Burgess Hunting

Today, after a long day of work, I got out of the house for another round of Burgess hunting.

What is Burgess hunting? Any bibliophile will understand it once I lay down the experiential cards. If you’re as perfervid a reader as I am, you probably have an author who is right now, as we speak, on the cusp of going out of print (save perhaps two major titles that have managed to endure), who may have turned out quite a number of volumes, and who, by some strange combination of ardor and serendipity, you have somehow been able to find through recurrent visits to various used bookstores.

For me, that author (right now) is Anthony Burgess. If I am flying across the country, invariably, one of the books I pack with will be a Burgess paperback. Even a bad Burgess is dependable and good for at least ten good gags and twenty words I’ve never encountered before.

This evening, I located four books I had not read for a remarkably thrifty price. It was a steal, although a steal that only I would value. And I have every faith, based on my stubborn peregrinations into tome depositories, that I will locate each and every volume, save perhaps two or three which I will have to special order, once I give up the ghost. Ordering thee books online is simply too unaccomplished a task to boast about. There is a sense of adventure and a strange accomplishment in going into a musty bookstore, talking with a clerk, and emerging with recherche volumes which nobody else will value.

Chances are, if you are scouting out an author along these lines, that nobody else is as mad about him (or her) as you are. In my case, aside from the remarkable Jenny Davidson, I seem to be the only American litblogger interested in Burgess. But I’m determined to track down nearly every book he wrote (although purchasing the rare and infamous The Worm and the Ring, the novel that was pulled for libel, is out of the question unless I strike it rich, an unlikely prospect with the current manner of doing things).

(And it was with considerable giddiness that I received the news that Anthony Burgess’s masterpiece, Earthly Powers, tied with Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children for third place in the Guardian’s question to 150 literary types, offered in response to the New York Times poll. The man still has some staying power in him yet.)

But I put forth the question to readers: Who is the author whose complete works you hunt down with zeal and alacrity and who nobody but you understands?


  1. This is not an answer to your question, but I thought I would take this chance to say that every time you use the word “micturate” or some variant thereof it warms the cockles of my heart, it is such a Burgessism. I encourage you to start using “crapulous” much more often, and if you can fit in “Pelagianism” in the next week without forcing the context I will buy you a drink next time you’re in NY.

  2. A Clockwork Orange is still the only Burgess novel I read, but I loved loved loved it. I sought it out after seeing the Kubrick film, and was astonished at how you had to build a vocabulary in your head just to understand what the hell was going on (a technique more often used in genre fiction, exemplified by The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, another short but powerful novel). Unfortunately, as you say, his other books are hard to come by (ACO is typically the only of his books I see on bookstore shelves).

    I’ve been trying to reduce my book consumption lately (not least of all because I’m moving to Singapore next Spring), and haven’t gone on a completist tear in a while, but I remember doing so for both James Blaylock and Sean Stewart.

    But to specifically answer your question, “Who is the author whose complete works you hunt down with zeal and alacrity and who nobody but you understands?”, I would have to say Jonathan Carroll. His backlist is slowly appearing again here in the States thanks to Tor, but when I first discovered him (thanks to a rec from Neil Gaiman), I couldn’t get enough, and scoured the Internets trying to find all his books. I hung out at half.com, Amazon, and (Buddha help me) eBay. I eventually found them all, in a variety of editions, from both the US and UK. However, now I’m selling many of these as well (although the more rare copies, such as the UK hardcover of Outside the Dog Museum and the US hardcover of The Panic Hand: Stories, are ones I’m hanging on to).

  3. Can I have two?
    I am absolutely obsessed with James Purdy
    and my circle has no idea who he is! I have most of his fiction but there are still poems and plays to be had!

    I am torn between sharing him and keeping him to myself.

    I also have an unhealthy obsession with
    Lawrence Durrell.

  4. Muriel Spark is my current “complete works” project. I can’t exactly claim that nobody else understands her, but I do think that generally they can’t get past “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. That book is a masterpiece, but it is just one example of what she can do. I especially love the “postmodern”, self-referential things she so casually throws in the books. When I tell people that some of the tricks of the postmodern authors were done almost subliminally by Spark I get very strange looks – they think she just wrote stuff about uppity Scottish teachers…

  5. Well… I don’t really have an author whose complete works I consciously I seek to own. However, the other day, I acquired the only text by E. E. Cummings I didn’t have, Eimi, his early 30’s Soviet travelogue/rewriting of Dante’s Inferno/textual fireworks show.

    That made me giddy with happiness.

  6. Rupert Thomson is my latest obsession.

    When I was sixteen, I went through a huge Louis L’Amour faze. I find that one hard to explain now.

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