on 13 September 2006
In seeking to encompass Anthony Burgess's life in 400 pages, Andrew Biswell has taken on quite a task. Not only did Burgess produce poetry, biography, autobiography, works on music and linguistics, screenplays, children's books, mountains of journalism and over thirty novels, but almost every claim he made about his life seems to have been disputed at one time or another. Biswell, though, proves to be more than up to it. He manages to resolve the various controversies with something that looks like finality. Did Burgess's father really come in one evening to find his wife and daughter dead of Spanish flu and the infant Burgess still alive next to them? The answer is yes; but Biswell re-dates the episode by reference to the death certificates, and points to inconsistencies in Burgess's subsequent re-tellings of the story. What of his claims to have been trepanned by Sir Roger Bannister and given a year to live, leading him to bang out five novels in twelve months? This has been believed widely, but it turns out not to be true. Biswell shows as much by digging out Sir Roger and asking him. The neurologist (and, of course, athlete) explains he never performed a trepanning because he was never a surgeon. Burgess's legendary prolificness must have had its roots elsewhere. In these cases and others, Biswell does not allow his evident affection for Burgess stop him puncturing his claims. Of course, the biography has its faults as well. It says nothing about the supposed rape of Burgess's wife by GIs, an event said to have inspired a passage in A Clockwork Orange but which subsequently has been called into doubt. Also there are moments where one suspects that, having done his research, Biswell is reluctant not to display the results - so we get to hear an account of English defamation law (Burgess didn't grasp it) and the ins and outs of a portal haemorrhage (Burgess's wife died of one). Still, this is at least educational, and throughout the book Biswell is forensic, thought-provoking and even-handed. This really is the real life.
on 3 December 2005
Returned from holiday, where this book proved to be good company for a good few days, a dismissive and ill-informed review in today's Guardian (London, 3 December, 2005) prompts me to spring to its defence. Because, though this new biography undoubtedly has its faults, there is no way in the world it is `a dull book', as Guardian critic, Anthony Thwaite, would have us believe. Personally, I found this book to be a distinct improvement on Roger Lewis' recent biography, which to my mind was overloaded with far too many chunks of Burgess's own extant prose, seemingly as space fillers. (Roger Lewis's only saving grace, it seems to me, was in suggesting that the Burgess persona is itself the author's most convincing fictional creation.)
On the plus side, this most recent biography is written by a Burgess aficionado (which Roger Lewis most certainly was not), so it is to the author's credit that he chooses to reiterate this truism about Burgess that was first postulated by his biographical predecessor. (See page 306, where Deborah Regan, Burgess's literary agent since 1987 says: 'The distinction between life and fantasy was completely blurred.') In addition to this the author goes on to provide us with a multitude of fresh insights into Burgess's life story via contributions from former colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and writers - Robert Graves' footnoted reminiscence of a remembered Burgessian critique being an absolute gem. And last but not least, the author is generous enough to accord to L. W. Dever, Xaverian's long-serving history master of hallowed memory, the distinction of having introduced Burgess to the work of James Joyce, as opposed to his serving ignominiously and untruthfully (see LITTLE WILSON AND BIG GOD) as a boozing partner pure and simple.
On the minus side, the author is occasionally remiss with regard to Mancunian geography. For example, it is the right bank of the River Irk, not Manchester General Cemetery that is `the western border of [Burgess's birthplace] Harpurhey'. And he is mistaken too in referring to THE (i.e. colloquially there should be no definite article preceding) Lower Park Road, the location of Burgess's secondary school, Xaverian College. In fairness, though, this is not so severe a fault as Anthony Thwaite's imagining Xaverian to be a `Jesuit' school. (Has Anthony Thwaite perhaps not actually read this book - or, indeed, Roger Lewis's book, to say nothing of Burgess's two volumes of autobiography?)
Even so (p.224), it is surely demonstrably unsound for Dr Biswell to say that, amongst the things that so appalled Burgess upon his return to the UK from Malaysia were `sexual permissiveness' and `a falling away of religious belief'. (Burgess can't have it both ways - or can he?)
Imprecision is occasionally irritating too in THE REAL LIFE. On the one hand, the actual plot number of Burgess's mother's grave in Manchester General Cemetery is gratuitously volunteered, whereas the exact location of Burgess's own resting-place in Monaco is not pinpointed in any way.
Was imprecision such as this perhaps the price of access to Burgess's widow, Liana? Is this the reason too why the untimely death of Burgess's son, Paolo Andrea, is nowhere described as a suicide in this book?
This last omission is particularly interesting in view of Burgess's own speculation (page 7) that: `One becomes less able to give affection or take affection - because one never had this early filial experience'. So, did Burgess perhaps blame himself for insensitivity in his relationship with Paolo Andrea? And, if so, is a further volume of Burgessian biography perhaps needed on this account?
But all things considered with regard to THE REAL LIFE OF ANTHONY BURGESS, I would say unhesitatingly, by way of conclusion - paraphrasing Burgess's dedication of THE CLOCKWORK TESTAMENT (to Burt Lancaster, incidentally):
`. . . deserves to be read, deserves to be read.'
on 26 November 2005
For longtime admirers of Anthony Burgess, as well as for members of his growing posthumous readership (like me), this book is an event. A dozen years since the death of one of the dozen best British novelists of the last half-century, Anthony Burgess finally has the biography he deserves. As scrupulous and as scholarly as the pseudo-biography of Roger Lewis of 2002 was distinctly un-so, this book captures all the personal and professional contrasts and contradictions of a mercurial, myriad-minded novelist-composer-poet-critic-playwright-translator whose lapsed Catholicism and lust for language were the twin goads that drove a stunning prolificness. For me his great verbal fluency—in books like the epic Earthly Powers and the picaresque verse-novel Byrne—match anything done since by Martin Amis, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, and all the other prizewinning wunderkinds and polymaths of the present day. An unworthy critical reaction to Burgess’s unapologetic creative overplus seems to own the review pages in the UK right now, but Burgess is bigger than the land of his birth, and an embarrassing about-face may shortly follow, once the English rediscover what Burgess’s international readers already recognize—a comprehensive, insightful literary intelligence that any nation would be proud to lay claim to. From the rough streets of Manchester to the rowdiness of the Far East to the drunken roustabout of Burgess’s first marriage to the stylistic refinements of his best work, Andrew Biswell paints a careful, colourful portrait of a formidable artist and a fallible man. A Real pleasure, not to be missed.
on 15 August 2006
Burgess has always been a mysterious character, shrouded in mystery of his own creation. After a exaggerated autobiography and several below-par biographies, the great man has finally been thrust into the light. Biswell's biography is both detailed and entertaining, uncovering truths about the elusive author, but also gleefully recounting tales of Burgess's drinking habits, and his relationship with his firey wife, Lynne.
One cannot escape the fact that this is the biography that Burgess deserved. If there is any justice it will introduce new readers to a man whose talents went far beyond A Clockwork Orange. The Real Life of Anothony Burgess is brimming with life and knowledge - a pure joy!
on 13 May 2007
The title of Biswell's biography of the author of, among others, "A Clockwork Orange" alludes to Nabokov's Sebastian Knight whose brother sets out to correct a "slapdash and very misleading" biography. Biswell's book is neither, but his subject's self-mythologizing was certainly misleading. If Burgess had his way, he was either descended from Charles Stuart - implausibly in Manchester in the year of Culloden - or his biological, as well as literary, genealogy included Shakespeare. Between these and more plausible, yet equally conflicting, stories emerges a defender of high culture who refused to follow any cultural line, a man of doubtful religious belief who wrestled with theological problems, and a man whose extraordinary productivity matched his literary ambition. Meticulous scholarship does not prevent lively prose to recount lives, real and fantastic. The pace quickens towards the end as last thirty years are compressed into thirty pages. Given Burgess's "libel problem", however, Biswell heeds lessons his subject failed to, and until "real life" is taken less seriously this is as authoritative it gets.
on 19 April 2008
This is one of two current biographies of the magically gifted author Anthony Burgess, the other being by Roger Lewis. If I were forced to choose which one to recommend I would have to opt for Biswell's, because it does more of what a reader probably expects of a biography, in terms of facts, logical deductions, and revelations not possible during the subject's lifetime. That said, I would suggest that both books should be read, if possible. Lewis is perhaps overly judgmental, mocking Burgess' tendency to fictionalise his life, but in some ways his account is more in the spirit of Burgess' writing, with its humour. Biswell's account is certainly more definitive, more closely analytical, and I felt he was making full use of the distinction between what can and cannot be said during a subject's lifetime. Having read this one after Lewis, I was left wondering what revelations might appear when surviving close relatives have passed on. An excellent book, providing a truly valuable guide to the better understanding of the great man's life and purpose.
on 21 September 2006
For the generations introduced to Anthony Burgess via Malcolm McDowell's balletic beatings in the Kubrick film of 'A Clockwork Orange', this thorough, energetic and intelligent biography should serve to redefine him as an enigma worthy of their attention, rather than a one book pony.
Andrew Biswell's biography is clearly a labour of love, and the work of a tireless Burgess scholar. If there is a stone yet to be turned in the search for the real Burgess, it will be pretty well hidden to avoid Biswell's diligent eye - he presents rare documents and letters, along with candid interviews with those who knew Burgess, with an ease to put any other biographers to shame and make them wonder what they were doing with their time.
The books and the man are cleverly interlinked, with considered theories as to the importance of religion, sexuality and language into the astonishing body of work left to the world by the dauntingly prolific Burgess.
It's fitting, though, given the unavoidable fame of the novel, that Biswell is at his best analysing 'A Clockwork Orange', providing real insights into its genesis and the moral complexities of the text, as well as the deft wordplay that gives it such a distinct character. Importantly, Biswell is as competent a film reviewer as he is biographer, giving the Kubrick movie an even-handed appraisal, distanced from the controversy that has dogged it.
Of course, it's quickly established that there is much more to Burgess than 'A Clockwork Orange', the novel not being considered a major work by its creator - and this searching piece of work is up to the task of unravelling the tangled life of a fascinating fictionist. An illuminating study for scholars, fans, and anyone discovering Burgess' powers for the first time.
on 20 August 2006
Both scholarly and rollicking, Biswell's biog fizzes from start to finish. His account of the real life of Anthony Burgess is as wide ranging as the great man's vocabulary, and reveals a noisy, rambunctious life filled with quiet heroism. In a world of disposable celebrity, the Real Life of Anthony Burgess gives an insight into the mind of a man of immense depth, personality and wisdom, so read it, and raise a glass to Anthony Burgess.
on 13 November 2005
Who'd have thought that some tweleve years since departing for the great unknown that Anthony Burgess would continue to perplex? Was he a literary genius who's works have yet to be fully comptemplated, or a magician whose slight-of-hand hood-winked the planet? Amazingly enough, judging by Andrew Biswell's scholarship, it would appear that Mr. Burgess was at home in both fields of endeavor. He was, if you will, what the Cheyenne Nation so eloquently refer to as 'The Trickster'.
From his bleak Dickensian-like childhood, to the full plummage of his entrance on the world's literary stage, Biswell deftly tracks the elusive Burgess through the dense and oft conflicting accounts that made up the life. Anthony Burgess, ever the sly old fox, laid many a booby-trap to snare potential Biographers - not the least of which is LITTLE WILSON AND BIG GOD - and it's to Biswell's credit that he has taken the time and care to sort through the snares and untangle as many of these mysteries as it would seem possible: working-class Manchester, the education, wife #1, World War II, Malaya, the tumor, off-and-writing. As evidenced by at least one other recent attempt at a Burgess bio, it doesn't take much to find ones-self fustratingly off the path and swinging at shadows - it's a jungle out there. And in this go-round, Andrew Biswell proves to be something of a literary Henry Morton Stanley.
And Anthony Burgess? Well...true to form, even after reading this well researched tale of a life lived to the full, having beheld the masterpieces that are THE LONG DAY WANES, NOTHING LIKE THE SUN, ENDERBY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, M/F, ABBA ABBA and EARTHLY POWERS, Burgess remains just slightly out of focus. He (and we?) would have it no other way. Be proud my English brothers & sisters; we're all the better for it, and for Anthony Burgess.
on 17 November 2012
The book itself was in wonderful condition, but the contents were even more wonderful. The enigmatic yet seemingly open Anthony Burgess is put under the microscope by Andrew Biswell and comes out of it as a man who lived his life to the full. Both ABs deserve to be commended or linked as ABBA.
There is a feeling of Biswell wanting to challenge Burgess' truths and biographical details, and doing so in a gentle and understanding way. The book is full of insights, great research and a love for the fellow man. Well done, lad. Tha's bin oppen n majestic.This book's a reet belter!