The ‘Conversations With’ series has published a number of insightful, witty and sometimes disappointingly normal interviews with extraordinary figures. While some editions feel weighted with the worry of editors having threshed the fields of journo-sensationalism far and wide for just a dozen or less articles on a very non or anti-public figure, I’m sure they made a brief sigh of relief when they saw the huge catalogue of articles, interviews and TV spots to which John Wilson contributed throughout his career. But surely this relief was interrupted when the said editors furrowed their brows, wiped their sweaty foreheads and hyperventilated in the face of some deadline requiring them to pick only the very best of Burgess—hardly a throw-away afternoon task.
Always clever and always ready to answer generously, Anthony Burgess is quick to self-deprecate in the face of criticism, but usually in such a way that he can blame his faults on specific demographic spectrums within which he identifies himself, whether that be as an Englishman, a Catholic Englishman, a novelist in Europe or as an artist largely remote from academia by no real choice of his own.
Both famous for writing as well as hating A Clockwork Orange, Burgess remains certain throughout these interviews that he wrote better works but unsure as to whether he will ever rise above the slight novels of his prolific career and write a ‘big’ book with larger scope and vision. We are fortunate enough as readers to see him overcome the self-proclaimed shortcomings of his short novels in favor of the kinds of big books he probably had in mind: namely Earthly Powers and Kingdom of the Wicked. But this was bound to happen. Even his slim novels, which he insists are merely ‘entertainments’ (probably to take the piss out of Graham Greene) for the most part offer an imaginative, ambitious breath of fresh air to the world of English literature that he, in his time, really didn’t resemble.
Napoleon Symphony is about the life of that same Mr. Bonaparte but using a rhythm that takes Beethoven’s Eroica as a literary model. Most people are familiar now with the full narration of slang language in A Clockwork Orange, of which Stanley Kubrick's screen adaptation only scratched the surface. Byrne is a novel in verse. The Wanting Seed, a futuristic novel about over-population, would have perhaps been a classic in the manner of 1984 or Brave New World had it not been swallowed up in the public's divided attention to his dozens of other novels.
It is then extraordinary that Burgess not only fathomed and carried through with such ambitious projects, but that he peeled out so many of them. To say that Burgess was prolific is almost an understatement.
‘I’ve been annoyed less by sneers at my alleged overproduction than by the imputation that to write much means to write badly,’ he tells The Paris Review. ‘I’ve always written with great care and even some slowness. I’ve just put in rather more hours a day at the task than some writers seem to be able to.’
He forced himself, absolutely every single day of the year, to write 1,000 to 2,000 words. This pace was initially set when he was ‘diagnosed’ with a brain tumor when serving in Malaya, giving him one year to live—a famous story that changed shape just slightly but constantly throughout his career to the point that many suspected him of mythomania. In later interviews he suggests that the British Authorities simply told his wife that he had a tumor to get him out of the country, which is, arguably an even more romantic lie. Whatever the truth is, we know for certain that he wrote five novels in a single year.
When one interviewer expresses awe over such incredible output, he replies by saying that if one writes 1,000 words a day, that’s 350,000 words a year which is easily War and Peace. Is that all?
We gather in these discussions that Burgess is as much of a paradigm as the Manichean heresy he reservedly appropriates into his carefully undefined Christianity. Though berating people for suggesting that being too prolific is ‘impolite’ for an Englishman, he then says that he wrote under a pen name precisely because it was the polite, English thing to do for a writer of fiction. Though he remains unflinching, dare I say innocent, concerning the subject of masturbation as well as his tumultuous relationship with his first wife and the adulterous affair that would become his second wife after the first’s death, he insists that he has only a puritanical, unseen place for sex in his actual novels. Though he speaks a lot about his method and the things a writer must do to build a consistent body of work, he often breaks his own rules with much regret, as the case was with his insistence that one should write quickly though Napoleon Symphony remained untouched on his shelf for several months.
Possessing all the talent that one would with a ‘genius,’ Burgess remains un-genius-like in the modern sense that we have come to see it: that being, a savant good at one thing and bad at many other things, socially awkward, troubled and somewhat childish, probably insane. Burgess is a rarity in that he always conveys that aforementioned polymathic genius though always with a sense of street-cool and pub-house jest usually common to artists or public figures whose personalities are often bigger than the ambition of their work. Fortunately, Burgess possessed the best of both worlds, and both of those worlds are found in this book.