A Look at Anthony Burgess

Also in the LRB, a review of a new biogrpahy of Anthony Burgess.

There is an awkward period in the lives of clothes, furniture and writers, when they become something more than dated but something less than a piece of history. We call things that have reached this state ‘unfashionable’, and usually throw such stuff away without thinking any more about it. Everyone sees a 1960s sideboard or a 1980s haircut as dated, and, beyond an embarrassed smile at our folly for ever having admired such cheesy horrors, these things rarely give rise to any thought. But unfashionable things are much more complicated and intriguing phenomena than they might appear. They open a gap in our ways of perceiving because they fall between our aesthetic and our historical sense. When we look at unfashionable objects our senses tell us that an age has passed, but we don’t yet have a means of giving those things the benefit of a historical perspective. The unfashionable embarrasses us – how can I have worn that? – but when the first blush is over it should challenge us to think about how our tastes are made and why they change.

Anthony Burgess is a 1960s sideboard of a writer. His range was improbable. He published 32 novels, composed symphonies, wrote two books on Joyce, a biography of Shakespeare and a study of the English language, as well as a large number of film scripts, most of which never entered production. He died in 1993, and is at the moment passing through the droop in reputation which most dead writers endure before they can become history. Four years ago he was the victim of what was generally regarded as a loathsome biography by Roger Lewis, who presented him as a pompous, psychologically damaged second-rater. Lewis’s biography was no fun to read, but it was interesting for what it revealed about responses to the unfashionable. It was written by a lapsed admirer, and showed exactly what happens when a reader realises that he no longer likes what he thought he liked, but hasn’t yet worked out how to detach himself from his former feeling. The result is rage and loathing, which is chiefly a warped form of embarrassment about one’s former admiration.