He fell as fall the mighty ones
Nobly undaunted to the last
And death has now united him
With … heroes of the past
No sound of strife disturb his sleep!
Calmly he rests: no human pain
Or high ambition spurs him now
The peaks of glory to attain
(James Joyce, Ivy Day in the Committee Room)
November 22nd, 2002 marks the 9th anniversary of the death of British writer and composer Anthony Burgess. He died on that date, of lung cancer, in a London hospital, leaving behind an output of works that ranged from novels to non-fiction books, from articles to short stories, from an extensive and impressive range of musical compositions to television documentaries and screenplays. Aside from his works, Mr. Burgess is being survived by his family, a whole load of some pretty darn good friends, an inimical force invading his memory in the form of a wanna-be biographer (Andrew Biswell) to whom Burgess would most likely have a Joyce quote to throw at:
May everlasting shame consume
The memory of those who tried
To befoul and smear the exalted name
Of one who spurned them in his pride
(Joyce, Ivy Day in the Committee Room)
For the occasion, Carcanet Press in the UK will release a volume of poetry by Burgess, titled Revolutionary Sonnets, on November 25th, his “official” death date. He would have liked that, especially since the volume’s title is the fictitious title of the poetry book of Burgess’s character Enderby, whom Burgess had created to showcase his own poetry works that did not find a publisher while he was alive. Burgess wrote “old” poetry, in the style of Hopkins and Shakespeare; he paid great attention to old verse rules and, had he lived some 500 years earlier, he would have probably become one of the greatest poets of that time. Being born, and having lived, when he did, however, he became known primarily for his novels. Now, posthumously, he may find acceptance as a poet as well.
For Anthony Burgess, it was never enough to excel in only one sphere. He was a great writer, but it was one intrinsic merit of the man that he wanted more, much more, than that. He also wanted to succeed as a composer, a journalist, a critic, a translator, a biographer, a scholar, a teacher, a professor. What a steep task for one mere human life span! Some of this he managed to achieve before he ran out of time, while others of his goals are still in the processes of being achieved now, including establishing his standing as a poet and a composer.
It has been said that behind every great man stands a great woman, but in Burgess’s case, it should be expanded to saying behind some great men stands an entire army of great people. It is a testimony to the writer’s endearing character that, following his death, those he had left behind, wife, friends and son, all began dedicating their lives, or big parts thereof, to keeping his work alive and finishing whatever tasks he had been unable to complete by the time lung cancer cut him down, all too soon.
His widow, Liana, established the Burgess Center at Angers and started holding symposiums there on many aspects of Burgess’s life and works. Aided by a former Burgess student, she tracked down his friends and asked them to contribute their articles and research, and not one of them declined. They traveled from all corners of the world to Angers, to attend conferences on Anthony Burgess and his life, to present papers, to partake in panels.
It is as though Joyce had called them all together, in honour of a writer who had fought throughout his life for a deeper understanding, of layman and scholar alike, of Joyce’s works:
If they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least,
that in gatherings … we shall speak of them with
pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the
memory of those dead and gone great ones whose
fame the world will not willingly let die
(Joyce, The Dead)
Further, Liana went through all her papers and sold them collectively to the University of Texas at Austin, to give the after-world access to her husband’s works. She traveled tirelessly, despite her fear of flying, to be present at symposiums honouring her husband.
Ben Forkner, an American friend of his, edited some unpublished Burgess writings and released them in a book titled One Man’s Chorus.
His Goddaughter junked a well-paying job at Penguin publishing to work for free to transcribe Burgess’s interviews.
A former student and friend traveled to Brown University in Rhode Island, collected scores of forgotten Burgess music, and helped convince the Brown music scholar Paul Phillips to dedicate himself to categorizing and performing the music of Burgess. As a result, Burgess the composer was adopted by Brown, turning him posthumously into a veritable Ivy Leaguer; he received an entry in the Grove Dictionary of Musicians, and many of Burgess’s pieces have already been performed by and at Brown. Phillips traveled to Monaco, on several occasions, for research of his upcoming book on Anthony Burgess the composer, and he joined the Burgess Center as musical advisor as well as becoming the world’s foremost Burgess music expert.
As this example shows, even those who did not know him personally became infected by the enthusiasm of those who did, and loved the man all the same, enough to also start working to keep his name alive and ensure that everyone knows, even the generations to follow, that Anthony Burgess was about much more than merely his little novel A Clockwork Orange.
While he tended to portray himself as friendless and often stated that soon after his death he would be forgotten, Anthony Burgess’s perception of those around him fell far, far from the truth. He was probably unaware of the love and affection he inspired in those he met, but the aftermath of his departure from this world is a living testimony to it. Touchingly, nobody of the hundreds of people, strewn across several continents, who work on Burgess’s work do it for the money. Many of them use their own finances and resources to keep the Burgess archives growing, often putting in long hours after work, until the wee hours of morning, to fit their “Burgess work” around their regular work requirements that earn them a living. They all work for the sake of their love and admiration of the man. They are idealists, perhaps, or literary experts, but they are all people willing to dedicate parts of their lives to Burgess and they share one common denominator, that they were his friends. Not only were they his friends, but they are willing to work for the privilege, meaning, in effect, to put their labour where their mouths are.
Somebody once said: “a man can count himself lucky if, by the time he dies, he has made even a handful of true friends”. Anthony Burgess, as the past decade has shown, has done better than that, much better. Perhaps, aside from his literary standing, this is where his true success in life lies. It is only when one’s professional success is accompanied by personal success as well that a man, by the end of his life, can say that he has done truly well during his time on earth.
One wonders how many other writers can say of themselves to have, during the course of their lifetimes, made such impact of a personal nature to warrant this extent of dedication to their persona, even a decade after their deaths. This article would not do Burgess justice without evoking Joyce’s images often and with gusto, so here is another fitting one:
There is no friends like the old friends, when all is said and done
(Joyce, The Sisters)
It is, perhaps, his ever-growing circle of friends that makes sure Burgess lives on, as he had always wanted. To Burgess, surviving through one’s artistic works was a manner of surviving one’s own death. He wished for that, but thought he would not achieve it.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The year 2002 saw the release of his first biography, a satiric piece of work by a former Punch journalist that Burgess would probably laugh his head off about, and in 2003, a more serious biography of a scholarly nature, by the official biographer, Dr. Andrew Biswell, will follow. There will be books on Burgess’s music, there will be the commercial release of his compositions, and Burgess himself is going to “keep writing” as further books are going to be published of his collected writings and correspondence. Other biographies are going to follow. There will be symposiums on Burgess as a Joyce scholar, on Burgess and Shakespeare, on Burgess and Marlowe. Movies are going to be made of his books, some of them based on his own screenplays. Students, perhaps, will one day be writing the Joyce theses that Burgess left behind, in titles only, for their consideration.
Over the next decades, the public is likely to learn more and more fascinating and undiscovered aspects about Burgess the man, Burgess the writer and Burgess the composer.
In many ways, Anthony Burgess gave his life to his reading public, seeking to entertain and educate with his works. He gave from his pen until its final run of ink, and from his vast knowledge until his final breath, writing even on his deathbed, not one, but three books. Joyce is qualified to comment on this, so much better than I am, that I have decided to hand the rest of this passage over to him:
better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and whither dismally with age
(Joyce, The Dead).
At the time of his death, Burgess was, very evidently, still in the full grip of his passion, for language and for his beloved, favourite writers, Joyce and Marlowe, for even as (here is Joyce again)
his soul approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead and he became conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence, and his … own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling, …
(Joyce, The Dead)
The shapes he recognized most of all were Joyce and Marlowe, and it was those two, largely, that Burgess packed his final writings with.
He gave freely, not only of his art but also of his time, always willing to dispense generously with advice or a kind word, always concerned that his friends had good careers and were doing well in their lives. Despite his massive work schedule, he found the time to cook for his wife and son, to write long letters, to help friends in need. As Joseph Heller once said of him, Anthony Burgess, as a person, was boundary-less in his generosity, and now history seems to be in the process of showing us that this Manchester writer’s generosity paid off because he succeeded in touching his public not only as a writer but as a person as well, a rare feat to achieve for a novelist.
Nine years after his death, Anthony Burgess is probably as alive as ever, at least when it comes to his art. His loss is still felt painfully by those who knew him, including one friend who maintains a library of recent Burgess books without back covers for having removed all the back cover references to his demise, but the pain of their loss has been channelled, by all of the writer’s friends with a very few exceptions, into a touching and admirable quest to keep his name and works alive and continue to establish him as one of the greatest English language writers of our time. They don’t seem to have much time to hang around, moping, for the works ends when the work ends. Not before and rarely after (Burgess, The Clockwork Testament). Here is Joyce again, speaking on behalf of all of them:
There are always sadder thoughts that will recur
to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes,
of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through
life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to
brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go
on bravely among the living. We have all of us living duties
and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our
(Joyce, The Dead)
That Burgess, recipient of countless awards such as the Commandeur des Arts et Lettres and the Critic of the Year Award, should have won a Booker, Pulitzer or Nobel, or all three, is increasingly clear to literary critics, but even without those, his name will survive, not only through our generation, but into the coming generations as well. Joyce wants to take over again, so I am going to hand the keyboard to him:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow
falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling,
like the descent of their last end, upon all
the living and the dead.
In some ways, Anthony Burgess still continues to be among the former.
Throughout his lifetime, Burgess, who had an endearing sense of British humour, cracked many jokes, some of them understood by the public, and some not. But his biggest joke, though not intended to be one, was probably the, somewhat hasty, statement:
After my death, I will soon be forgotten.
But, to paraphrase from Burgess’s own words, in one of his last novels, A Dead Man in Deptford: nine years on, the dagger continues to pierce and it will never be blunted. But that inimitable voice sings on, as loud and clear as it always has, and it will always keep singing.