” Thereafter he read everything by Burgess he could find. “It was a turning point,” he writes. But by the time he sits down to compose the biography, Lewis is nearly two decades older, and he no longer sees Burgess in the same light. “Burgess as he seemed to me then; as he seems to me now: it’s a double story.”

Instead of masking his irritation at Burgess’s personality or his legitimate objections to many of Burgess’s prejudices, Lewis puts his disillusionment front and center, creating a biography in which the biographer plays almost as central a role as his subject. Anthony Burgess essentially traces Lewis’s shifting perspective—on Burgess’s writing, of course, but also on what makes literary art effective. “It is a fact,” he writes, “that books and authors suffer alteration over the years; we question our former attraction and are amazed by it.” As an ambitious young man, Lewis saw “egotistical sublimity and vividness” in Burgess’s fiction, only to see, after growing as a person, “straightforward calling-attention-to-itself behavior (on his part) and a need to hide intellectual insecurity behind over-literariness (on mine).” Lewis’s descending fascination with Burgess reflects a kind of growth to which we can all relate. We all have artists we admired in our youths who we now view with a completely different eye. Indeed, much of the past decade has been—and the coming ones will continue to be—a reckoning with these very relationships, our adoration and idolization of public figures, and how pedestals originally erected for art become thrones for the artists instead, since they are—absent as we are of personal intimacy with them—merely human-shaped containers for our much less articulate and much more abstract responses to the work they produce, but who also, being human-shaped, become a functional comparison in our minds with other human-shaped entities, entities like ourselves, but whereas we’re comprehensively aware of our own shortcomings, we have little to no familiarity with the inner lives of artists, and so we fill in those gaps with gushes of our admiration, creating, as a result, a talisman of our ideals and insecurities, and, most crucially, how this fraught dynamic often obfuscates the true nature of our heroes, who, devastatingly, can easily exploit this same relationship for cover.

The things Lewis begins to see about Burgess go beyond the efficacy of his literary approach or even his blustering personality. Burgess constantly self-mythologizes, which puts Lewis in the position of just as often contradicting him. Burgess liked to cast himself as an outsider and an exile, often mistreated, never sufficiently celebrated, but the truth was that Burgess “needed to feel embattled,” and, unfortunately for those he knew, “everyone had to hear about it.” The persecution facing women and people of color, on the other hand, Burgess had little patience for. He complained about colleges where Black professors “are treated very indulgently, over-indulgently,” and at a PEN symposium in New York in 1973, Burgess, as Lewis puts it, “uses his address to vilify ‘the ghetto language’ of black [sic] people, which he believes is merely a sign of their all-inclusive deprivation.” In his nonfiction collection But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?, Burgess opens the book, which contains nearly 200 pieces from a seven-year period, with an essay titled “Grunts from a Sexist Pig,” in which he responds to accusations of sexism by being a total sexist asshole. He recalls how he well-actually-ed the name of Virago Press, a woman-run publisher dedicated to books by women, because of some semantic distinction in the word virago’s etymology. Which leads to this gem:

It has already been said, perhaps too often, that militant organizations pleading the rights of the supposedly oppressed—blacks, homosexuals, women—begin with reason but soon fly from it. On this basic level of language they claim the right to distort words to their own ends.

Besides just being a flimsy argument—how can he say supposedly when he himself, in print and at lecterns, is one of those doing the oppressing?—it’s also hilariously hypocritical, since “this is a man who threw the Catholic Emancipation (Relief) Act of 1829 in your face every two minutes and who lost no opportunity to tell you about the oppression of his people, the Lancashire Catholics.” Most puzzling of all, though, is the fact that distorting words is precisely the job of a literary artist. After all, Burgess’s literary lodestars are Shakespeare and Joyce, who both excelled at reappropriating language, changing meanings, coining phrases, inventing words. Moreover, Burgess himself, in A Clockwork Orange, created a Russian-inflected argot for his characters with anglicized Slavic words like “baboochka” (from the Russian Bábushka) and compounded slang like “staja,” a portmanteau of “state jail.” How could a linguist—who kept several dictionaries, “plus works on slang, etymology, quotation, euphemism, anecdotes and Yiddish” at his desk when we wrote—sincerely object to anyone who would “distort words to their own ends”?

Burgess also spent time in Malaysia, where he often employed the services of sex workers and where “he boasted about bedding a twelve-year-old Tamil girl.” So in addition to being a sexist pig, he was also a sexual predator.

It’s easy to see how Lewis fell out of love with Burgess, and it would have been just as easy to see why Lewis might have abandoned his project. Many probably believe he should have. Anthony Burgess breaks many conventions of the form, including Lewis’s personal interjections, his relentless (and often disparaging) appraisal in lieu of mere reportage, and the fact that he seems most interested in the biographical details of Burgess’s life when he’s contradicting Burgess’s own account of it, e.g., Lewis dispels Burgess’s “suspiciously neat” and oft recounted story about the deaths of his mother and sister from the Spanish flu, who were supposedly found by his father as a two-year old Burgess “lay chuckling in my cot” in the same room—when in fact Lewis shows that his mother and sister died four days apart. A biographer’s obligation is of course to accuracy, but it’s the way Lewis turns this into a meditation on how Burgess the novelist “avoids complex feelings and shades of meaning”; Lewis seems to enjoy busting Burgess’s balls.

As a stylist, Lewis gluttonously indulges in what many would characterize as a writer’s worst tendencies, a maximalist untethered. He uncoils these lengthy, periodic sentences overstuffed with appositives, interjections, parentheticals, and semicolon-ed lists, all sprinkled with occasional (similarly dense) footnotes to top it all off. There are more than a few Joycean riffs, including the ending, which predictably, but still effectively, parodies Molly’s concluding monologue from Ulysses. Erudition abounds. Tangents proliferate. His personal attacks extend beyond key figures and even include bystanders. In the Prologue, as Lewis and Ellman await Burgess’s arrival, a “minor novelist” named John Wain happens by, and in a savage paragraph Lewis quotes Philip Larkin (another thrower of devastating bon mots), who said, “Isn’t England a marvelous, free, open country? Take a chap like old John Wain. No advantages of birth or position or wealth or energy or charm or looks or talent – nothing, and look where he is now…”, notes that “flustered and irritable” were Wain’s “normal state,” recalls how Wain used to fight “quite nastily” with his girlfriend Brenda in Lewis’s dorm room in college, and concludes by informing us that “towards the end of his life he went blind and cut a Homeric, Miltonic, Borgesian figure in the Senior Common Rooms. I fancy he even moved about with the aid of tall wooden staff.” This is Wain’s only appearance in the book.

But the thing is, despite how mean and unprofessional Lewis can be in Anthony Burgess, despite all the objections one could rightfully lob the book’s way, I love it. A lot. I love its unabashed honesty, its uproarious bite, its complete disregard of literary decorum. There’s just something so amusing and paradoxically inspiring about reading an erudite, Welsh academic asshole take down an even bigger English asshole who believed he deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature. I also think it taps into something important about the complexities of creative and intellectual idolization.

Anthony Burgess was born John Burgess Wilson, which Lewis uses a narrative device to explore how John became Anthony. It’s not exactly the most original construction for a biographical study, as a person taking on a new name isn’t necessarily the dramatic transformation biographers would have us believe—but the book is just as much about how Lewis the fan of Burgess became Lewis the scorner of him. Lewis’s maturation, though, didn’t hinge on Burgess alone but on a life of experiences and tumult and vagary, but Burgess does provide Lewis a neat, representative type to juxtapose his development against. Burgess “was a constellation,” Lewis says in the Prologue, but in the Epilogue, Lewis writes that Burgess “was a whole world to me once, when I was young and what I published was academic in inspiration.” This is how artistic influence can work: a single dot in a constellation that guides us can become, as we move toward the guide instead of where the guide points, an entire planet. But outsized figures have outsized appetites: “It was as if his ambition was to consume the world,” Lewis observes. Wayne Koestenbaum uses the word cosmophage, world-eater, to describe Susan Sontag (who herself used the idea when writing about Sartre’s Saint Genet). Such ambitious, intoxicatingly intelligent writers can easily transform through our adoration into whole worlds for us to explore and even live in, but they can also devour those worlds, taking us with them.

It’s notable that a similar amount of time has passed since I first bought and read Roger Lewis’s Anthony Burgess than had elapsed between the time Lewis first read the “exalting” work of Burgess and the time he finally decided those same books seem “dank, rain-swept, nocturnal, sooty.” Since then, my relationships with many of my heroes have shifted, acquired nuance, or have been eradicated completely. Shit, my relationship to Anthony Burgess has changed quite a bit: my initial reaction was that it was a bad book, a mean-spirited and judgmental ad hominem attack on a great author. As a young, insecure kid, I deferred too readily to authority, and authority told me that Anthony Burgess was a major writer, biographies were supposed to be dry accounts with little to no uses of the first-person, and Lewis shouldn’t have written anything if that’s how he felt about his subject.

Matter of fact, I have been thinking about this book ever since, for the past thirteen years, knowing that I would eventually write about it, and that whole time I assumed I’d write about how bad it is. Only when I started this essay did I realize how much it had influenced me. I suddenly saw that I rather admired the way Lewis didn’t shy away from his former adoration, that he confronted his own psychological motivations for falling for the pyrotechnic language and cosmophagic ambition of a towering intellect, and that he viewed greatness through a lens of suspicion. We have enough fawning adulation in the world; we need more reservation, skepticism, and honesty. And we need biographies that are as idiosyncratic and biased and subjective as the writers who craft them.

Over the years I’ve become less and less interested in any literary project that pretends objectivity or doesn’t allow for the sensibilities of its creator or isn’t interested in the messiness of lived experience. Lewis explains how some of Burgess’s most glaring pretensions persist, which is that “genuine academics and professionals, people in the know, see it as so nonsensical, it’s beneath them to contradict Burgess’s bluster. His success came from impressing people who didn’t quite know better; he was left alone by those who did.” Lewis knew better, and I’m forever grateful to him for not leaving Burgess alone.

Jonathan Russell Clark is a former staff writer for Literary Hub, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, Tin House, Vulture, the Columbus Dispatch, LA Review of Books, New Republic, The Georgia Review, and dozens of others. Most recently, he wrote about a debut novel by a professional skateboarder for the L.A. Times. His first book, An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom, a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, was published in 2018. His second book, Skateboard, will be a part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series and will be published in 2022.

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