Friday, 5 February 2010


I've just finished reading Lynn Barber's memoir 'An Education'. It's honest, amusing, gossipy, interesting. It's also written in an enviably easy, conversational style that can treat serious, sometimes complicated issues with down-to-earth clarity; an excellent example of the plain, almost invisible English most famously championed by Orwell.

She's certainly one of Fleet Street's finest - even if, as is evident, not the easiest of people (but then this is probably a requirement of being a good journalist). I still remember a number of her Independent on Sunday interviews, and that's without having re-read them in collected, book form. That's pretty good going, given they appeared nearly twenty years ago.

They don't all fix in my memory for particularly profound reasons - Richard Harris playing 'pocket billiards' during a tracksuit-trousered interview at, I think, The Savoy sits there indelibly, for instance.

However, I recall a couple of more serious aperçus. I think she said in the course of an Anthony Burgess interview (or possibly review) that she couldn't believe that someone who purported to love language so much could torture it so.

This comment - which has some truth in it: I don't think Burgess's love was ever a particularly comfortable thing - came to mind in Waterstone's a couple of days ago. I had ten minutes to kill and apart from admiring how the Notting Hill branch seemed to be transforming itself into a neighbourhood bookshop (the recommendations of 'bookseller' staff were prominently displayed) I had a quick look at which authors were being stocked at the moment, using that as a proxy for fashionability.

Poor old AB was only represented by A Clockwork Orange, despite having written over thirty novels. In the early '90s - around the time when Barber was doing her IoS interviews - the newspapers were debating whether Graham Greene or Anthony Burgess was the greatest living (or recently dead - they died in '91 and '93, respectively) English author. So quite a fall.

And I suspect Barber identified one of the reasons why. Burgess was deliberately demanding and, in some eyes, tiresomely tricksy in his use of language. That sort of modernism is not appreciated so much today. Being a devout Joycean he had a parallel earthy relish for the bodily - probably not as much of a disqualification for modern-day popularity. But then his further preoccupation with the mystique of the Catholic Church probably undid this good work.

The famous opening line of 'Earthly Powers' (how could Waterstone's not stock this one?) provides a summation of all this:
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.

It's all there, really. And if I had to choose the most memorable Burgess word it would, I'm afraid, have to be 'micturate'. His characters do a lot of it in unembarrassed Bloom-like fashion but they never merely take a piss.

Not to everyone's taste, but I like it. And if you enjoy autobiography, his is a great read: the first of the two volumes, 'Little Wilson and Big God', is particularly good. I haven't read the Roger Lewis biography as it's one of those where the biographer comes to hate his subject so much he turns on him, Barberesque hatchet in hand. But it evidently struggles to repress entirely the positive. Blake Morrison summed up what Lewis thought of Burgess: 'lubricious, sentimental, callous, superficial, crapulous, arcane, laborious, sanctimonious and "essentially a fake"'. Who wouldn't want to read someone whose enemies described him thus?


Brit said...

Earthly Powers is possibly my favourite novel, and Enderby my favourite character. Burgess used long words but he was a master of linguistic flow. I find his books much easier and quicker to read than, say, Greene - who is a bit of a slog despite the plainer vocab.

Gaw said...

Yes, I think Burgess was very playful. Rather than torturing language I think he's teasing it. At his best it really sparkles. Greene, I've never got on with for some reason. Why is he a bit of a slog? Is it because even when he's joking it's all a bit solemn and serious? Burgess used to tease him, particularly with regard to their shared Catholicism.

Brit said...

I think there's a mysterious business about getting on a writer's 'wavelength'. Something to do with sentence structure. I could never get on Greene's except for 'Travels with my Aunt'. I'll read a paragraph and then realise I haven't absorbed anything, and have to read it again.

Some writers you need a chapter to get on their wavelength - an example from our recent discussions, Le Carre.

worm said...

Never experienced any Burgess, I have various penguin paperbacks of his on my bookshelves but for some reason or other I've never actually summoned up the courage to read one*

(*nb. see also Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie)

Gadjo Dilo said...

I've read Burgess's A Clockwork Orange and a fair amount of Greene; I feel they're both excellent but leave very different memories. I really must become a Catholic.

Kevin Musgrove said...

I never enjoyed reading Burgess. It felt like he was using his joyless grandiloquence as a weapon.

Gaw said...

Brit: There's something closed and furtive about Greene that puts me off.

Worm: If you have any time (or space, given you appear to buy a lot of books) I'd try Earthly Powers or Any Old Iron, both cracking reads (but see Kevin below).

Gadjo: Burgess used to tease Greene about his Catholicism, saying Greene was suspicious of those like Burgess born into the faith as they hadn't made a deliberate decision to be Catholic. (The more I think about it the more I realise I don't like Greene as much because he takes himself so seriously. Is he a bit of an unreconstructed teenager?)

Kevin: I see where you're coming from. But I interpret his grandiloquence as containing some joy - that opening sentence from EP is pretty exuberant, is it not?