Anthony Burgess as a Journalist….
Followers of my Twitter and Instagram feeds may recall my occasional call to arms in supporting one’s local secondhand bookshop. Whilst Amazon, Ebay, Waterstones and the like all have their place and uses, there is still nothing quite like the joy which a small, independent bookshop brings. For me, £6 bought three books by Anthony Burgess this week; Devil of a State, The Right to Answer and this, Homage to Qwert Yuiop. Three fine books with eye-catching covers and the prospect of hours of enjoyment from the man who brought ‘me’ The Malayan Trilogy.
So first up is this collection of essays from 1978 until 1985. Burgess was a man who loved languages and the written word so it is fitting that the book should be named after the top row of his IBM word processor keyboard and not, Wikipedia take note, of a Hungarian of the same name! This collection, Burgess tells us, is approximately one third of his total journalistic output, most of which was written during his stay on the Côte d’ Azur and written, so he tells us, as a means of financing his life on the French Riviera.
His income from writing serious fiction is, he writes, shamefully meagre, unlike his neighbour and much wealthier author, Harold Robbins who ‘gives the public what it wants-sex and violence under the guise of a lesson in morality. So long as I produce novels with a more complex content than, say, The Carpetbaggers, I shall have to produce also fodder for the up-market press’.
He may have a point to an extent but one wonders how many fellow authors of the time unable to flee the English winter for the South of France shared his sense of literary injustice? It may be safe to assume that Graham Greene did, himself a resident of Antibes who lived relatively modestly in a one-bedroom apartment above a port-side bar called Le Yacht. I mention Greene because by page twenty of the book Greene fans are treated to ‘A Greene Trilogy’ including an interview with Greene by Burgess and reviews of The Human Factor and Monsieur Quixote, both of which are favourable and, dare I say, fan based. Whilst on the subject of spy thriller authors the book also contains a glowing review of the then newly published SS-GB by Len Deighton. Interestingly, Deighton’s novel is enjoying something of a renaissance in 2016 begging the question of a possible television adaptation perhaps?
The English language was a clear passion of his which can be seen in his review of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs in which Greene also manages a mention. He mentions two notable proverbs; The greater the truth, the greater the libel and one which, thank god is no longer permitted and jaw-dropping to read; A woman, a whippet and a walnut tree, The more you beat ’em, the better they be. This disgusting practice may still continue but at the very least our language has dropped such spiteful rhymes.
Whilst Burgess may have railed against literary journalism in his novels (see Inside Mr Enderby) he was a prolific journalist nonetheless. Despite his pleas of poverty in his introduction he was paid well by The Observer and generally reviewed what he chose. He was rarely insulting in his reviews but John Le Carré does not fare well, tainted perhaps by his affections for Greene who clearly ‘influenced’ Le Carré and the aforementioned Harold Robbins even less, describing him as ‘totally unreadable’.
In closing, Burgess offers the reader a reminder of the importance of the essay, as fan of literary criticism and particularly those works by Clive James, Christopher Hitchens and Gore Vidal, it shows us, if it were needed, what we have lost in the passing of (James aside) these writers. Newspapers and magazines understood the importance of the essay and the review, they sought out the best and enjoyed the credibility that came with it. We have lost that to a large extent along with those literary voices loud enough to make themselves heard.
Categories: The Reading Room