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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.'