Anthony Burgess, an introduction

By Stephen Colbourn

Anthony Burgess (1917-1993), best known for his novel A Clockwork Orange (1962), is also remembered as a composer, biographer, critic, and occasional TV personality. The novels were products of later life; five being written in the space of twelve months when he was diagnosed as terminally ill with a brain tumour. He lived on, however, for another thirty three years – filled with a passionate intensity – and continued to produce works at almost the same rate. He wrote scripts for radio and television and the cinema as well as a number of musical compositions.


John Anthony Burgess Wilson was born in an industrial area of Manchester where his father worked as an accounts clerk and played the piano in pubs at weekends. His mother had been a music hall dancer. His childhood was disrupted by the deaths of his mother and sister in the great influenza pandemic of 1919, after which he was brought up by an aunt, becoming a solitary and reclusive child much given to books.

He attended Roman Catholic schools and gained a place at Manchester University where he studied English and linguistics while working part-time to support himself. Immediately on graduation he joined the army and served as a medical orderly for almost six years until the end of the Second World War in Asia. During the war he was probably the only soldier to carry a first edition of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake in his knapsack, and he claimed to be one of the few people to understand the book. Certainly Burgess had a keen interest in languages and a magpie mind full of allusions and cross-references to literature and history – both of which are needed to grasp Joyce.

From 1946-50 Burgess taught in the Department of Extramural Studies at the University of Birmingham, following which he became an English master at Banbury Grammar School for a further four years. In the latter 50s he worked as an Education Officer in the Malayan state of Brunei. Here he wrote three novels under the name Anthony Burgess but in 1959 he collapsed in the classroom and was shipped home. Doctors in England told him he had an inoperable brain cancer and only a year to live.

At this point he sat down and wrote five novels in order to leave his alcoholic wife some money; yet, the doctors’ diagnosis was wrong. Burgess continued to live and write at a furious pace. His wife died of drink in 1968.

Before he finally settled on the pen name Anthony Burgess he also wrote under his full name John Burgess Wilson as well as the pseudonym Joseph Kell – the name which appears on the original Mr Enderby book Inside Mr. Enderby (1963). His novel The Wanting Seed (1962) gained him attention and it was quickly followed by his most famous and controversial book, the novella A Clockwork Orange which was to be filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. Both book and film were widely condemned for their violence and sexual content: to the extent that Kubrick withdrew the film from circulation. Burgess said he loathed the film anyway.

The years 1962/1963 were something of a watershed in British social history and Burgess hit the mood of the time. There was a backdrop of incipient violence during the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 threatened nuclear war between the USA and the USSR. President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 by a man who had lived in the Soviet Union and was married to a Russian. (Lee Harvey Oswald had lived and worked in Minsk, capital city of present day Byelorus). In London, John Profumo, Minister of Defence, was found to be sharing a mistress with the Soviet Naval Attaché. Sex was in the air after the Penguin Books court case over Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence (written 1927 and published in the UK only in 1960). Philip Larkin, in 'Annus Mirabilis' (1967) asserted

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Burgess had a long-standing interest in Russian language and literature and he visited Saint Petersburg in 1961 (known as Leningrad 1924-1990). One account states that he observed a street gang of stilyagi (style boys) which gave him the idea for A Clockwork Orange. Burgess claimed that he and his wife were violently assaulted by a street gang in Gibraltar, which caused his wife to miscarry.

Shortly after his visit to Petersburg, the heavyweight Soviet literary journal Noviy Mir published an extraordinary novella by an unknown writer called Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (Nobel Prize for Literature 1970). One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is set in a prison camp and is written largely in Russian slang. Its subject matter and language were as shocking to conservative Russians as Lady Chatterley was to conservative Brits.

A Clockwork Orange makes use of Russian slang – an invented language nadsat (na desyat’) or teen. Burgess anticipated the 60s youth revolution. The main character Alex (perhaps named after Solzhenitsyn?) is a juvenile delinquent who describes scenes of violence such as a blinding in casual street-wise argot

So there we were dratsing away in the dark, the old Luna with men on it just coming up, the stars stabbing away as it might be knives anxious to join in the dratsing. With my britva I managed to slit right down the front of one of Billyboy’s droog’s platties, very very neat and not even touching the plott under the cloth. Then in the dratsing this droog of Billyboy’s suddenly found himself all opened up like a peapod with his belly bare and his old yarbles showing, and then he got very razdraz, waving and screaming and losing his guard and letting in old Dim with his chain snaking whisssssshhhhhhhhh, so that old Dim chained him right in the glazzies, and this droog of Billyboy’s went tottering off and howling his heart out.

A dictionary gives the Russian verb 'drat’ as tear, tear up, sting, irritate, run away, kill, beat, flog, thrash – hence dratsing.

Alex is imprisoned and undergoes a form of aversion therapy called Ludovico’s Technique to cure him of violence. When he is released he is no longer able to defend himself and becomes a victim of violence. The plot is circular and reflects the historical theory of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) that Joyce had drawn on for Finnegan’s Wake – a book in which the last word is the first.

Burgess went on to explain these ideas in his Here Comes Everybody: Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader (1965). The title is a reference to H. C. Earwicker, from Finnegan’s Wake, and family who dream The Wake in three stages corresponding to Vico’s Age of Gods, Age of Heroes, and Age of Men.

A Clockwork Orange is set at the turn of the cycle when the Age of Men has become decadent and is reverting to bestiality. Religion has been lost. Money is the only good. Technology has produced a new form of slavery and men live huddled in cities where they insulate themselves from one another out of fear.

Like Joyce, Burgess rarely bothered to explain his references let alone the title of the novella. Alex breaks into the house of a writer who is working on a book condemning Ludovico’s Technique for the suppression of violence (evil). The title of the book within the book is A Clockwork Orange: orange sounding like the Malay word of man – ourang – hence, perhaps 'Mechanical Man'. And who is Ludovico – a medieval demonologist?

One other Russian idea that Burgess used is from Doktor Zhivago, A Novel in Prose (1958) by Boris Pasternak (1890-1960 – Nobel Prizewinner 1958). Zhivago is an unpublished poet and his work is printed at the end of the novel. Mr Enderby, in the Enderby series of novels, is a poet who composes while seated on the lavatory. Burgess gives us examples of his verse.

Although he was a retiring man who often appeared to do little other than read and write, Burgess was not averse to self-publicity and advertised himself as readily available for television chat shows in which he could do all the talking. Also, being a closet homosexual, he adored sporting his second wife Liliana Macellari as a real Italian Contessa. Many people found Burgess hard to take; to which his reaction was that he was done down for being a Northern working class Roman Catholic who hadn’t been to the right schools and could never be given a knighthood – unlike Kingsley Amis. At times he was deliberately subversive and churlish. He moved abroad to Malta and Monaco and also lived in Italy and the US.

Earthly Powers (1980) opens in Malta with a highly memorable sentence: ‘It was the afternoon of my eighty first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced the archbishop had come to see me.’ The reader is treated to cameos of twentieth century writers, none of whom are flattered.

His last work was a return to his first piece of extended writing. At Manchester University he had written a thesis on Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) which he revived for A Dead Man in Deptford (1993). The author of Dr Faustus and The Jew of Malta was killed in what may have been a pub brawl over a drinks bill or possibly murder.

Burgess was a heavy smoker who died of lung cancer at the age of 76. He continued to smoke on the grounds that the medical profession had pronounced him a dead man in 1960.

© Stephen Colbourn, September 2006

Stephen Colbourn is a contributor to The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914. Hodder Arnold. 2005

See also: British Books on Film >

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