Roger Lewis's mean-spirited and astonishingly egotistical biography is a travesty. It largely refuses to acknowledge Anthony Burgess's protean talent and wide-ranging artistic achievements. Lewis attempts to nail Burgess as an artistic charlatan masquerading as a great writer, and in the process reveals rather too much about his own personal prejudices and, one strongly suspects on the evidence here, writerly envy. It is, indeed, a somewhat dispiriting experience to read a book written with such admirable stylistic fluency and skill, that is at the same time so lacking in charm and objective generosity towards its subject.
Even the most partisan admirers of Burgess would, I'm sure, recognise the problematic nature of describing his legacy (see, for example, Lorna Sage's excellent obituary piece in her volume of selected journalism, Good As Her Word). Although he rests rather awkwardly in the neatly tended garden of post-war British novelists, it is precisely Burgess's European sensibility, his cross-cultural breadth and linguistic ambition, which makes him so fascinating a literary outsider. And his wearing of masks, both literary and personal, is all part of the creative inventiveness to be celebrated.
Tellingly, several of the relatively minor writers who Lewis cites in support of his critical-personal attacks (John Wain, John Bayley etc) are themselves products of the narrow Oxbridge academic world that Burgess disdained. And this biographer seems ever anxious to position himself socially alongside Burgess and his admired friend, Richard Ellmann, exceptional men both. One of the numerous subtle manifestations of this authorial status anxiety is the full page prominence afforded in the book to a photograph of a Telex message from Burgess to Lewis, confirming a theatre rendevous in Oxford. In this one telling image, Lewis, seemingly unable to decentre himself from his own work, manages both to namedrop his enviable sounding address, and to signal that a world famous author is contacting him to socialise. Meanwhile, the level of personal abuse aimed at Burgess just seems nasty and irrelevant to the story. As I reread Lewis's book, I was reminded of the compelling anecdotal evidence of Burgess's outstanding generosity and kindness as a journalistic book reviewer and as a teacher. I would recommend Andrew Biswell's biography as a serious and more scholarly alternative account of Burgess.