Amaury Garcia: First of all, I would like to thank you, Professor Biswell, for using some of your time to answer these questions. I would like to start by discussing the impressive work you have done writing the notes for the 50th anniversary edition of A Clockwork Orange . They bring some new light to the novel, giving the reader a deeper understanding of the many things it involves, including autobiographical material. Could you explain the process for compiling the notes and the reception they have had?
Andrew Biswell : The annotations to A Clockwork Orange grew naturally out of my editorial work for the restored edition in 2012. The process of establishing the new text involved re-typing every sentence of the novel, and checking each word against the 1961 typescript and the first edition. I also had access to Anthony Burgess’s correspondence with his original London publisher, in which he revised certain details of the text in response to queries from the copy-editor. As I worked through the novel, I found there were many things I did not understand. For example, when Alex speaks of ‘the old Sammy act’ in Part One, he is talking about bribing the old women in the pub. But what does ‘Sammy’ mean? In fact ‘to Sam’ or ‘to stand Sam’ is an obsolete slang expression, meaning ‘to buy somebody a drink’. It is military slang, and Burgess probably learned it when he was in the Army in the 1940s. Apart from exotic words, there are many examples of embedded quotations, especially from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible. Nobody had noticed these allusions or commented on them before. As I worked through the text very slowly, word by word, it became clear to me that I had been reading the novel for 25 years without fully understanding it. The aim of the notes is to pass on some of these discoveries.
My colleagues at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation kindly contributed one or two additional notes, and advised me not to define standard English words which could be looked up in a large dictionary.
A number of my notes were either shortened or cut by me because they referred to biographical details whose relevance to the novel was doubtful. The new German translation (2013) contains supplementary notes by the translator. I am delighted that he has decided to do this. And the Brazilian edition is illustrated (in black and white and orange), which adds another dimension to the book.
The reception of the new edition has been pleasing. It has attracted a fair number of reviews, nearly all of them favourable, and there was international coverage on television and radio (in the United States, France and Russia and on the BBC World Service). This level of media interest is unusual for a reprint of a literary novel.
Some of the new research is not visible in the printed book, but it found a place in the electronic version for i-Pad, released (in Europe only) by Random House Digital. Among the features of the digital edition are: a complete facsimile of the original 1961 typescript; audio recordings of Burgess talking about violence, music and youth culture; editorial and publicity documents from the publisher’s archive; six hours of video interviews with critics and novelists; and a gallery of book covers from around the world.
Amaury Garcia: There is some interest in A Clockwork Orange here in Brazil, which I think would have upset Burgess, for obvious reasons. However, I know there are researchers around the world dealing with his work, mainly in Europe, but in the USA as well. As the Director of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, do you see some growing interest in the work of the Mancunian around the world? What kinds of research are being developed?
Andrew Biswell: The interest in Burgess’s work has grown hugely since 2010. First of all, the unfashionable novels are being reprinted. A number of ‘obscure’ works, such as Tremor of Intent and Napoleon Symphony have come back into circulation. So we are now seeing other aspects of Burgess. I am aware of new translations into Russian, Serbian, Korean and Chinese. On the stage, there are regular productions of Cyrano de Bergerac and Oedipus the King (both translated by Burgess) and the musical version of A Clockwork Orange, which has recently toured in France, Canada, Australia and Japan. Beyond this, there have been performances of Burgess’s chamber music and orchestral music. His Shakespeare ballet was produced for the first time in France in 2010, and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra performed ‘A Manchester Overture’ in October 2013. Compositions by Elgar and Brahms were on the same programme.
In terms of academic research, postgraduate students are examining Burgess’s poetry, his affinities with James Joyce, the role of music in his novels, and his work as a translator. But there is a great deal of work still to be done. I would like to encourage projects on Burgess’s work for stage, film and television; his historical fiction; and his place within the canon of science-fiction writers. There is enough unpublished material to satisfy any number of potential doctoral dissertations.
Amaury Garcia: The title of your biography on Burgess, The Real Life of Anthony Burgess, may point to a final version of the English novelist. However, I remember from one of our interactions that you based the title on Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, a biography of a fictional character, which may point to the opposite idea. Could you explain what your intention was when choosing such a title?
Andrew Biswell: The title of my biography changed several times while I was writing it, as the focus changed. At one stage I wanted to call it ‘Inside Mr Burgess’, but the publisher raised objections, for reasons I have forgotten. The Real Life of Anthony Burgess is as good a title as any. Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a brilliant novel about the impossibility of biography. The dead writer, Sebastian, is a kind of Houdini-figure who keeps disappearing from sight and is ultimately never found. All of his novels are about missing persons, and one begins to doubt whether Sebastian himself ever existed. Nabokov’s point is that human character is fundamentally unknowable: you can never discover ‘the real life’, especially if you are dealing with a professional writer, whose business is the telling of lies. But nobody noticed the reference to Nabokov, and the title of my book was interpreted literally, as a kind of boast. I had intended an opposite meaning.
Burgess lived so much through his fictions that his sense of reality was rather distorted by the end. The persona in his autobiography is a fictional character, as he himself acknowledged in letters from the period of its composition. He describes his former self as a disagreeable stranger, whose motivations are hidden from the older man who is writing about his life. They share nothing except a name, and even this is subject to change (as Jack Wilson becomes the professional writer ‘Anthony Burgess’).
Amaury Garcia: By reading your book, the impression I had is that you conceive of Burgess as a person who was multi-faceted and also that we may find different Burgesses depending on where we look, be it in his fiction, his music, his academic work or his autobiographical writings. It even inspired me to look for one such Burgess hidden in his fiction. Would you consider that this was one of the points of your biography? If so, would you talk about the facets you have found?
Andrew Biswell: This is a very large subject. How much time do we have? Somebody once said that it would have bored Burgess to hold the same opinions on two consecutive days. My impression is of a highly intelligent man who never stopped absorbing new information but had a deep suspicion of systems. He had a restless intelligence which was always causing him to re-arrange his mental furniture in response to new stimuli and new ideas.
In his Shakespeare novel, Nothing Like the Sun , he writes about actors as people who remake themselves every time they perform. And I think this is a useful way to think about Burgess the man. Now, all these self-reinventions can be exhausting, and periodically he would collapse in a state of extreme mental fatigue. One way to approach Burgess is to think about the narrative properties of his novels. Each one is different in formal terms. He was not a writer like Graham Greene, whose approach to narrative became fixed in about 1938 and showed only slight progressions after that date. Burgess was a great formal innovator, who remained alert to the possibilities of fiction. Reading Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford for the first time in the 1970s made Burgess want to imitate Ford’s structural acrobatics in Earthly Powers. Among twentieth-century writers, he was unusually responsive to what he read (partly because he was so immersed in commenting on other people’s novels as a critic), and genuinely excited by the craft of narrative. He took seriously Ezra Pound’s injunction to ‘Make it NEW.’
Curiously enough, Ford (like Burgess) was a failed poet who did not come to the writing of novels until he was middle-aged. His memoirs resemble Burgess’s ‘Confessions’ in their unreliability and semi-fictionality. But he is a writer of great sophistication and maturity. Nobody under the age of 30 should be encouraged to read him, I think. They won’t see the point of what he has to say.
Amaury Garcia: One of the things that drew my attention in your biography was the use of different sources, such as photographs and drafts made by the novelist, apart from Burgess’s own autobiography, of course. Given the number of different sources you used, what were the biggest difficulties during the process of researching for and writing The Real Life of Anthony Burgess? How useful were the archives you had access to?
Andrew Biswell: The archives were in a very raw state when I began my research. Liana Burgess had not yet sold her papers to the Texans, and her collection was stored in various houses all over Europe, so in practical terms it was not accessible. The editorial archives were very disorganized, and one of the major publishers was in the process of being sold, which created difficulties and delays. On the other hand, the BBC Written Archive Centre has preserved an excellent collection of early television and radio scripts. In some cases they microfilmed every draft script, including those which were rejected. In the 1950s and 1960s, most radio interviews were pre-recorded and the tape was transcribed in full by a typist. The producer would edit by writing on the typescript, which was then microfilmed. Although most of these early sound recordings are lost, the typescripts have survived, and they include long passages which were never broadcast. There is still no public catalogue of this material, but I found it to be an excellent resource.
My other piece of good fortune was that David Thompson was making his two-part BBC film, The Burgess Variations, when I was beginning to work on the biography. He generously gave me VHS copies of a number of Burgess’s films and interviews for television. This explains why I was able to draw on so much broadcast material in the biography.
I also sent letters to local newspapers in all of the towns where Burgess had lived. I got a very good response from people who had known him from the 1940s onwards. The alumni office at Manchester University forwarded my letters to people who had studied alongside him before the Second World War. Many of the publishers who worked with Burgess were listed in the London phone book. So I wrote to them or rang them up and arranged to meet them. In total I interviewed or corresponded with around 300 witnesses who knew him personally.
Other people have contacted me with their memories since the book was published in 2005, and a good deal of new information has subsequently become available in the various archives. Most recently, I met and interviewed a man aged 99 who knew Burgess extremely well just after the Second World War. I now have more than enough material to justify a second edition of the biography. I would like to publish this in February 2017, to coincide with the centenary of Burgess’s birth.
Amaury Garcia: Another thing that I found illuminating in your biography of Burgess was the use of his personal library to show he fashioned some of the passages in his autobiography on fictional works he had read. However, his own fictional works were not commonly mentioned as sources for constructing your image of the novelist. Did you use any of them to get to any conclusions you present in your book? If so, in what ways did you do it?
Andrew Biswell: I was cautious about reading the life directly through the fiction, because I believe that the relationship between the two is more complicated than that. On one occasion, I speculated that Burgess’s account of sexual adventures in Leningrad, presented in You’ve Had Your Time (1990) may have originated in his novel about Russia, Honey for the Bears (1963). The problem is that he did not mention any erotic encounters in his letters or notebooks from 1961, and I was very doubtful as to whether they had actually happened. Oddly enough, most of his close friends from that period believed that he was celibate, and only capable of what D.H. Lawrence calls ‘sex in the head’. Most of his energy seems to have gone into either writing or drinking. And Burgess himself admitted in an interview that he had been ‘a great masturbator’ during the period of his first marriage. I concluded that his claims to have bedded all those women were largely imaginary. But there is a strong case for saying that he plundered the sex scenes from his own novels when he came to write his autobiography. Why he felt compelled to do this is another question.
Amaury Garcia: The last question stems from my interests in Burgess’s autobiographical writings. My present research is based on a comparison between Anthony Burgess and Francis Xavier Enderby. In “Introduction to the ‘Brides of Enderby’”, published in the book Anthony Burgess, Autobiographer, you argue that if Enderby is to be seen as an alter-ego of Burgess’s, the former is certainly the latter’s worst aspect. In your own words, Enderby is a “demonic, monastic, spermatic worst-self, a brutal auto-caricature, an anarchic anti-Anthony” (BISWELL in WOODROFFE, 2006, p. 206). Do you think Enderby could be seen as a sort of alternative subjectivity of Burgess’s? And, in what ways would you consider Enderby as this darker side of the novelist?
Andrew Biswell: Enderby always reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’. I think Burgess wrote the first three Enderby novels out of a conscious awareness that he might easily have turned into Enderby if his life had taken a slightly different course. And there is a strong sense of him channeling his misogynistic feelings (and other kinds of violence and extreme prejudice) into those novels, where they can be allowed to run riot within the safety of a fictional frame. The Clockwork Testament makes no attempt to hide from the reality of racism, but the racist sentiments are primarily Enderby’s rather than those of the author who stands behind him. It’s a distancing technique that Burgess learned from his study of the maniac Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. But his exploration of these thoughts and feelings inevitably leads readers into dark and unattractive territory – not at all what we might expect from a series of comic novels. Is there perhaps a point after which we find it difficult to go on laughing?
If it’s a question of how Burgess regards Enderby, perhaps he is a character who presents opportunities for ethical examination. He is afflicted by powerful impulses -- such as revenge, lust, suicide and murder -- but he manages to overcome them and, through his art, to achieve a kind of qualified triumph.
Somebody should write a philosophical paper on the Enderby trilogy, disregarding the fourth volume, which is a hastily-composed mess. I’d be very interested to read that.
Amaury Garcia: Once you told me you had been deeply affected by the Holy Name Church, where Burgess used to attend mass, when you realised that was the spot where the novelist lost his faith. I am interested in the question of affects and also in the loss of Burgess’s faith. Could you describe what you felt and what ideas crossed your mind when you had that experience?
Andrew Biswell: Shortly after I arrived in Manchester, I was standing outside the university library, looking towards the neoclassical Arts building (where Burgess studied) and listening to the clock of the Holy Name Church (where he argued with the Jesuit priests) striking the hour. The conjunction of these elements struck me as in some way significant, but it is difficult to quantify the experience in academic terms. It felt as if the place was speaking.
I do a great deal of walking around when I am researching, to establish the shape of streets and the physical distances between landmarks. I also take photographs, because visual triggers are useful when you are writing up your research. It’s important to get a sense of what an area is like, what kind of people live there, how it has changed over time, and so forth. Walking around certainly brought me closer to Moss Side, where Burgess grew up. By reputation it is a menacing place, but that wasn’t my experience at all.
The book I’m writing at the moment is partly about the landscape of the north of England, contrasted with various other European and North American cities. Again, I have done a lot of walking around and thinking about place. Poets, in my experience, are more attentive to their environment than novelists, but this may be another way of saying that Burgess was not a very visual writer.
As an example of why place matters, I was very surprised to discover that the Xaverian College in Manchester, where Burgess went to school, was dominated by vast playing fields, and that football and cricket were at the heart of the school curriculum. You could never have worked that out by reading his autobiography, which is completely silent on the subject of sport. This lack of interest in organized team games helps to explain why Burgess, a short-sighted, unathletic boy, felt himself to be so much of an outsider, even in his youth.
Amaury Garcia: One of the prerogatives of my research is that the fictional discourse can affect the reader more intensely than the autobiographical discourse. Following that idea, my attempt is to show that some of the topics Burgess deals with in his autobiography are more intensely developed in the Enderby Novels. Therefore, if one considers Enderby as Burgess’s alter-ego, one might argue that there could be more intimacy with Burgess through Enderby, as the reader might be more deeply affected by the fictional work. Do you know if this idea has been discussed before? What would you think of that?
Andrew Biswell: Apart from the work of Philippe Lejeune, there is very little useful theoretical writing about biography or autobiography. These genres are, for some reason, always off the map when it comes to devising academic reading lists, and critical work about them is in its infancy. I used to teach a course at my university on the history of biography, but it was abolished, to my regret, along with all other specialist options. Why is the novel regarded as a higher form of expression than a life-story? I have no idea, and I am equally puzzled by the spectacle of novelists being asked to comment in the newspapers on global disasters.
But I agree that, as a reader, I am often moved and affected by a novel in ways which possibly have no equivalent in my reading of non-fiction. This may be because real life lacks conflict and drama. Or it may be the simple pleasure of reading for a plot, or reading in the expectation of reaching some kind of resolution. Fiction of a certain kind gives us ‘fully-formed characters’, who are said to be appealing, and these are often absent from writing about actual experience.
Umberto Eco has written usefully on these subjects, particularly in The Role of the Reader and (a book which appears in Burgess’s private library) Reflections on The Name of the Rose – recently reprinted in Eco’s book, On Literature. Burgess himself writes about the fascination of Sherlock Holmes – a man who cannot die because he never lived – in one of the essays in One Man’s Chorus.
My thoughts on this subject are rather disorganized, as you can see, but I wish you well with your thesis, and I hope that we will have another opportunity to discuss your work before too long. It sounds like a completely original project, and a very worthwhile one.
Amaury Garcia: I certainly hope to contribute to expand studies on Burgess. Once more, thank you, Professor Biswell, for having used your precious time to answer these questions. I wish you and the International Anthony Burgess Foundation all the best.
Andrew Biswell: You’re welcome.
Andrew Biswell é director do International Anthony Burgess Foundation, em Manchester, Inglaterra, professor of Modern Literature in Manchester Metropolitan University e autor da biografia.
Amaury Garcia dos Santos Neto é Doutor em Letras pela PUC-Rio, onde defendeu tese sobre a obra de Anthony Burgess. A entrevista foi realizada como parte de suas pesquisas para a elaboração da tese.
Ilustração: Orange juice, C.C./Flickr
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