Books: More Warts Than a Warthog ; When a Biographer Detests His Subject, Can We Trust the Result? Paul Bailey Has His Doubts

By Bailey, Paul | The Independent (London, England), November 2, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Books: More Warts Than a Warthog ; When a Biographer Detests His Subject, Can We Trust the Result? Paul Bailey Has His Doubts


Bailey, Paul, The Independent (London, England)


Anthony Burgess

Roger Lewis

Faber & Faber

pounds 20

418pp

"I WAS in Russia when Ernest Hemingway died," announced Anthony Burgess in 1961, not comprehending in his vanity that his whereabouts at the moment of Hemingway's decease had no relevance to the man and his books. Seven years later, when Burgess's tribute was reprinted in the collection Urgent Copy, Geoffrey Grigson quoted that absurd self-aggrandisement in a review Burgess would never forget. "I suspect this reviewer's anxiety to convince himself (perhaps more than others?) that an insatiable liking for words amounts to an ability to use them well and to distinct purpose," Grigson observed. "Only such literary anxiousness coupled with energy could explain writing on and on with a badness at once so surprisingly defiant and so exceedingly obvious."

Roger Lewis frequently echoes those judgements in his typically capricious and opinionated biography. No one, not even his dearest friends, could charge him with being disinterested. He makes it glowingly clear that he considers his subject a verbose buffoon with the most bizarre haircut on the planet. Burgess, according to Lewis, was in possession of more warts than a warthog - or Phacochoerus aethiopicus, as the booming novelist, ever the pedant, might have said. Burgess was an inconsiderate husband to his first wife, Lynne, and a hopelessly inadequate stepfather for the scarred son of his second, the irrepressible Liliana. Lewis has no qualms when it comes to stating, as undeniable fact, that Burgess caused Lynne's descent into nymphomaniacal alcoholism. He was often too drunk to notice how drunk she was, and - for all the sexual boasting - he was the lousiest and least caring of lovers. Lewis believes, and writes much to support that belief, that he was impotent.

It is his contention that John Wilson's assumption of "Anthony Burgess" as a pen-name led him to create a monstre sacre. People who remembered Wilson as a young schoolteacher told Lewis he was a bit eccentric but likeable, and sometimes shy in the company of women. His passion for James Joyce and arcane language was already evident. His need to remind everyone of his brilliance as a linguist was in its early stages, the bombastic show-off ("My Persian is rusty") of his maturity yet in embryo.

As soon as "Anthony Burgess" achieved publication, his verbal sluice- gate opened, issuing forth an unstoppable torrent of archaisms for over three decades. The author of Language Made Plain, Lewis records with glee, was incapable of tossing off an article without shoving in words like hallucal, allotrope and epigone. Literary editors - many of whom adored him because he always delivered his copy well in advance - seldom tinkered with his "bejewelled vocabulary". Perhaps they had neither the time nor aptitude to consult a dictionary. Or perhaps they didn't wish to appear stupid, since everyone knows that hallucal, a coinage dating from 1889, means "of, or relating to, the big toe".

The Anthony Burgess of Lewis's imagination is a comic grotesque, with the orotund vocal mannerisms of the actor-managers he must have seen on the stage in Manchester as a boy. He was cocooned in the Edwardian era, with his Blimpish views on the young, on the modern movement in art and music, on blacks, on homosexuality.

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