Anthony Burgess, born John Anthony Burgess Wilson, was one of the most prolific and by many accounts one of the most important British novelists of the later twentieth century. There is no question of his productivity: In a publishing career of some thirty years that began when he was nearly forty years old, he had more than sixty books published, including novels, criticism, essays, translations, plays, screenplays, short stories, children’s books, and poems. He also wrote, late in his career, a two-volume autobiography. Moreover, under the name John Wilson he gained wide respect as a composer of music. This prodigality of production ironically worked to his disadvantage, some critics and reviewers finding it hard to associate great quality with great quantity. Yet the entertainment quotient of his fiction is high, as is his control of the technical bases of narrative writing. His themes are characteristically deep and significant.
Educated in local schools and at the University of Manchester, Burgess did not start out to be a writer. From Manchester he obtained a degree in musical composition in 1940, though he did also develop an avid interest in English language and literature as a student. Upon graduation he joined the army, serving during World War II first as a musician and then in intelligence in Gibraltar. Discharged in 1946, he held a number of jobs over the next seven years, including playing jazz piano and teaching in a grammar school. In 1954, he went to Malaya as an education commissioner in the British Colonial Service, and there he began writing and assembling the materials for his early trilogy The Long Day Wanes. In these three novels, Burgess uses the experiences of a young British teacher to illustrate the decline of British imperial prestige and the conflicts between European values and local traditions and practices.
One event in Malaya confirmed Burgess in his decision to write professionally. In 1959, following a lengthy illness, colonial physicians detected a brain tumor, remanding him to England for specialist treatment. There he was told he had one year to live. Deciding that he wanted to produce as much as he could in the time he had left, he began to write furiously. He finished five novels that year, and he left the hospital cured. He hardly slowed that furious pace during his lifetime.
Those five novels, all published astonishingly within a twenty-month period, marked the advent of a serious voice and an eye for piercing satiric detail. All relatively short, they resemble the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, rivaling Waugh in ease of characterization, sprightly dialogue, stylistic control, and appreciation of the absurd in modern life. Like early Waugh, they also combine skillful entertainment with serious implicit themes. Though all hold up well, The Right to an Answer and Devil of a State remain particularly attractive, and The Worm and the Ring anticipates the technical triumphs to come. Following these novels, Burgess began experimenting with the various kinds of fiction, producing futurist fantasy, science fiction, travel fiction, portrait-of-the-artist fiction, historical fiction, romantic fiction, and espionage fiction. The resulting group of novels established his critical reputation.
Burgess is best known for one of these experimental novels, A Clockwork Orange, which, though impressive, is hardly more distinguished or brilliant than his other works. Still, it combines topical problems with linguistic bravura, centering on juvenile gangs that speak an invented jargon called “Nadsat,” made up of elements of crude Russian and Cockney slang. Alex, the protagonist, revels in senseless violence, for which he is arrested and sentenced to forced behavior modification. Burgess raises questions about the ethics of such compulsory reformation. The novel’s disturbing visions of a violent future world and its profound themes regarding the nature of freedom made the novel an instant classic, both among critics in the literary mainstream and within the science-fiction field, where the novel had significant effects. When made into a film in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick, the novel secured Burgess’s fame.
Although they are less well known, many of the novels that followed are equally impressive in different ways. The Wanting Seed is a science-fiction novel with many similarities to A Clockwork Orange, dealing with radical potential solutions to the problems of overpopulation. Inside Mr. Enderby introduces a character Burgess develops in subsequent novels. Enderby, an aging poet of reclusive habits and venerable English eccentricities, is forced into direct contact with the harsh realities of modern life; his reactions constitute a hilarious critique of Western civilization. The books also analyze the plight of the artist in society. During this period, Burgess also published a number of works of criticism, especially of the work of James Joyce.
The filming of A Clockwork Orange in 1971 introduced Burgess to Hollywood as a screenwriter; subsequent publicity brought invitations to serve as writer-in-residence at many American and British universities. These experiences soon began to influence his fiction, which simultaneously became broader, more expansive, and more complex. The first of these novels is MF; in it, Burgess fuses his themes of the modern denigration of art and the artist, cultural incest, and racial consciousness as an enemy of cultural evolution. He demonstrates his belief that the United States is running the risk of losing real freedom by closing itself off from external influences and by abandoning a sense of values. Napoleon Symphony is Burgess’s most ambitious formal work, an attempt to construct a novel about the later life of Napoleon Bonaparte on the formal basis of the melodic structure of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. The themes are those of Enderby and MF, but the formal experimentation is stunningly original. The novel 1985 represents Burgess’s direct response to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Of the same period is his imaginative biography Shakespeare, arguably the best single work on the playwright.
In the 1980’s, Burgess both built upon and extended his previous work, alternating between relatively slight, often delicate entertainments and weighty and expansive novels. Earthly Powers is a monumental undertaking; it traces the intertwined lives of two men–one an aging homosexual novelist, the other a Catholic monsignor who eventually becomes pope. The scope of this novel allows Burgess to develop his philosophical and theological themes in depth. The End of the World News is lighter and more facile; in it, Burgess plays dazzling verbal and formal games. Varied and intriguing, Burgess’s canon is one of the most impressive of twentieth century British literary figures. He died of cancer in 1993 at the age of seventy-six.