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4.7 out of 5 stars
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4.7 out of 5 stars


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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.'
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on 30 June 2017
Excellent biography of one of England's greatest novelists, full of great anecdotes. You really get the measure of the man, and his life and times.
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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!

MD Jardine
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VINE VOICEon 22 April 2017
The Real Life of Anthony Burgess is a positive biography, attempting to right the balance of previous negative accounts and biographies, and do justice to Anthony Burgess in all his tattered humanity. A lapsed cradle Catholic who adhered to the structures of Catholicism in spirit and discipline, long after he’d left the Catholic Church. His autobiography had been as entertaining as any of his novels, being able (almost) to adhere to a factual base (changing names to avoid libel). Biswell seems to be the Boswell to Burgess’s Johnson. What comes out is his boisterous, subversive personality. As a Catholic he adhered to not divorcing his wife Lynne, despite the troubles of a 30 year long marriage, which literally hit the rocks sexually, socially and due to her alcoholism. Burgess in this regard is almost saintly, smoothing the troubled waters in her wake, although she had a lot to put up with. It’s no secret they had an open marriage, where both were equally unfaithful. The period of living apart for 6 years due to the war years and his time in the services didn’t help. Also their exile from England when Burgess worked as a teacher in Malaya was a trial, due to homesickness on Lynne’s part, her alcoholism and an eating disorder. Burgess’s insubordinate defiance comes out while he’s in the forces, castigating the small-mindedness of officers, bureaucracy, and injustice. You feel the adoption of a pseudonym, when he 1st started writing, Joseph Kell, and the later change of name to Anthony Burgess, created a fantasy persona, he did his best to maintain by the proliferation of his many works. It released a torrent of skilled invention and verbal fireworks. Behind his work is also the trauma of his wife Lynne’s being beaten up by GI deserters while he was in Gibraltar, and robbed. Although he gave different accounts of this: one where she was raped and lost an unborn child; the episode plays a vital part in Clockwork Orange. This destroyed his 1st marriage and destroyed Lynne. Also, Biswell does well to excavate his unrequited love for a teacher who worked in the same school as him in Banbury. He interviews her and she has many letters/poems he wrote to her over 3 years. They were both married. Burgess doesn’t mention this in Little Wilson and Big God ( she didn’t feel the same way).

Burgess, whether by design or to avoid the tax-rates, situated himself in Europe, as he felt he was a European writer, not a British one. He also married an Italian lady and they both wanted to live abroad. He had a son by her. Burgess blurred the boundary between fact and fiction. In Earthly Powers a character writes’ All memories are disordered, the truth, if not mathematical, is what we think we remember’. Burgess, too, in Little Wilson and Big God, casts himself as an unreliable narrator of his own life story. He says at the start it is a book about memory and he has not checked the facts. He often recycles episodes from the published novels. In The Doctor is Sick,he creates a character in love with words and language. The problem is that he has become detached from the real-life things to which the words refer. He often sends himself up, aware of the dangers of putting language and literature before life. The centre of his imaginative lodestone was Joyce, whom he was introduced to by a history teacher, and wrote several books on and musicals ( he was also a musician), Joyce also being a lapsed Catholic. On top of this he’d written a thesis on Marlowe and wrote novels on both Shakespeare and Marlowe, revealing much knowledge. Aside from being a polyglot and polymath, he spoke several languages, like Malay, Russian, French, Italian, some Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew and classical Greek. He wrote a book A Mouthful of Air, based on philology and the study of language and speech. His Enderby novels draw extensively on his own poetry written at university.

The man Biswell describes is a mixture of charlatan, polymath and great fun. A person if you met would enjoy his company. He was hard-working and turned out 1000 words a day before breakfast. He had many projects on the go simultaneously.Biswell never met Burgess, but conducted many interviews with friends, family and professional writer-colleagues. He interviewed 300 people. They remember him with affection. His friends and associates believed he was self-created. He adapted a lot of his novels for the screen, but only A Clockwork Orange gets made. He was a screenwriter for Moses the Lawgiver and Jesus of Nazareth. His work sold better in America, France and Italy than it did in the UK, where he won prizes or was university professor,not so in England. Biswell shows how speech and dialogue is an important part of the character-building in all his novels. Burgess himself was a very disciplined speaker and raconteur. He started writing novels late(age 39) and he wanted to catch up with all the writers at it since their 20s. He also complained of the meagreness of earning a living by writing. He enjoyed writing, treating it as a way of working out problems, bringing order to chaotic experience. He was at his most productive writing novels in his 1st marriage, often to escape into fictional worlds. He had a 30 year correspondence with Graham Greene, whose novels he admired and their shared Catholicism, and some early novels owe a debt to Greene. They had an uneasy friendship until they fell out in 1989 , but Burgess wrote Greene’s obituary.In his Confessions Burgess accounts Catholic theology as the most coherent and powerful system of human thought, without committing to it. He wrote several books of essays, reviews and critical works, which are still being published. He often composed music in the evenings for relaxation, and arranged for it to be performed. Whatever you say about Burgess, he was a character, the type you’ll never see again frequenting the TV studios, discussion/chat shows, making documentaries on his life. He has the words fittingly of ABBA on his gravestone.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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