The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.2

Anthony Burgess – The Ink Trade, Selected Journalism 1961-1993 (Carcanet, edited by Will Carr, 2018)

A good review can bear a little preamble. It can tell some home truths, and sustain a little storytelling of its own.

The role of the reviewer, as m’colleague Steve Hanson made clear in the first of these Burgessian reflections, is primarily to entertain the reader. The charming delineation of a work’s positives and the witty rebuke of its negatives provoke a particular pleasure; the exercise of the critical faculty in the cultivation of taste, as Addison might put it.

But there is an additional pleasure to be gained from what this volume’s editor, Will Carr, has grouped under the heading “journalism”, and that is the joy of intelligence unbound by rigour. The strictures of academic writing and review strike out a large portion of what really makes literature enjoyable: the anecdotes, the sensations, and the unsupportable opinions. The review has no such strictures.

Burgess was a great yarn spinner, and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The Ink Trade offers us a collection of anecdotes that are so funny, insightful or memorable that a reader will enjoy them in spite of their very likely apocryphal nature.

The young Samuel Beckett, Burgess would have us believe, walked around Paris in shoes so tiny that they damaged his feet; all to impress his hero, James Joyce. Joyce was apparently so proud of his small feet that he regularly boasted about them.

This is the same Beckett who preferred the sports pages to poetry and who, in Burgess’ mind, not only became a naturalized Frenchman but was always, in fact, a Frenchman. A child of the Huguenots, Burgess tells us, who only happened to be born in Ireland, and whose Protestantism dragged him back to his true homeland as soon as he had graduated from the (also Protestant) Trinity College.

We learn too of Shakespeare meeting Cervantes. If the King’s Men travelled to Valladolid as part of the peace delegation of 1605, and the writer of the Quixote had also been at court then, by pure coincidence, the two great founders of modern literature would have met.

They would, of course, have spoken in Arabic; Cervantes learning it as a slave and Shakespeare picking it up on a trip to Tangier with the Earl of Southampton. Perhaps they theorized about a great author who would write of this meeting in centuries to come? It is just as likely.

To defend Burgess against the charge of bullshitmongery, he is usually very clear, when slipping into the anecdotal mode, to make the reader aware of this. His tone of address brings the reader in, puts a linguistical arm around them and assures them that this part of the review is just between ourselves; a bit of after dinner gossip that the bores at the university would rather us not share.

The success of Burgess’ journalistic voice is its ability to move between the informal and the insightful with very little friction. Reading the collection, you will encounter narratology, insights into character, musical theory, phonetics and a wealth of psychological, historical and cultural knowledge which reinforces his personal reveries and reflections.

This is perhaps why I can disagree with Burgess’ opinions a solid third of the time while also thoroughly enjoying the way in which he expresses them.

In the essay “The Academic Critic and the Living Writer”, published in 1986, Burgess reflects upon academics as being the true allies of creative writers, where critics, reviewers, journalists – whatever you want to call them – are mercenary jackals, only out for blood. To share an anecdote of my own, I was once informed that Burgess regularly attended symposia about his own works, and enthusiastically took notes as academics interpreted his novels. They, he conceded, knew better how to analyse the work; he only knew how to create it.

In the modern era, however, I feel the tables have turned. Literary criticism as it appears in the journals, and as imposed by the peer-review system, favours the political dismantling of writers’ work and careers over the appreciation of its form and beauty. Our literary theory is often more slogan than aphorism.

If we are to begin appreciating authors again, it might be that a return to reading reviews (ideally those by authors, rather than aspiring politicians) will help us to rekindle the dying flame of aesthetic appreciation. There is certainly something in The Ink Trade which encourages you. Burgess’ generosity abounds from the page such that we, too, as readers, respond with generosity, even when he’s clearly talking rubbish.

Carr has achieved a heroic feat in the editing of this book. From the vast mountain of Burgess’ non-fiction writing he has curated a selection that is intensely readable, pleasantly eclectic, and balances the published and the unpublished in such a way that those who have read all of Burgess’ previous collections will enjoy this book as much as the newcomer.

After summing up the book at hand, the reviewer should then end on a pithy statement. Such would be fitting; to walk in Burgess’ shoes. Let us hope that they fit.

– Joe Darlington

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