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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The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.1

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

This book pulls some previously uncollected as well as unpublished Burgess reviews into one volume.

Orwell once described the reviewer as ‘pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.’ So here I am, tipping a half of something smooth and costly – in the eternal sense – down the sewer right in front of you – a review of a book of reviews.

In fact, Manchester Review of Books – being Manchester Review of Books – might give you a few pints of it and send you home tipsy. Several of our reviewers are covering this, Burgess is important to us, and to the city.

When I was an undergraduate a housemate had a dictionary with a quote from a review on the inside of the dust jacket: ‘This is a fine dictionary’ it said, and it was signed Anthony Burgess.

We thought it was hilarious, it seemed to be evidence of completely fickle hackwork for what might have been called, in the early 60s, ‘payola’. But this book stands that group of cheeky undergrads absolutely corrected.

Burgess was a notorious reviewer, make no mistake. At times the practice took a large percentage of his time and work. But this is not hackwork.

The introduction here does discuss whether or not Burgess took this form of critical writing seriously. He once claimed he was stopping, then didn’t. He was sacked for reviewing his own book in the Yorkshire Post, or rather a pseudonymous Enderby title.

That review kicks off this collection, and I actually believe Burgess when he says he thought the editor was in on the joke – it’s much more than self-deprecating as a review.

He actually urges his readers to avoid the book more than to buy it, although perhaps in a way which recommends its cruder aspects to certain readers.

Burgess’s reviewing was promiscuous. He took on assignments for Country Life that led to an understanding of all kinds of things he wouldn’t otherwise seek out, stable management, embroidery.

But Burgess explains this as the stuff of novelists, the detail, the authenticity fuel. He also covered Levi-Strauss for Country Life, get that – because nobody else wanted to – leading to a serious interest in his work and to the novel M/F.

The review here titled The Corruption of the Exotic is offered as evidence that Burgess was interested in Levi-Strauss before that Country Life article, although you have to peer in and squint to really see it.

Burgess’s assignments were in some ways his second university, although he gloats about being one gig away from a completely free city of food, theatre, cinema, and I guess the unspoken Burgess essential ingredient, booze.

The review of Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano is great, it makes me want to read all the other Lowry (I haven’t, only UTV). The Lowry review also contains one of Burgess’s many final sign-off lines: The single sentence diamonds.

Here it is ‘industry and longevity are no substitute for genius’ and a few reviews later ‘only the very bad writer is always absolutely sure of the value of what he is doing.’

So true.

But the Lowry review is chilling at this point in history – in 2018 – as Burgess cracks the relationship between the doomed ex-pat of the novel, dissipated and bent on death, the nihilist and ‘the choice that Europe, in the thirties, had already made.’

The war in Spain, Germany, and the colonial entropy. Orwell seems to hang over this point and Orwell emerges again during Burgess’s take on Why I Write, although this piece contains no nod to Orwell whatsoever.

It is a lesser fragment, clearly the start of something larger that was never finished. But at the end of the day, Burgess is always excellent as Burgess.

It actually doesn’t really matter if you’re interested in the book under review or not. He always has a pithy digression and cultural supplement to pop in your mouth. He has a juicy bit of gossip and a rootle around down the armchair for some historical artefacts.

It doesn’t really matter where you are in this book either, you can open it and ‘just start’. You could just buy this book as an introduction to great culture, full stop.

It could easily serve as intelligent holiday reading, and I don’t mean that as a slur, although doubtless AB would have taken it as one.

Or, alternately, ‘this is a fine dictionary’.

– Steve Hanson

To read or not to read

Alejandro Zambra – Not To Read (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

This is my first exposure to the Chilean writer and critic Alejandro Zambra who – as translator Megan McDowell explains – would much rather talk about Nicanor Parra than Garcia Marquez, and based on this introduction I am hoping to be able to read a hell of a lot more of him.

This is a great introduction, too, with its short sections. But each mini essay has a depth and purpose other writers would struggle to fit into a chapter. That Zambra does this with a breezy and sometimes cheeky style is kind of miraculous.

I see parallels with Nicanor Parra, when Parra writes that it’s really all the same if god exists or not, Zambra seems to have the same mix of gravity and levity.

‘Against Poets’ presents a picture of the archetypal bard starting out and then reaching mid-life, ‘they didn’t decide to become poets just so they could be forty years old’ he writes, with irreverence, but at the end concludes that these people are the saviours of the world. Again, gravity and levity fuse.

Via this short, humorous piece we get a sense of the longer tradition of poetry, as something to settle into, a thing of temporality that started before you and will go on after you. I sense this book – already far more well known outside Britain – has the same function. As Megan McDowell explains ‘we write to multiply ourselves’, in a search for a collective spirit.

The text is crystal clear and fresh, a thing of joy. The titles invite you in with their everydayness, ‘Other People’s Mail’ for instance and ‘In Praise of the Photocopy’. In the latter piece Zambra mentions Barthes and there’s a sense of Barthes refreshed in the style and brevity of these short essayistic pieces, Mythologies particularly.

The piece that bears the title of the collection is wonderful. Zambra takes pleasure in all the books he will never read, all the things he won’t have to read.

This assumption, sort-of lurking under the surface of academic life, ‘if only we could read everything’ is exposed for what it is, impossible and not actually desirable. I am coming out and saying that I will never read Giddens’ two volumes on historical materialism, since I got as far as the bit that completely rubbishes surplus value from out of nowhere.

I am now enjoying the fact that I will never read them. It glows in me like a secret.

But Zambra goes on to expose the reviewers who don’t finish books they review. I can tell you this smugly because I got that far and so can prove I have been there by writing it into this review. Which of course tells you nothing about my reviewing practice…

This is a book for writers and readers and I suspect that Fitzcarraldo is a publisher for writers and readers.

Long may Fitzcrraldo continue, I cannot find a single flaw in what they do, from the choice of text to publish and the design, right down to the way the paper smells.

This is one of their best titles. A thing to be thrust into rucksacks, battered and then treasured for generations.

– Steve Hanson

Fragments of a Map

Ann Quin – The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments (And Other Stories)

Experimental writing is often considered self-indulgent. I am not sure if this is the case. There is, however, something of the writer’s self which always seems to come through experimental writing in a way that it doesn’t in a bestseller.

The new collection of Ann Quin’s stories and fragments, The Unmapped Country, display the writer’s work at its most direct and its most obscure. The range befits this lesser known but truly important writer whose life and work remain enigmatic. Ann Quin’s writing career began in the early sixties and was tragically cut short by her death in 1973.

She was part of a circle of innovative writers published by John Calder which included Carol and Alan Burns, Eva Tucker and Giles Gordon, and in her early career was known to read alongside B.S. Johnson.

In the later sixties she used her royalties and grants to travel the world associating with American post-Beat writers and the pop art movement which she had first encountered working as a secretary at the Royal College of Art.

Her biographical trajectory is traced in her novel’s settings; from the grim Brighton of Berg (1964), to the middle class holiday home of Three (1966), through Greek dictatorship in Passages (1969) to her final comic book cut-up American odyssey Tripticks (1972).

This collection, sourced from archives, old magazines, as well as the authors’ friends and collaborators, contains work from every era. It opens with a Berg-style meeting of surrealism and social realism in ‘Leaving School – XI’ and ‘Nude and Seascape’. The latter of which is either hilarious or horrifying. I fell immediately in love with it.

‘A Double Room’ adds to the grottiness with a tale of an illicit weekend jaunt to Brighton which turns immediately stale. One feels in these stories the Brighton of Quin’s childhood. Characters trapped in the allotted pleasures of austerity Britain.

Her style and imagination is captivating, elevating, even when fixated on nastiness; it suggests rather than states how writing could lift her out of these surroundings.

We then have a few choice fragments. A satirical voice in the form of ‘B.B.’ written personally, it seems, for pop artist Billy Apple. A cut-up about soldiery, ‘Living in the Present’, co-created with poet Robert Sward. Sadly not a prime example of the genre (it’s the only part of the book that feels notably dated) it is nevertheless fascinating to see the kinds of experiments Quin was undertaking.

The meat of the collection is found in ‘Tripticks’, the story published in Ambit which would later expand to novel length, as well as ‘Ghostworm’. Both display the hypnotic Quin prose style unleashed on her favourite subjects of sex, brutality and globetrotting adventures.

Each rewards repeat reading as imagery jostles for space with the cracked, fixated voices of her protagonists. Fans of the novels will be glad of these treasures, as well as the less psychedelic ‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’, which depicts a trip across Mexico with all its troubles, death and stirring encounters.

The penultimate piece, ‘The Unmapped Country’, is the final and unfinished novel of the Quin quintet. Quin fans like myself will know it from 1975’s Beyond the Words anthology of experimental writing but here it appears restored and in full.

For this particular reader, the piece remains a bit of a disappointment. Had Quin lived I can’t help that feel she would have dramatically revised and edited it. It remains, nevertheless, a moving story of incarceration and mental illness. It is tempting to draw links here to Quin the writer who herself was institutionalised around this time. But the biographical Quin and the characters she creates have always subtly repelled each other as much as they attract. Reading this as pure autobiography would be lazy.

It is on this point that I come to the second voice in the collection, that of the editor Jennifer Hodgson. Alongside her heroic efforts bringing all of these previously lost and discarded pieces together she contributes an introduction that is sympathetic, insightful and precise.

For Quin fans this introduction also represents something important in terms of biographical framing. The ugly myth of Quin – the lazy interpretation typified in Buckeye’s Re: Quin (2013) – is one of a tragic rock and roll martyr; Sylvia Plath on LSD.

Hodgson’s introduction, by contrast, tells of a varied life in which Quin’s non-traditional relationships aren’t reduced to daddy issues, her experiments with drugs aren’t a cry for help, and her travels across the world aren’t signifiers of a decadent and depraved collapse.

Even Quin’s death ‘swimming out to sea near Brighton’s Palace Pier’ (30) isn’t speculated upon; subtly breaking from the typical presumption of suicide. This is only a short introduction but, as someone who has previously attempted to write about Quin-the-person and failed, Hodgson’s approach impressed upon me the importance of biographical objectivity.

If anyone is going to write a biography of Ann Quin then it should be Jennifer Hodgson. And Other Stories have done a great job with this book.

Every shelf with four Quin books on it will, I don’t doubt, have five on it come January. More than this, the book’s scope recommends itself to new readers as well. As an overview of this important British writer The Unmapped Country is to be admired.

The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments will be available from And Other Stories in January 2018.