Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Biblical Burgess

       One of the more famous anecdotes of recent literary history concerns a 42-year-old education officer in the British Colonial Service named John Anthony Burgess Wilson, who collapsed in a classroom in Malaya one day in 1959, and was subsequently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. Mr. Wilson was relieved of his teaching post, shipped home, and told he had less than a year to live. He had little money and, given his health, no job prospects. His wife, soon to be a widow, was an alcoholic in no shape to face a stark financial future alone. Wilson, up till now, had been a composer in his spare time: there was a symphony and a number of smaller orchestral works under his belt. Plus he’d written three novels and a history of English literature. He was a talented man. Now, also a desperate one. There seemed only one solution:
I would have to turn myself into a professional writer. Work for the night is coming, the night in which God and little Wilson, now Burgess, would confront each other, if either existed. I sighed and put paper in the typewriter. ‘I’d better start,’ I said. And I did. (Little Wilson and Big God: the First Part of the Confessions, 1986)
What followed was Burgess’s annus mirabilis, forever noted in about-the-author blurbs in back pages of his novels and in book reviews like this one. Burgess, probably the most prolific of serious British novelists in the second half of the twentieth century, wrote five and a half novels in 1960 and felt obliged, in retrospect, to make excuses for his lack of industry:
The practice of a profession entails discipline, which for me meant the production of two thousand words of fair copy every day, weekends included. I discovered that, if I started early enough, I could complete the day’s stint before the pubs opened. Or, if I could not, there was an elated period of the night after closing time, with neighbours banging on the walls to protest at the industrious clacking. Two thousand words a day means a yearly total of 730,000. Step up the rate and, without undue effort, you can reach a million. This ought to mean ten novels of 100,000 words each. The quantitative approach to writing is not, naturally, to be approved. And because of hangovers, marital quarrels, creative deadness induced by the weather, shopping trips, summonses to meet state officials, and sheer torpid gloom, I was not able to achieve more than five and a half novels of very moderate size in that pseudo-terminal year. Still, it was very nearly E.M. Forster’s whole long life’s output.  (You’ve Had Your Time: the Second Part of the Confessions, 1990)
      The defensive tone taken at the end was characteristic of Burgess, who was always countering claims that he wrote too much with defiant self-defences that invoked Grub Street and Samuel Johnson, who quipped that “no man but a blockhead” ever wrote except to make money. This view of literature as livelihood, as a honorable but demanding profession—as maybe too demanding, ultimately, for anything but pecuniary motives to justify—finds an echo in Burgess’s groans to a Paris Review interviewer:

[T]he process as I practice it is prone to irritability and despair…. The anxiety involved is intolerable…. [T]he financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.
    This was in 1971, when he was 54 and wearing himself out crisscrossing Europe and the US teaching, lecturing, writing screenplays and musicals and journalism—whatever he could do to turn a buck—and, in his spare time, writing novels that never sold well, despite high praise from critics, and music that was seldom performed.
     Ten years later, though, all the labour was beginning to pay off, and he was dividing his time between homes in Monaco and Switzerland. If there was ever a time to give up the writing trade, it was now, in relative comfort as he neared retirement age. Instead, Burgess launched himself into ten years of sustained literary effort that made 1960 look like laziness. The novels of the “pseudo-terminal” year were fairly short, but the dozen-odd books produced in the decas mirabilis of the 80s ranged from the mid-length to the massive; and in the midst of it he still wrote music and journalism. A 600-page anthology of the latter was published in 1986 with the proviso that it was “one third of my total journalistic output” over the last seven years. He turned seventy in 1987, with his greying head still bent over the typewriter. Why?
      “Wedged as we are between two eternities of idleness, there is no excuse for being idle now.” Indeed. “I don’t think there’s a heaven, but there’s certainly a hell.” Oh, really. “Having passed the prescribed biblical age limit, I have to think of death, and I do not like the thought. There is a vestigial fear of hell, and even of purgatory, and no amount of re-reading rationalist authors can expunge it.” You don’t say. Well in that case, Mr Burgess, as your psychiatrist, I have to inform you that this fanatical energy of yours that piles book on top of book year after year is a symptom of your terror, lapsed Catholic that you are, of the wrath of God.
     Yes, of course, it’s easy to be simplistic and reductive in judging an author’s motives in this way, but the basic premise rings true that for Burgess after 1960 every year was a terminal year, and the closer he got to his natural end, the fiercer became his creative drive. The man who dictated his last novel from his death-bed was trying either to block out the thought of oblivion, or to ensure that he had something to show the God who would demand a reckoning of his days on earth. The latter hypothesis seems likelier to the reader of what might be called Burgess’s Christian books, Man of Nazareth (1979) and The Kingdom of the Wicked (1985), which together constitute a novelized New Testament. These both feel like efforts to popularize the Christian message and hence make Burgess, lifelong maverick and apostate, look like a good son of the Church.
     The Kingdom of the Wicked takes up more or less where Man of Nazareth left off, soon after the Crucifixion, and traces the development of the Christian movement to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., relying mainly on the Acts of the Apostles and the Acts of the Christian Martyrs and, for the Roman scenes, Tacitus and Seutonius. It covers a lot of narrative ground: the sordid doings of a dozen-odd emperors and the eventful lives of the major apostles, plus the religious upheavals of Israel and the politics of Rome fill its pages. Much of it is rendered with great colour, and the pace seldom lags—even the theological squabbles of Sanhedrin rabbis are compelling—although in places the need to treat of so much material makes the rendering seem perfunctory and sketchy. It couldn’t have been otherwise, probably, unless the novel were much longer, and it’s already long. Still, one is impressed by how clearly Burgess saw what the Acts of the Apostles really is—a great adventure story and—considering, in Christian terms, the ultimate meaning of the adventure—maybe the greatest ever written.
      The narrator is a retired shipping clerk living in the Roman province of Helvetia and completing, at his dead father’s behest, a history of the Nazarene sect, which began with “the career of Yehoshua Naggar or Iesous Marengos, [b]oth of these names mean[ing] the carpenter Jesus.” The narrator, ailing and cantankerous, has doubts about the worth of the project, and writes at a time—the reign of Domitian—when the Christian movement seemed to be falling to pieces.  Nevertheless, he presses on:
I propose, on this grey and unseasonable day of a month that has so far done homage to its presiding goddess Maia with soaked greenery and shrewd winds, the Alps shrouded and the thrushes silent, five dripping ewes and a heavily ballocked ram nibbling forlornly in the scant shelter of my poplar and my arbutus, to begin to set down what I can of the story of the spreading of the ground rules of the love game in the kingdom of the wicked.
     The “love game” is the Christian ethos as the narrator understands it (“the game of trying to love one’s enemies is the only practical response to injustice and cruelty”), and the kingdom of the wicked is the name the ancient Jews gave to the Roman empire. The game costs its key players their lives. Starting with Stephen, stoned to death by the Sanhedrin, the martyrdoms are recorded in livid detail, and the culminate with the horrors of the bloodsports in the amphitheatres. 
     One character stands out from the rest in the book: the Apostle Paul. Burgess’s Paul is less of a towering hero of faith than his Biblical namesake: he is, as any plausible novelistic character must be, a mixed bag of the grand and the ordinary, and often seems closer to a wily Odysseus than a saint as he dodges mobs, breaks out of jails, and braves storms on the open seas. He’s also a sort of Burgess—peripatetic, headstrong, and full of words. Indeed, it is in his great speeches (which Burgess cribs from Acts and then embroiders) where he and his story rise out of the merely human:
He said: ‘Citizens of Athens, in my brief stay in your city I have observed your concern with matters of religion, even though it may be termed a negative concern, for I have seen many altars inscribed to an unknown god. This implies a willingness to worship a negativity, which neither grammar nor theology will properly permit. Now I would ask you to consider a singular and unique God, not one of many but the only one, who created the world and all things in it, who, having made man as well as the earth and the heavens, is much concerned with the ways of man. He is especially concerned that men seek him. He is not remote from us, he is easily found. Why, even one of your own poets, Epimenides the Cretan, says that in him we live and move and have our being. We are the offsprings of God, creatures made of his substance, and it is absurd to think of him as a mere thing, an object of silver or gold or stone, which occurs when his unity is split into mere personifications of human needs and motives. For a personified quality is no more than a lump of metal. Now, God has been tolerant towards human ignorance of him, but now he commands that men repent of this ignorance. That this ignorance be no longer excused by the sense of his remoteness, which encouraged his conversion on the part of men either to a thought or to a thing, he came to earth himself, and that recently, to a particular place, Palestine, and in a particular time, that of my own generation, in the form of a human being. We may use the metaphor of the father sending down to the son, so long as we regard this as a mere similitude. So the Son of God taught the way of righteousness, or, to change the metaphor, that human water should at last be shown to be part of the divine ocean. I teach anastasis, which signifies not the survival of the soul, which any of your Platonists could demonstrate at least as a logical possibility, but as the survival of the sensorium also, though in a transfigured form. For God the Son himself rose from the dead and, in that filial or human aspect, returned to the eternal home of the Father. This, learned men of Athens, is the gist of my message.’
    Nobody but a backwater Bible-belter would begrudge the liberties taken with the biblical text, or fail to find the last sentence, a joking anticlimax and an anachronistic colloquialism, quietly funny.
        In a book whose American paperback edition carries an eager endorsement from Playboy magazine on the front cover, and which promises its readers, on page one, “all manner of wickedness in what follows—pork-eating, lechery, adultery, bigamy, sodomy, bestiality, the most ingenious varieties of cruelty, assassination, [and] the worship of false gods,” there is much that is not all this. For buried under all the dead bodies and debauchery lies nothing less than Holy Writ—and this is the gist of Burgess’s message.

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