Few, if any, living writers could master the prodigious, mostly anecdotal memoirs that Anthony Burgess presents in his “Little Wilson and Big God.” The writer’s own life, which expired in 1993 but ends, with the ending of this first volume, in the autumn of 1960, presented here in a rollicking masterpiece, more jam-packed with stories and delights than his near-Booker Prize winning “Earthly Powers,” bears testament to his status as one of the most definitive storytellers of the twentieth century. It’s difficult to imagine any other writer with so dynamic a life as Burgess’s: the troubled Manchester childhood, the army, Malaysia, and a diagnosed brain tumor—and all of it in the first forty years.
What to me has always seemed to separate Burgess from other writers—his unimpeachable and singular devotion to language (through art)—is enlarged exponentially in “Little Wilson” as the driving force both behind the writer’s life and behind his memoirs. Like Joyce uses “The Odyssey” to brace, backbone, and connect his episodes in “Ulysses” to one another (or, as Burgess says, “his Homeric parallels were a mere bridge or marching his eighteen episodes over [and once across] the structure could be blown skyhigh”) Burgess’s life as shown is structured upon a devotion to art, the one thing that never diminishes even as jobs, his native language, his religion and his wife all vacate the stage. “One Man’s Chorus,” a collection of the author’s non-novelistic writings, says more about his life than it does his writing: Burgess’s life was the monologue of one man and one voice— his own.
John Anthony Burgess Wilson, born in 1917 in Manchester (a proud Mancunian) on February 25 (“the feast day of saints and martyrs not much regarded”) was the son of a shopping housewife and a theater pianist, who spent much, if not most of Burgess’s childhood in variable levels of drunkenness. His childhood is characterized more by his Irish ancestry than the patrician Britishness he has come to be associated with: pubs (and with them come precocious drinking and lovemaking) abound; death is commonplace and rears its head in the manner of an Irish tragicomedy or of the narrative in the song Finnegan’s Wake; Catholicism, which would tag alongside Burgess all his life like the Mark of Cain, is undramaticized and unromanticized—hardly the stuff of The Heart of the Matter or Sword of Honour—nevertheless chided with typical Burgessian irony: “I did not know what the Bible was, but evidently it was a dirty book. It was confirmed for me later that not only was it dirty, it was dangerous. It was the prime cause of people losing their Catholic faith.”
Nevertheless, Burgess holds to his Catholicism like a safety doughnut. Years later, once a lapsed Catholic, he turns back to the religion with what could be mistaken as objective contemplation but which sounds more like regret: “Catholicism is, in a paradox, a bigger thing than the faith. It is a kind of nationality one is stuck with for ever. Or, rather, a supranationality that makes one despise small patriotisms…” a statement capped of with—what else?— a reference to Joyce, “In Stephen Dedalus’s words, he has rejected a logical absurdity, and he can feel nothing but contempt for an illogical one.” Remark how easily Joyce slips into a religious digression; how, even in his early twenties, Burgess à la Joyce was already replacing his burnt-out God with the new religion of literature.
And perhaps, considering the semi-lapse of Burgess’s supranational Catholicism; considering that a rebellion of Catholicism was a rebellion of nation (more Ireland and less Britain), ancestry, and self—we can see how Burgess’s biographical style has developed. Let a few words be written about this curious style, first.
Burgess’s life, the first forty-three years, are an engrossing epic, even without the author’s embellishment which strings this life together, primarily with fragments of poetry or song of the author’s own composition, and with a prose style bearing musical rhythm: two exceptional and very Burgessian styles stand out to me. One of them is the frequent use of “punning lines” (a phrase Burgess used, I believe, in his Paris Review interview), that is a line that connects with the preceding line through shared word choice, usually to casually deliver a particularly debilitating punch to the reader, such as here: “We were, Lynne (Burgess’s first wife) said, to start on our travels./ We were about to travel to visit the man who loved her.” And here is Burgess’s second characteristic demonstrated, the ability to callously pop out a crippling, startling denouement, as (not subtly, but casually) inserted as an extra grace note: “…here I was, firing at the butts with Sten gun and Bren, getting a marksman’s score with the latter. This presumably qualified me to shoot up my wife’s lovers on leave,” ends, simply, with, “There was a lot of that going on.”
There are other styles I’ve neglected to mention: the frequent use of the passive voice plus infinitive: “we were to drink, I was to go, etc.” which, a Germanic characteristic more than anything, Burgess may enjoy using so much given, one, his love of the German language (and the desire he expresses to speak it better) and, two, his knowledge of English and its Germanic roots. Were one to talk language assimilation, however, “Earthly Powers” with its frequent use of German, Italian, and French language structure, is a more rewarding read.
What’s interesting about all this style is the fact that Burgess’s memoirs (rightfully dubbed “Confessions”) no matter how much they admit (infidelity, mostly) remain impersonally separate from the author. Indeed, the more he describes and the more knowledge he spills (administering, utterly without flair, details like they were printed on popsicle sticks: the wife slept with Dylan Thomas, Hamlet spoke glotted Northumbrian—a fact it took me a thirty-six part lecture series to learn) the less we learn about Burgess. The chorus of erudition—more knowledge than it seems any one man has a right to know—shows hardly a trace of a man, who, we suspect, would remain vague or choose restraint.
There is only one moment in “Little Wilson” where the author opts for silence. It is the book’s most telling moment—the only point that we realize Burgess— the phenomenon, the obsessive artistic devotee, the genius—was indeed a man. It is a single sentence, written to address an attack on Lynne by the GI deserters who beset the young woman during a blackout (the attack, if it is not already known, provided much inspiration for Alex’s senseless violence in “A Clockwork Orange”). The scene unfolds, clipped sentence by clipped sentence, coolly factual: “She was pregnant and she aborted. She was sick now with perpetual bleeding glossed as dysmenorrhea. If I had been concerned about not receiving letters from here, here was the reason.” And then comes the finale: “My response need not be described.”
Yes, there is a human who lurks beyond the art and the language. John Wilson does not want you to see him, and if he does, he wants it only after considerable time spent looking for him. “Little Wilson And Big God” I would argue worth reading just for this opportunity. Yet my recommendation comes with a caution: read Burgess, all of Burgess if you can, but avoid these memoirs if you yourself are an aspiring writer. For the breadth of this man’s scope, one man’s chorus, will astonish you into silence.
Burgess, Anthony. Little Wilson and Big God. London: Penguin Books, 1987. Print.