Anthony Burgess – The Ink Trade, Selected Journalism 1961-1993 (Carcanet, edited by Will Carr, 2018)
Burgess has been deemed a monstre sacré (by someone unimportant), which, of course, he is. Has been said to write with “a badness at once so surprisingly defiant and so exceedingly obvious” (by someone else ridiculous). It is this defiance and this haughtiness that make his reviews so bloody enjoyable.
Burgess cared greatly about language, and, with it, language’s herculean guardians; it’s male mothers: Nabokov, Hemingway, and Wilde. He wrote consistently on brothers Vladimir and Ernest, and, though Oscar was not so prolific within Burgess’ work, consideration of this third review of a great literary man makes a nice collection.
They are all men, of course. As a friend of mine quipped recently (and accurately), “the only woman Burgess ever writes about is his first wife”. He often focuses on masculinity. He discusses Hemingway’s manly stature, his sportsmanship, hairy chest, and cojones. He notes Wilde’s similarly manly stature, his manly drinking ability, and, of course, his manly love. He once even cited Hemingway’s plain style as “emasculated” in fact as “the medium preferred by the most vauntedly masculine of writers” (appreciation of the word vauntedly well due).
Burgess speaks of each man in complimentary terms, though one may definitely sense some self-defensive reluctance. Years earlier in an interview with John Cullinan he denounced Nabokov as “unworthy to unlatch Joyce’s shoe” however it seems that over time Burgess grew a profound admiration of him. Perhaps longing for the bygone dandy. Needless to say, he produced innumerable writings on Nabokov, even stretching to say that he was “one of the few living writers I honestly admire and would, had I the equipment, like to emulate”. But it wouldn’t be a Burgess review without jabs such as this one: “He’s not afraid of being snobbish, which is a good thing because now he can afford it.”
We can easily deduce that Burgess had a soft spot for Hemingway, writing even more prolifically on the American writer than the aforementioned Russian. In the same Cullinan interview, he states that Hemmingway had a “curious freshness of vision”. In this article, previously unpublished, he repeats a lot of sentiments from other commentaries, but we get a more personal look in. He speaks of Hemingway as of an old friend.
The Wilde review (well, the Ellmann review, I guess) feels much more detached than the previous two, but we still experience a charming, while rational, air of respect. Burgess’ language is lovely and flowery in this one as though emulating Wilde’s own style. Words like “refulgent” knock into their partners, “imperial” in this case, prompting conscious, homonymic investigation in the reader – or at least, in me. His playfulness extends to the title of the piece: “Wilde with all Regrets”, which subverts the title of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Wild with all Regrets”. Owen’s title in turn lends its words from the Tennyson Poem “The Princess”. The line reads “Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;” Considering Owen’s address of the poem to Siegfried Sassoon, together with Wilde’s homosexuality, we can assume that Burgess has enjoyed an educated little laugh. Oh, Mr Wilson, how clever you are. He calls Wilde “a great subject”.
But as he speaks of these men, I cannot help but perceive empathy fuelled by self-preoccupation. This is how I read too, so I don’t mind. When he speaks of Nabokov’s dandyism, the great struggle of originality that bequeathed itself upon Hemingway, the glitteriness of Wilde – it just sounds as though he is speaking of himself. Ever the aesthete, he defends not Nabokov’s dandyism but his own. Discussing Hemingway he says, “but life is life, and fiction is fiction, and it is sometimes dangerous for them to touch”. Really, John?! Was it dangerous for you? Burgess is known for “effortlessly reinventing” his past “or at least giving some of it a more satisfactory shape” in the same way that he accuses Hemingway. I think that he felt a kind of connection with these guys through language. In Urgent Copy he writes that self understanding requires “a concern with language” and that “only through the exploration of language can the personality be coaxed into yielding a few more of its secrets”. And perhaps he is revealing his own secrets by engaging with these writers.
Language is definitely of top concern in these three articles. He believed that language and wordplay should be of top concern to anyone. In the Hemingway piece, he quite greatly questions, “How can you explain to the great public that one of the most important things in the world is to invent a new way of saying things?” We really hear Burgess shouting not for Hemingway’s but his own, and, in fact, all writing. He defends Wilde as “unforgettable”, Nabokov as a transformer of language. So these men, these towering manly men, are also pillars of language – or it may be that they break those pillars with their huge manly fists. Yes. And Burgess wants them broken too. Some of the most poignant points made in these pieces are more of a hammer to the roots of literature than a comment on the writers themselves. Take this for example, “nobody cares about style, language, the power of the word.” I want to say that Burgess recognized lost brothers in his fellow writing men, and expressed a communal sigh on their behalves. He talks mainly about their lives outside of Literature, as he so condemns others for doing, and yet manages to say so much about the state of Literature as a whole.
Burgess identifies one main obstruction for his three boys: Scandal. The sodomy, the censorship, the suicide. The sin! And I think that he felt that a kindred scandal had been attached to him. Burgess says that this focus on the scandal of a writer’s life “continues to get in the way of sober appraisal of his literary achievement”. He certainly distanced himself from his own scandal, dare I speak the words, A Clockwork Orange. He wants Wilde “cleansed of scandal” and perhaps he sees himself as similarly dirty with notoriety. Perhaps we should engage with writing on its own terms. He may be arrogant and chauvinistic, and he may have a habit of mixing his dates up, but it seems that Burgess tried to adopt the role of valiant, though uncompromising, protector and defender of great literature.
– Blair James
Last of the Literary Dandies
A Very Blasphemous Fallacy (Previously Unpublished)
Wilde With All Regret