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Writing as a way of life

The writer Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) is most remembered in association with just one of his novels and the film version of it: “A clockwork orange”. But he wrote more than sixty books and – the subject matter of “The ink trade”, a constant stream of journalism. Writing was his raison d’ětre.

 

Sean Sheehan

 

The writer Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) is most remembered in association with just one of his novels and the film version of it: “A clockwork orange”. But he wrote more than sixty books and – the subject matter of “The ink trade”, a constant stream of journalism. Writing was his raison d’ětre.

Anyone reading Burgess’ fiction, non-fiction, plays, film scripts, essays and articles needs a good dictionary ready to hand. His vocabulary was extensive and regularly arcane.

Two words that appear in The Ink Trade – logorrhea (a tendency to talk too much) and sesquipedalism (long words of many syllables) – are characteristic of his style of writing. Few writers outside of the medical profession could write a sentence containing both phthisical and exophthalmic but Burgess could do this in the blink of an eye.

He did not always wear his prodigious erudition lightly and occasionally he is given to showing off. In a 1971 article for a magazine about T. S. Eliot’s “The waste land”, he tells of how he memorized the entire poem as a young teenager.

But humour is never far away: the result was “that at fifteen, I could quote Dante and Baudelaire in the original, as well as a few objurgations from the Upanishads’.” He goes on to give a brilliant précis of the poem and claims, mistakenly, that it provides the origins of Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”.

In a 1966 article about writing his seventeenth novel, he admits to growing tired with conventional narrative and naturalistic dialogue: ‘One can only be truly creative if one creates not merely a subject but the medium in which that subject moves’. This helps explain his own invention of new words in “A clockwork orange”.

An openness to radical aesthetics accounts for his tremendous love of James Joyce’s work and his defence of “Last exit to Brooklyn” when it was deemed obscene by would-be arbiters of what we should be allowed to read.

The willingness of Burgess to stand up for the freedom of the writer is a little surprising in the light of his political conservatism and Catholic proclivities. But he could handle contradictory impulses and his finest novel, “Earthly powers”, mixes the profane and the sacred in a highly engaging way.

A commitment to the value of writing and literature comes across with vigour and rigour in “The ink trade”. Burgess enjoys the art of reading and responds with warmth to a new writer on the block. He praises Jack Kerouac as an author in whom personality triumphs over style: ‘one of the nicest cats you could ever meet, with his puppy-dog innocence tempered by moments of old-dog guilt, his enthusiasm for life not yet soured by the bad world.’

For all his logorrhea and sesquipedalism, Burgess knew the importance of a writer like Samuel Beckett and in 1986 he penned a lovely birthday tribute to him. There is, he imagines Beckett replying, nothing to congratulate him for: ‘Let me then mutter inaudible thanks and then opt for the silence which he has so notably stained’.

“The ink trade: selected journalism 1961-1993”, by Anthony Burgess, is published by Carcanet.

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