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A Biography

by Roger Lewis

Pub Date: March 19th, 2004
ISBN: 0-312-32251-8
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Loquacious portraitist Lewis (The Real Life of Laurence Olivier, 1997, etc.) leaves no stone unturned in his obsessive and hardly sympathetic life of the tortured author of A Clockwork Orange.

Born in 1917 to a working-class Catholic family in northeast Manchester, John Wilson (his name until his first novel, Time for a Tiger, was published in 1956) lost his sister and mother early to the flu epidemic and grew into an unfeeling, massively egotistical bookworm. His early years as an English teacher married to an unstoppable Welsh dipsomaniac ended with his transformation into Anthony Burgess, pompous polymath of mock scholarship. His thousand-word-a-day writing quota ensued from the famously inaccurate 1959 diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor; he churned out four novels during the one year he thought he had left and was preoccupied thereafter with afflictions of the body. Later remarried to an Italian countess, Burgess composed more than 30 titles before his death in 1993, ranging from early “jungle novels” about his travels and on to potboilers and copious literary criticism (Joyce, Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, and Shakespeare), as well as Broadway adaptations, screenplays (Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth), and translations. His lurid study of mechanized violence didn't take off until Stanley Kubrick’s chilling film version in 1971, and Lewis makes some mischievous revelations about A Clockwork Orange: Burgess lifted the idea from a French translation he had done years before, and the novel supposedly encrypts covert operations the author was allegedly engaged in with Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Aiming to situate Burgess in the grand scheme of English-language literary history, Lewis does so magisterially, especially in the chatty, page-long footnotes comparing him to heavyweight contemporaries Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, and Iris Murdoch, among others. Lewis can forgive his subject for preposterous subterfuges, but can’t rid himself of “discomfiture” over Burgess's extreme writerly froideur.

Trenchant and dogged, expunging the biographer of a 20-year anxiety of influence.