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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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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