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Anthony Burgess
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on 7 April 2015
This is the most deranged biography I have ever read. Starting from a position of active dislike that verges on outright contempt, Lewis flays his subject through more than 400 pages of snide vituperation that leaves you with a better picture of the author than it ever does of his subject. Whoever was paid to edit this book was stealing money - Lewis gets away with murder, stuffing the pages with extended footnotes that drool over several pages, and he doesn't even attempt to chart Burgess's life in any systematic way, merely providing a chronology at the start. This chronology is obviously regarded by the author as all that is required of him as a biographer, and he then goes on to stagger from point to point, detailing Burgess's shortcomings as writer and man. The trouble is that, underneath the abuse, Lewis makes several telling points about Burgess the writer, but it is all so buried beneath a mountain of detritus that it is easy to overlook. However, I cannot agree that 'Burgess was a great writer who never wrote a great book'. If one never reads another book by Burgess then Earthly Powers is the one to go for - a masterpiece that gets more astonishing with each reading. Perhaps his journalism is where his real genius lay, and that can be found in such books as Homage to Qwert Yuiop, but even his less successful novels contain interesting ideas that do not deserve the abusive they receive here.

Burgess deserves a proper appraisal, and perhaps we shall get it eventually. This book, however, traduces him at every turn and can only be recommended as a kind of psychological case study of the biographer rather then the biographee.
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on 30 October 2009
roger lewis's attempt to discredit burgess and his works makes for enervating reading. the tone is pitched at around schoolyard insult level for the most part but still manages to pin burgess achievements down to a fair-ish assessment. he wasnt a "great" novelist, he perhaps tried to hard to be one, but he was an interesting writer who wrote many novels that one ought to read. his journalism, though, was top drawer and also very generous. he could write passages in his novels of excellent stuff - he always wrote superbly about food - his writings on other authors are full of humanity and understanding. i think burgess position in the literary pantheon is rising after being almost forgotten and i welcome that. this biog is not a patch on lewis brilliant study of peter sellars and his warm, witty book on the "carry on" actor charles hawtrey. i have to say this is lewis's poorest biography, too many childish insults, too much unwarranted bitterness, too much bile. anthony burgess rep will survive this crazy onslaught and, due to biswell's much better biog, we will be able to read him with clear heads again.
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on 13 July 2012
Heavens! I'm astounded that anyone thought this was a serious academic biography. We have two possibilities: either it's the worst serious biography ever written, or it's not, in fact, a serious biography. I claim no special knowledge of Roger Lewis or his motivations, but knowledge of a smattering of his criticism and other works leads me to suppose the latter proposition is the correct one.

What I think he (Lewis) is playing at here, is writing a 'biography' of Burgess in the style of Burgess, only with all the brakes off. It's a mendacious, paranoid, rambling, ludicrously erudite/falsely erudite, scorchingly rude farce, and it's a rumbustious way of setting out what Burgess could have been like, if only he hadn't been Burgess, and had the inner generosity, the guilty humility, and the gloriously eighteenth-century sense of humour that makes Burgess a unique geniu...well, if not a genius, a true game-changer, and an unforgettable writer. What I think Lewis is up to, in short, is quite deliberately painting himself to be a failed, squalid, chiselling writer, a pretender to the throne of the writer he really admires as a hero, even for all his faults, biographising Burgess as Burgess could only have done if he had lost what made him great.

It is quite possible that all this is a load of cobblers.

As I say, I claim no special knowledge of Lewis and his writing, though I have read a lot of Burgess with a reasonably critical eye. I might cite as possible reasons why Lewis has taken this approach:
Firstly, that he is trying to point up by pointing out what it was that made this deeply flawed man (Burgess) great, rather than the miserable misanthropic swine he appears at face value in Lewis' book (the greatnesses are seen greater when set against the flaws);
Secondly, that Burgess had already done the job of a proper academic biography on himself (give-or-take a few legally-induced mendacities) with his resplendent, garlicky and painfully honest two-volume autobiography "Big God and Little Wilson" and "You've Had Your Time";
Thirdly, that being in possession of this accurate (if personal) biography, what the world perhaps lacked was an innovative, critical biography fitting with Burgess' iconoclastic bent, rather than an independent assessment.

IF this was the process, then I accept what Lewis was trying to do, but also feel that he got it wrong. The fact is, that IF he intended to be understood the way I interpret him (or close to), then the vast majority of reviewers on here got it wrong, and interpreted something different. This effectively means that he didn't get his message across to the majority of readers - and the book therefore is a failure. Regardless of what one's intention was, in subtle demonstrations of relative character, if one doesn't reach one's intended audience, then one has had it, mate

Thus, while I think that, if my interpretation is correct, Lewis' attempt at a biography is a brilliant pathfinder, in practical terms, he seems to have fluffed it - you can't argue with the box office, after all, even if it does misunderstand what you're up to - and I suspect (perhaps snobbishly, for which, apologies) that the box office for Burgessiana is more switched-on, critically speaking, than the box office for, say, Rambo, or Dickens.
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on 15 February 2011
This book, which I found entertaining, is not meant to be a balanced appraisal of Anthony Burgess. It is instead deliberately egotistical, vindictive, overwritten, pompous, lacking warmth and strewn with arcane pointless footnotes. I think Lewis fibs quite a lot.

I think the author's intention was to create a portrait of Burgess that echoed Burgess's character as he understood it. I can understand why some fans of Burgess do not like this approach, and would suggest that this book be read in conjunction with a more conventional biography. Thats's what I'm going to do anyway!

I think it obviously Lewis has tremendous respect for Burgess's productivity, his technical brilliance and his knowledge, but feels that something - the something that true genius has - was missing, and Lewis shows how this happened. The Burgess he presents is sad, lonely and disconnected from the world. Burgess used his talent to distance himnself from the world and not to engage with it. That's the impression I got anyway. I also felt that Lewis despite the style felt immensely sorry for Burgess, but rather that write something that was anaemic and conventional, discharged both barrels, this in order to get something about Burgess in the world that would be noticed. I think in some apparently perverse way it's a tribute to the man.

The book will enable me to get more out of rereading Clockwork Orange, A Dead Man in Deptford , Abba Abba......
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VINE VOICEon 24 June 2005
It is difficult to be enthusiastic about a book full of so much negativity, and footnotes.
Not only are we given relentless detail about what a dreadful man Burgess was, his manifold hang-ups, and personal obnoxiousness, but this biography's author also seems determined to vent his spleen in the reader's general direction.
In what is pretty dense prose in places, the colossal amount of footnotes does nothing to help the reader make sense of the chronology of Burgess' life.
What does emerge is the portrait of a complex human being, which is tantalisingly interesting, but with such sniping from the author at his subject, instead of insight, it seems hardly worth the bother of getting to the end.
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on 3 November 2002
The blurb says this is a ‘delirious kaleidoscope’ of a book, meaning it isn’t really a biography or a critical study. What it wants to be is an exposé of literary hauteur, with Lewis trying to deride that art of self-propagandising which Burgess (and surely any writer?) practises so fantastically. You can’t help feeling that this kind of upbraiding of Burgess’s faults – his pomposity, his egoism, his repetitiveness – has been long overdue. But it might have been done a bit more tenderly… The book’s well-written, despite its obsessive footnoting, but in trying to penetrate Burgess’ ‘webs of illusion’, Lewis wastes a lot of space cavilling minor details, treating every aspect of Burgess’ life and works with an incredulity which borders on paranoia (did Burgess himself really exist?). And is Lewis’ own writerly pose any more truthful than his subject’s (the forced slang, like the description of Theroux ‘titting about’, or of Clive James as a ‘prat’ – both footnotes – quickly gets annoying)? The purpose isn’t clear, but it’s still highly entertaining stuff…
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on 7 April 2003
Not quite a biography, not a lit crit study either, this extensive demolition job is designed to show that Burgess was "a parody of a great writer, rather than a great writer". Lewis's tone, though, is better conveyed by comments that Burgess was a "self-deluding prick" and generally by his asking at every turn what he hell Burgess thought he was playing at. Unfortuntely the biographer's mateyness is just as contrived as any of his subject's pretentiousness, and his footnotes, which sometimes take up 80 or 90% of a double page, go into great biographical detail about minor characters, which proves just as boring as the worst of Burgess's novels.
To be fair, Lewis is spot-on with most of his criticisms -- but the delivery is unkind, and the impression you're left with is of a hopelessly disillusioned former fan. By the end of the book, he has firmly associated Burgess with inhumanity (without much textual back-up), and with every writer he discusses he finds some common ground with Burgess -- the kiss of death. So Iris Murdoch grew too sentimental, the Elizabethans were "anti-art", the Beats were "evil" - never mind his main subject, Lewis doesn't like anyone else either. The irony is that the inhumanity he has come to loathe in Burgess's books is in evidence nowhere more than in his own work. The use of what he calls, in a different context, a "disillusioned Boswell" means that the book has a real narrative energy, but ultimately the question of why he wanted to spend 20 years writing about a writer he can't stand remains something of a mystery.
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on 25 June 2007
You may find this book very disturbing.

Not because of its subject matter, although few would dispute the claim that Burgess himself tried to be disturbing as often as he could.

It's disturbing because this 'biographer' seems to be in direct competition with him, using every weapon in the critic's arsenal to tear Burgess and his work to pieces so as to leave no doubt as to who was the better critic.

Nothing and nobody could ever come out of such a full-frontal literary assault with anything left in the mind of the reader but a curiosity as to why such a pathetic monstrosity had ever put pen to paper, or why anyone ever paid any attention to the ensuing drivel.

In order to answer the questions:

Who won?

Which of them was/is the better writer/critic/human being?

Were the criticisms of Burgess valid?

You would need to employ another writer to do a "double biography" of Burgess and Lewis.

But you'd need to make darned sure that 'third writer' doesn't feel inclined to treat either Burgess or Lewis with the lack of detachment that Lewis demonstrates when he's writing about Burgess, or you'd be none the wiser.

As with many 'contemptuous' (but large) biographies, there is so much genuinely intriguing detail here that it would seem churlish to dismiss it out of hand, either as a work of literary criticism (which in many senses it isn't, it's more of a 'personal criticism') or as a biography, a label which it often seems to be struggling (successfully) to avoid, as it instead indulges itself in (undeniably remarkable and pertinent) reflections and observations (many painstakingly compiled over the decades from sources other than the biographer or their subject) in its case for the prosecution, where the biographer also sets themselves up as Burgess's judge, jury and executioner.
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on 25 October 2003
John Wilson, aka Anthony Burgess, died in November 1993 the author of 32 novels, various televison/film scripts, translations from various languages of plays, opera libretti, etc, a composer in his own right, a televison personality, teacher, member of the royal society of literature, etc etc.
Here we have a biography that has taken, or so it's claimed, twenty years to write. And yet it makes no use of the major sources? Often quotes coversations from the past - from memory? - without sourcing the information. It is obviously a resentful book, but worse is basically flawed, especially with regard to the facts of Burgess / Wilson's life.
Further it ends in 1968? Thus twenty-five years of very (most?)productive life is ignored - who knows why? - and that part of Burgess' life that it does cover, consist of a number of wild and unsubstantiated assertions - which factually are wrong, and in some instances border on total absurdity.
Burgess doesn't deserve such shallow treatment. He was a great writer, a modern, who eperimented with form and style, and who enlarged the possibilites of the English novel for his contempories and those who follow after him.
A great disapointment as a true depiction of Burgess, but a good example of biography as fiction - very unconvincing fiction, to be sure.
We must all await a rational, well researched and calm biography of someone who was after all said and done a remarkable personality.
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on 9 July 2007
I loved this book, but I can see in it what those reviewers who reviewed negatively can see. Burgess is a cult author - try finding anything of his (apart from A Clockwork Orange) in a bookshop! - but a wonderful experience for those who love the power and potential of the written word. To most people his self-importance and obsessive word-smithing are presumably not worth the effort, but there are others, Roger Lewis included, who have been, at least at some stage, completely captivated by the exhilaration contained in his work. Roger Lewis seems to have fallen out of love with Burgess' work the more closely he looked into it. I found it difficult to argue with Lewis concerning the flim-flam and verbose identity concealment which characterise both Burgess' books and the way he wanted people to see his life, but it failed to dent my love of the works themselves. I liked this book because, for me, Lewis has caught the spirit of Burgess, and not just his quirky 'faults'. I believe that Lewis is actually full of admiration for his subject, no matter how rigorously he strips away the man's masquerade. I found that the book enhanced my enjoyment of Burgess' books, increasing my understanding of their 'between-the-lines' context without making me feel cheated by those parts of the Burgess self-image that economised with the truth. It spoke to the pedant in me, in much the same way as Burgess' works do. Ths is one for the real Burgess enthusiast, but perhaps not for those who hate to see their idol besmirched!
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