The Dizzying Fiction of Anthony Burgess

Margaret Drabble at the TLS:

A writer of enormous energy, Burgess suffered from an embarrassment of riches as well as from an excessive love of words and language. The vulgar and irritating phrase “swallowed the dictionary” could have been coined for him, and he cheerfully recommends “ransacking the dictionary” when in need of an inspirational boost. Rejecting a critic who praised Shakespeare’s dying delirium in his novel Nothing Like the Sun (1964) as “writing of the highest order”, he confesses, “Not quite so, really. I had taught myself the trick of contriving a satisfactory coda by what, in music, is termed aleatory means: I flicked through a dictionary and took whatever words leaped from the page. I did this again at the end of my Napoleon novel: the effect is surrealistic, oceanic, and easily achieved”. (You’ve Had Your Time, Chapter Two.) This is a very odd mode of composition. Lorna Sage nailed it in a review of Napoleon Symphony (1974), which he quotes in his memoir with what seems to be approval as “probably profound”. Sage writes, “he is original, inventive, idiosyncratic even, and yet the ingredients are synthetic . . . . His own attitude to this, so far as one can extract anything so direct from the novel, is determinedly, manically cheerful. Better the collective unwisdom of the verbal stew, he would say, than any tyrannous signature”. Sage was a brilliantly perceptive critic, and she could read an author’s mind.

more here.