Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Little Wilson and Big God

Little Wilson and Big God, Being the First Part of the Confessions, by Anthony Burgess
1986, 448 pp.

I find the idea of Anthony Burgess to be faintly terrifying. He can only be categorized as the last true polymath: author of more than thirty novels, two books on linguistics, two books on Joyce, five volumes on English literature, composer of some two hundred pieces of music, speaker of ten languages, and one of few people to ever plausibly say that they have read Finnegans Wake more than once and understood it. Burgess even wrote an abridgment of it. It is said that when he met Jorge Luis Borges, they agreed not to use either of their native languages, so they conducted their conversation in Anglo-Saxon. This is the first volume of his auto-biography, covering the period from slightly before his birth until his early forties, when as a colonial English teacher in Malaysia he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he had a year to live.

The reviewer despairs. By page eight he's dispensed polyglot puns, mentioned Thomas Malthus, joked about the Emancipation Act and the First Folio, discussed Malay philology and used the word "concupiscence." What are we to make of a child who first reads Don Quixote at age eight, and begins having earnest sex with a communist librarian at thirteen? We cannot take seriously his boast that he read Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy at eighteen, on the grounds that nobody has ever read that book. (Imagine the horror of finding that on page 358 he later composed a libretto based on a story from Part 3, Section 2, Member I, Subsection I of Burton's obese volume.) I turned to Martin Amis for solace, who wrote: "Not many people know this, but on top of writing regularly for every known newspaper and magazine, Anthony Burgess writes regularly for every unknown one too. Pick up a Hungarian quarterly or a Portugues tabloid--and there is Burgess, discoursing on goulash or test-driving the new Fiat 500." This about sums it up. There were years when the man would review 300 books. If I keep up my eight-per-month quota, I am on track to break a paltry 100 this year and at times it feels like all I do is read books and write reviews. His review of Foucault's Pendulum mentioned breezily that he read most of it in the original and contains a reference to "the etiolated scholar of George Eliot's Middlemarch."

At any rate, the autobiography, groaning under the unhappy Sisyphean weight of endless names, locations, literature jokes, and quotidian detail (Burgess and Borges must have discussed "Funes the Memorious," or perhaps Burgess inspired it) this volume follows its prodigal narrator from birth in a poor district of Manchester, through unsuccessful schooling and indifferent university studies, into the military in wartime Gibraltar, out of the military in dilapidated London, and then to Malaysia, to his teaching post. On the way he teaches himself music by reading the scores of Stravinsky and Haydn works, teaches himself Greek to read Homer in the original, writes various sonnets in the style of Hopkins, takes a history class from A.J.P. Taylor, meets George Orwell and Graham Greene, and has sex with innumerable women. For vast stretches of trackless jungle-prose thick with jostling names of now-defunct products, demolished street-names, forgotten names, and transient song lyrics, the book at times becomes unreadable. It will serve some scholar someday as an astonishing resource on pre-war life in Manchester; to the reader, any given ten pages are about the same as any other.

All throughout, Burgess coasts along, displaying the same attitude towards everything. Amis rightly calls him "imperturbable," and (delightfully) refers to his "panoptic suavity," "chuckling insouciance," and "word-perfect putdowns." He is permanently amused in a detatched, condescending, slightly bored way, regardless of the situation: his mother and sister dying of Spanish influenza in 1918, his wife being assaulted by GIs and miscarrying (apparently the origin for A Clockwork Orange), his and her encyclopedic infidelity, various fistfights, jail, crabs, World War II. His novels, I admit (and he later admits), are similar: they are packed with information about times, place, people, and ideas, but they never make the reader feel much of anything. Disappointingly, despite the vast swathes of art he has consumed in various languages, there is remarkably little reflection or discussion of what any given piece meant to him at any given time. So he read the Critique of Pure Reason as a teenager. What did he think of it? Presumably he was amused in a bored, detached sort of way.

Burgess is very much out of fashion these days, on the logical grounds that he was something of a serenely and mildly racist, sexist, homophobic imperialist of the cheerful and well-meaning variety. He comes across much more stubbornly Catholic and conservative than his prodigious philandering would lead you to believe, and has a few casually deplorable things to say about women and brown people. Despite his obvious mental gifts, he is frequently forced to fall back on pleas of laziness or persecution to excuse various failures, both academic or professional. I enjoy his work, because I like to learn, and I like an author who can present an etymological history of the vast array of Malay words for copulation in one paragraph, then a joke about Kandinsky in the next. I own the second volume of his autobiography, but I admit that upon finishing this one, I feel no urgence to begin reading it. It is no surprise that Burgess's autobiography contains a lengthy index: I suspect I will consult this if I want a few pages of targeted wit and erudition, and will perhaps dip into it from time to time for the pleasure of watching him perform, but as a sustained act, he rather overstays his welcome.

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