A Clockwork Temperament

The Paris Review‘s DNA of Literature is now up to the 1970s. There appears to be no set schedule for when the good folks over there will make the interviews from 1980 on available, but in the meantime, there is this interview with Anthony Burgess.

I will confess that 2006, reading-wise, has been the Year of Burgess for me. He’s the author I’ve read the most of. I cannot stop reading his books as I find them in used bookstores (most are out-of-print), even though his novel batting average was about as consistent as my bowling average. I find myself extremely receptive to his voice, his linguistic tricks (he’s rendered vernacular near perfectly in A Right to an Answer) and wordplay (Burgess doesn’t refrain from bad puns, which I like), while bemoaning the way in which he sometimes screws up his narratives (see Tremor of Intent). But I can certainly relate to this answer:

BURGESS: The practice of being on time with commissioned work is an aspect of politeness. I don’t like being late for appointments; I don’t like craving indulgence from editors in the matter of missed deadlines. Good journalistic manners tend to lead to a kind of self-discipline in creative work. It’s important that a novel be approached with some urgency. Spend too long on it, or have great gaps between writing sessions, and the unity of the work tends to be lost. This is one of the troubles with Ulysses. The ending is different from the beginning. Technique changes halfway through. Joyce spent too long on the book.

Unfortunately, this interview was conducted a few years before Burgess would begin writing his masterpiece, Earthly Powers. That novel is the most mammoth and ambitious work that Burgess ever wrote. It’s jam-packed with references to religion, language, sexuality, Hollywood, and transcontinental relations, and I’m still working through it months after I started it. I’m determined to savor the prose’s immense concentration of detail and, because of this, I often unfurl the book when I know that I’m not going to be disturbed by anyone for several hours. There are not many books which cause me to do this.

But I’ve also wondered if Burgess’s attitude to the “urgency of the novel” changed at some point in the seven years that followed this Paris Review interview, or if he felt that Earthly Powers might be his last shot at producing a magnum opus.

I’ve been hoping to obtain Andrew Biswell’s The Real Life of Anthony Burgess to see if I can get an answer to this and many other questions, but sadly that book, along with most of Burgess’s novels, is unavailable in the States.

But it does beg an interesting question, which you folks can argue about in the comments: To what extent does a novelist have an obligation to remain urgent? Do you find yourself receptive to an urgent voice? (I suspect this is also something about Burgess that grabs me.) I can certainly think of several writers who might get more done if they put themselves onto Burgess’s strict 1,000 word a day diet (myself included). But what do you folks think is the balance between care and celerity?

[UPDATE: Pete Anderson responds on his blog.]

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One Comment

  1. Great quotation, and great questions. My response is far too lengthy to record here, so instead I’ve posted it to my blog:

    http://www.petelit.com/2006/08/urgency_and_the.html

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