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Potentate of the Polysyllable

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Logorrhoeac, polymagisterial, omniglottal, panchromatic, Anthony Burgess was the most wordy literary figure I have ever met. I use those faintly ludicrous terms of praise because, before I met him, I was hardly aware of their existence. He employed them, with a thousand variants, all the time, in a dozen languages. He was the potentate of the polysyllable. To him, language was a currency: he loved to employ five-, ten- and twenty-pound words, abstruse Latinate constructions, arcane ‘inkhorn terms’, throwing them around like a sailor on shore leave, to show his enthusiasm for the world as he encountered it, a battlefield of huge, mostly ancient ideas which only he, like a twentieth-century Casaubon, could synthesize, using all the words in the dictionary.

Burgess disdained the ordinary, the middlebrow, the pop-cultural, the clichéd – in fact he disdained everything about dull, conformist post-war Britain whose citizens heated up their Fray Bentos steak pies and settled themselves before the television.

In the literary establishment in which I grew up he cut a faintly ridiculous figure. Among the groovy culture-vultures of the 1960s who appeared on television, he looked wrong. His saurian, goitrous, exophthalmic countenance was topped by a hairstyle that either Brilliantined his wayward locks into a Prince Valiant helmet or swept them into a luxuriant comb-over. None of the women in his life ever introduced him to a decent barber. His eyes were invariably crinkled from the smoke of the slim panatellas he always waved before him as he opined and pontificated in an Oxbridge-high-table delivery that concealed his suburban Manchester roots.

I first encountered his work in 1975 when I came down from Oxford. Released from the burden of reading canonical English, I could suddenly read anything. In a bookshop, on a whim, I picked up The Doctor is Sick, an early novel (1960) reprinted in 1973, and was entranced by its linguistic fire, the bustli

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Logorrhoeac, polymagisterial, omniglottal, panchromatic, Anthony Burgess was the most wordy literary figure I have ever met. I use those faintly ludicrous terms of praise because, before I met him, I was hardly aware of their existence. He employed them, with a thousand variants, all the time, in a dozen languages. He was the potentate of the polysyllable. To him, language was a currency: he loved to employ five-, ten- and twenty-pound words, abstruse Latinate constructions, arcane ‘inkhorn terms’, throwing them around like a sailor on shore leave, to show his enthusiasm for the world as he encountered it, a battlefield of huge, mostly ancient ideas which only he, like a twentieth-century Casaubon, could synthesize, using all the words in the dictionary.

Burgess disdained the ordinary, the middlebrow, the pop-cultural, the clichéd – in fact he disdained everything about dull, conformist post-war Britain whose citizens heated up their Fray Bentos steak pies and settled themselves before the television. In the literary establishment in which I grew up he cut a faintly ridiculous figure. Among the groovy culture-vultures of the 1960s who appeared on television, he looked wrong. His saurian, goitrous, exophthalmic countenance was topped by a hairstyle that either Brilliantined his wayward locks into a Prince Valiant helmet or swept them into a luxuriant comb-over. None of the women in his life ever introduced him to a decent barber. His eyes were invariably crinkled from the smoke of the slim panatellas he always waved before him as he opined and pontificated in an Oxbridge-high-table delivery that concealed his suburban Manchester roots. I first encountered his work in 1975 when I came down from Oxford. Released from the burden of reading canonical English, I could suddenly read anything. In a bookshop, on a whim, I picked up The Doctor is Sick, an early novel (1960) reprinted in 1973, and was entranced by its linguistic fire, the bustling comic energy with which it told the story of Edwin Spindrift, a linguistics lecturer in hospital awaiting an operation for a brain tumour. Spindrift escapes from the hospital, still in his pyjamas, and embarks on a picaresque journey through London in search of his errant wife. He falls in with gangsters and conmen, hookers and felons but never relinquishes his hold on language, the lexicon of plosives and fricatives that rule his world. The novel is clever, funny, confrontational and curiously sad about the limited power of words to articulate emotions. From there, I moved on to Inside Mr Enderby (1963) and was stunned. Its combination of narrative confidence, intellectual rigour and low humour was like nothing I’d ever read. Who but Burgess would start a novel with a visit from Posterity, imagined as a seraphic schoolmarm with an unruly class of grubby scholars? The sleeping man they visit, Francis Xavier Enderby, named after the progenitor of the Jesuits, lives in Hove, the Brighton suburb where Burgess and his first wife Lynne moved into a one-bedroom furnished flat in 1960. Still single at 45, Enderby is a career poet whose study is the bathroom: he sits on the lavatory seat and composes on a makeshift table. The bath is full of drafts of poems and the remnants of his meals, both occasionally chewed by opportunistic mice. Enderby is a messy, irritable, dyspeptic, rather disgusting man (we learn a lot about his problem with wind, the ‘borborygms’ and ‘eructations’ that issue from him along with divine afflatus). He’s an unlikely fictional hero, except for two things. He is fanatical about his poetic Muse and belligerently hostile to the modern world. Constantly assailed by poetic lines and stanzas that beset him while he’s making supper or walking down the street, he’s also attacked by less attractive demands: from the people (invariably hostile) he meets in pubs, his landlady, the poetic charlatans who want to give him a prize. He is obsessed with the memory of his stepmother, whom he loathed but to whom he owes his livelihood (he lives off her legacy). She brings out Burgess’s best comic writing:

She had swollen finger-joints, puffy palms, wrists girdled with fat, slug-white upper arms that when naked, showed as indecent as thighs . . . Her habits were loathsome. She picked her teeth with old tram tickets, cleaned out her ears with hairclips in whose U-bend ear-wax was trapped to darken and harden, scratched her private parts through her clothes with a matchbox-rasping noise audible two rooms away . . . belched like a ship in fog, was sick on stout on Saturday nights, tromboned vigorously in the lavatory, ranted without aitches or grammar, scoffed at all books except Old Moore’s Almanac, whose apocalyptic pictures she could follow.

There can have been few more dramatic circumstances in literary history than those which produced Inside Mr Enderby – provided you believe its author. The story goes like this. After years away, teaching in Malaya, Burgess collapsed in a local schoolroom in Brunei, was stretchered to a local hospital, X-rayed, examined and sent home to England, apparently with a brain tumour that would kill him in a year. Though he supplied biographers with contrasting details about this diagnosis, he swore that, with only a year to live, he resolved to write several novels that would provide his estranged, alcoholic and promiscuous wife Lynne with an income-cumpension. Among them – five in a single year – was Inside Mr Enderby. He was obliged to publish it under the Kafkaesque nom-de-plume of Joseph Kell. At the time of publication, Burgess was reviewing novels for the Yorkshire Post and the literary editor sent him a copy of Enderby. Assuming it was a joke, Burgess reviewed it – by no means fulsomely – and was fired when the little deception was discovered. Burgess told Anthony Clare, who interviewed him in 1988 for the radio programme In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, that Enderby came to him in a dream:

When I was working in Borneo in the late 1950s, I was suffering from malaria, had a slight delirium, and I went into the toilet and thought I saw a man sitting on the toilet seat writing poetry. I suppose the vision lasted a mere micro-second but the character remained, and I wrote four books about this character whom I called Enderby – very squalid, masturbatory. This I can’t explain. The character has nothing to do with me, but his talent for writing poetry must be to some extent my own.

Burgess fans are not fooled. The obvious avatar is Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses. In the book’s infamous fourth chapter, Bloom visits the outside privy at No. 7 Eccles Street, Dublin, and becomes the first character in fiction to be described in the act of purgation. While relieving himself, Bloom reads a page of Tit-Bits and wonders about writing a story to win a cash prize. Enderby is similarly involved in creativity and excretion. Joyce was Burgess’s hero and the subject of two of his later books, and Enderby resembles Bloom in being a squalid, furtive, dyspeptic man – but Bloom is married, with a daughter and a dead son. Enderby is solitary. He shouldn’t be taken as an autobiographical portrait of Burgess, despite the Hove address. Andrew Biswell, Burgess’s biographer, offers a shrewd analysis:

[Enderby] seems in many ways to represent the roads that Burgess had not taken: if he had not married Lynne in 1942; if he had allowed his joyless childhood to develop into a full-scale neurosis; if he had clung to his early ambition to make a reputation for himself as a poet; if he had allowed himself to grow into a less tactful, a less intelligent, a less forgiving, a less generous man than he was – then it’s possible he might have come to resemble Francis Xavier Enderby. Enderby is more than merely Burgess’s shadow: he is a demonic, monastic, spermatic, worst-self, a brutal auto-caricature, an anarchic anti-Anthony.

Burgess followed his anti-Anthony in three more books: Enderby Outside (1968), The Clockwork Testament, or Enderby’s End (1974), which features a hilarious encounter between the poet and a new generation of ignorant American university students, and concludes with his death; and a short final volume, Enderby’s Dark Lady, or No End of Enderby (1984), ‘Composed to placate kind readers of The Clockwork Testament, who objected to my casually killing my hero’.

* * *

We met in 1988 when I first interviewed him in London. I was then literary editor of the Evening Standard. He’d just published Any Old Iron, his updating of the Excalibur legend. I think he realized he was dealing with a deranged fan, rather than a mere literary hack, when I broke off from enquiring about his new novel to ask: ‘How was it that, in Enderby Outside, you wrote a sentence in which you used the word “onion” three times consecutively?’ ‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘I remember being quite pleased with that. How did it go? “Rawcliffe lurched upon Enderby and said . . .”’ ‘No, no,’ I interrupted. ‘The sentence went, “Rawcliffe lurched across the restaurant and breathed upon Enderby, bafflingly (the restaurant refused to serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions), onions.”’ Burgess looked at me. Perhaps he wasn’t used to having complete strangers reciting his work out of the blue. ‘So why did you do it?’ ‘Oh, you know,’ he said modestly, waving his panatella, ‘because I could.’ I asked him about Graham Greene, his Catholic co-religionist and sometime neighbour in the south of France: Greene in Nice, Burgess in Monaco. (Though he admired the elder writer’s work, Burgess had reservations about Catholic converts like Greene, finding them less sympathetic than those who, like himself, had had ‘hellfire injected into their veins’.) ‘Greene has a new mistress,’ he said sadly, ‘a married woman. Her husband has taken to walking by his apartment building most nights and shouting salaud! at the windows.’ We talked about a myriad other things, and at the end he posed for a photograph. I asked in my callow way if I might be included in one picture, for my study wall. We stood awkwardly together, the literary titan and his beaming new acolyte. ‘Not too close,’ cautioned Burgess, sotto voce. ‘People might talk.’

* * *

In the years that followed, I noted his every appearance in the media, relishing his lordly, cigar-puffing grandeur while marvelling that he was becoming a bit of a cabaret turn. He turned up on a TV chat show called Friday Night, Saturday Morning, hosted by the Irish writer Frank Delaney. The first guest was the actress Sian Phillips. When Burgess settled himself upon the plush sofa, Delaney said: ‘Now Anthony, you’re a famous wordsmith. But can even you, who knows every word in the language, come up with any words to describe the beauty of Miss Sian Phillips here?’ Burgess regarded the woman beside him and rose to the occasion. ‘Oh I think so,’ he said. ‘Orchidaceous. Polypulchritudinous . . .’ The studio audience clapped. You’d have thought the author of A Clockwork Orange and The Malayan Trilogy was a modern version of Professor Stanley Unwin who amused 1950s audiences with his ‘gobbledegook’ idiolect.

* * *

The last time we met was in February 1992, the month of his seventy-fifth birthday. I’d rung Penguin to discover what arrangements they’d made to celebrate this anniversary. None, they said. At the time, I’d been asked to set up some interviews with writers at the Brentwood Arts Centre in west London, and I seized the opportunity. Could Mr Burgess be persuaded to come over from Switzerland for an evening of discussion and Q&A in front of an audience? To my delight, he agreed. We met backstage. Though clearly unwell – he was diagnosed with lung cancer later that year – he was in good spirits. We talked about current literary reputations. I asked if he’d seen Greene before his death the previous year. ‘I regret to say we had a falling-out,’ said Burgess. ‘It seems that I was . . . indiscreet with a young journalist a few years ago and said something about Greene’s mistress, and he sent me a letter calling me an unbalanced liar and ending our friendship.’ ‘But Anthony,’ I cried, ‘that was me! I interviewed you for the Evening Standard and you told me the woman’s husband shouted at his windows . . .’ He regarded me coldly. I’m not surprised. My tiny footnote in literary history had meant the end of a valued, if rocky, personal relationship with someone he genuinely admired. On stage he spoke with the old fluency about his career, his Manchester youth, his dismay that the notoriety of A Clockwork Orange had eclipsed his more serious works. When it was time for questions, the audience piled in. ‘I finally managed to read Ulysses after three attempts,’ said the first. ‘But I can’t get on with Finnegans Wake at all. What exactly is it about?’ ‘The action of Ulysses’, Burgess replied, ‘takes place in a single day. That of Finnegans Wake in a single night. You are dealing here in a phantasmagoria, a dreamscape, an echo-land. All thoughts and ideas and actions are conflated, and all the language is conflated too. At the centre is the family of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, who represents, among others, Noah . . .’ and he was off on a perfectly paced mini-lecture in his best magisterial tones. The second question concerned À la recherche du temps perdu. Amazingly – given the well-known Monty Python sketch about summarizing Proust in fifteen seconds – the questioner asked what the 3,000-page book was ‘really about’. Imperturbably, Burgess explained, with many side references to Bergson’s philosophy of time. The third question was a surprise. ‘Mr Burgess,’ said a man in the nineteenth row, ‘I know you are an accomplished cook. What is the secret of a perfect tortilla?’ The audience murmured disapprovingly. This was like asking Tolstoy whether he favoured trainers or espadrilles. Burgess never wavered. ‘A tortilla is no more than a potato omelette,’ he replied. ‘And the secret is not to fry the cubes of potato too crisply before you drench them in the ovoid mixture.’ The audience cheered. ‘Ovoid’ indeed. He died a year later. To think of him going was to imagine an empire crumbling. He was a serious moralist, theologian and literary bigwig in a world of ninnies and dilettantes. Meeting him was like meeting Dr Johnson, a similarly shambolic, physically uncoordinated, language-obsessed, Northern know-all. You approached him nervously, shyly asking a question like someone poking a 20p coin into a jukebox – and out would come a vast oratorio of learning and opinion. He was belligerent, argumentative and magisterial but engaging and funny too, a serious entertainer and an awesome intellectual who never forgot that borborygms and eructations were also part of the human condition.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 34 © John Walsh 2012


About the contributor

John Walsh is assistant editor of the Independent and can be heard on the Radio 4 literary quiz show The Write Stuff. His most recent book was the novel Sunday at the Cross Bones.

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