Pis-Aller

Anthony Burgess: I want to ask you a very fundamental question.

Dick Cavett: Yeah.

Burgess: And before I ask you it, I’m going to answer it myself. In my own terms. This is this: People have asked me, “Why do you write books?” My answer is, “I write books for a living. Because there’s no other job I can do successfully or with any measure of expertise.” Obviously, you have another kind of living. Therefore, why did you write this book?

Cavett: It’s that…

Burgess: You didn’t write this book for money, did you?

Cavett: No. In fact, I’ve been told there’s no money in books.

Burgess: There is no money in books. It’s quite so.

Cavett: Well, that in itself would explode a myth, I think, for most people, who must think, “Hey, so and so’s on the bestseller list. He must be raking it in.”

Burgess: No, that’s what — Barbara will, Barbara would say something very apposite of all that.

Barbara Howar: If she were here, she would. (laughs)

Burgess: Well, yes, quite obviously. No, but nobody, nobody writes books, I think, with the intention of becoming rich overnight. The person who believes he’s going to write a bestseller, and be famous and wealthy forever, is very rare. I write books — probably my two friends here write books — because it’s a trade. It’s a trade we can carry out more or less successfully. We’re happy to have made a thing. The only moment of joy we have is that moment when the proof copy comes — you know, when what’s between you and the printer, more or less. After that, the thing is launched. It’s somebody else’s concern. But back to this question.

Cavett: Yeah.

Burgess: Why did you write this book?

Cavett: I seem to have evaded your question.

Burgess: You really did.

Cavett: Partly there’s a practical reason. Publishers constantly asked me, “Because you’re on television, you ought to write a book.” And I thought, “Well, maybe there’s something to that. But I have no idea how.” But I guess I wanted the experience of knowing what it is like to get something down the way you want it…

Burgess: Right.

Cavett: …rather than the frustration of when you’re on television. Everything is sort of off the top of your head. It’s ad-libbed. It’s about the way you wanted it. Sometimes better than you thought. Sometimes worse. Never quite the way you planned. And I somehow envied writers, the idea that you could get a thing and finish it the way you want it, and then pass it on. And then also to put an end to a certain irritating and repeated questions year after year about myself that people constantly ask me. I think, maybe this will stop that now and I can move onto something else.

Howar: To set the record straight.

Cavett: Is that the answer you wanted?

Burgess: There was another answer I thought you might give. But we all know, and it’s repeated in the book, that you are one of the few people alive — perhaps the only person alive — who has read all of Henry James’s novels.

Cavett: Well, I…that’s a terrible thing to know about me. But in fact…

Burgess: But it’s true. It’s true.

Cavett: There may have been some I missed. I think that may have been exaggerated by a journalist.

Burgess: Well, you admit it in this book. Now the point is that I have a feeling that you have a literary ambition.

Cavett: Really?

Burgess: And that this talk show business is a kind of — what’s the French word? Pis-aller. It’s a second best. But your real ambition is to use words in some permanent form. And this is a shy attempt at showing yourself to be a literary practitioner.

Howar: Exactly, Anthony. He has a very nice use — a command of the English language. And you’ve got a romance going with it, whether you know it or not.

Cavett: Ain’t it the truth?

Howar: It sure am. And I want to take Anthony’s question a step further. Why, when you have made your career in television and you have had a reputation for being a cold cucumber and not exposing much of yourself, you would say, “Oh, Cavett doesn’t go into his own feelings.” And all of a sudden…

Cavett: Can’t get off that word, can you? When you’re exposing.

Howar: …exposing them. Well, I…

Cavett: Good.

Howar: And then all of a sudden you writing a book, which is really very revealing. I mean, the jump between — I mean, do you really feel that you might have let ABC down because you didn’t expose yourself on the airwaves again?

Cavett: (laughs)

Howar: And then for Harcourt Brace, you’ve just let it all show.

Cavett: I never thought how I would write the thing. [Co-author Christopher] Porterfield came up with a way of writing it, which I could never come up with. And I know him to be an organized and talented person. And I thought, “Well, it would be good to work with him on something.” And it would be about me, which, of course, is a fascinating subject to me. As Noel Coward once said, “I find the subject endlessly fascinating.” He said. But, uh, I don’t know. I guess I can’t quite answer that. Except that once you get going, the only way to do is to open it up. And the myth of it. It’s very hard to be honest about yourself. It turns out to not be so true. In fact, in a way, it’s kind of sickeningly exhilarating.

Burgess: You are interested in words, right? You are concerned about words.

Cavett: Yeah.

Burgess: You’re the only person on this kind of business who is concerned about words. Most of the talk show pundits one sees that fit — that thin man with the fat jackal, I forget their names. The rest of them. Vermin Griffin or some such name. These other people. They’re full of expletives. They’re full of sounds like “Yeah. Yeah, ” and “I guess so.” And “Wow.”

Howar: Sounds like the White House Tapes.

Burgess: But I…

Cavett: And they’re all very good friends of mine.

Burgess: But this show — this show that I know. The only popular show of that is built on language. Am I right in saying that? It’s your aim to build this thing on language.

Cavett: No. You’re wrong. It’s not my aim. It may have accidentally happened. That my obsession with words has just come out or something. But it’s not an aim. In fact, I’ve never had an aim. Any real aim. But I would like to hear you comment on this. You said that you could never write a book that’s very personal. I suggest that maybe you’d find it sickeningly easy to do so. Because haven’t we all had the experience of spilling our guts to a stranger on a train? Or in a sidewalk cafe? Am I the only one?

“Anybody Who Knows Cockney Slang Will Know the Term!”

A 1972 documentary with Anthony Burgess, Malcolm McDowell, and critic William Everson (who appears to be reading off cue cards) on A Clockwork Orange. Highlights include McDowell discussing how “Singin’ in the Rain” came to be and a bored-looking Burgess barely tolerating Everson’s inane questions.

Incredibly, at the 24 minute mark, Everson actually asks Burgess to comment on the additional scenes that Kubrick wrote in to simplify the plot, which Everson reveals helped him to understand the film better and provided “Hitchcockian suspense.” To add insult to injury, Everson presses Burgess on whether or not he could write his novels “more cinematically.”

Here’s more from You’ve Had Your Time:

Before embarking with Malcolm on a publicity programme which, since Kubrick went on paring his nails in Borehamwood, seemed designed to glorify an invisible divinity, I went to a public showing of A Clockwork Orange to learn about audience response. The audience was all young people, and at first I was not allowed in, being too old, pop. The violence of the action moved them deeply, especially the blacks, who stood up to shout ‘Right on, man,’ but the theology passed over their coiffures. A very beautiful interview chaperon, easing me through a session with a French television team, prophesied rightly that the French would ‘intellectualise like mad over the thing’, but to the Americans the thing looked like an incentive to youthful violence. It was not long before a report came in about four boys, dressed in droog style copied from the film, gang-raping a nun in Pougheepsie. The couture was later denied — the boys had not yet seen the film — but the rape was a fact, and it was blamed upon Malcolm McDowell and myself. Kubrick went on paring his nails, even when it was announced that he was to be given two New York Critics’ awards. I had to collect those at Sardi’s restaurant and deliver of speech of thanks. Kubrick telephoned to say what I was to say. I said something rather different.

Submission to the Public World

“I once entered a bank in Stratford-on-Avon and ordered a drink. I have waved back at people waving at somebody else. There was an electric skysign in All Saints, Manchester, which said UPHOLSTERED FURNITURE and I read as UPROARIOUSLY FUNNY. In the army I failed to salute officers and, fiercely rebuked, then saluted privates. I have spoken to women in the streets I thought I knew and thus go to know them. Clear sight can be switched on if necessary: the means is in one’s top pocket. But switching on is submission to the public world. One has, anyway, a choice. The myopic eye is not lazy: it is too busy creating meanings out of vague données. Compensation for lifelong myopia comes in old age: presbyobia supervenes on the condition and cancels it. I am forced into perfect sight and I am not sure I like it.”

— Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God

A Right to an Author

Being a Burgess freak, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point to Jenny D’s enchanting summation of the Anthony Burgess biography authored by Andrew Biswell (as yet unavailable in the States and as yet now beckoning hard for an Amazon UK purchase, along with Richard Gwyn’s second novel). Jenny’s inspiration comes from this fascinating article, which describes how a failed author named John Burgess Wilson went to Malyasia and became Anthony Burgess.

Friday Burgess Fun

For all of you Burgess freaks out there, a good number of his reviews are available for free on the New York Times site (back in the days when the NYTBR actually stood for something):

Lack of Closure — A Fictional Virtue?

Susan Gibb on Anthony Burgess: “The following sequence of his hospitalization, his return of free will, may indeed be considered an anti-climax. From there, we get another dose as he changes and decides to leave his old ways behind. Both areas, and perhaps the suicide decision as well, are offered as resolutions to the story. Yet Burgess has carried it out to a further, major change in the character’s life. Even so, this final resolution, Alex thinking of finding a wife and having a son, has been left open as to the ultimate future for Alex, as well as the future of society itself. Unanswered questions; the best form of unresolved resolution in fiction, if not in life.”

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?

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.]

Another Anthony Burgess Interview

Don Swaim, a man who has interviewed a considerable number of authors, managed to talk with Burgess in 1985. It appears the entire recording, including Burgess sitting down in his chair and reciting a bit of French just before meeting up with Swaim, is available online.

A sample.

Q: You infuriated a good deal of people with your 99 novels list.
A: (calmly) Yes, that was the intention.

(There are also interviews with Isaac Asimov, Jimmy Breslin, Wlliam Burroughs, Dorris Lessing, Donald Westlake and Sloan Wilson.

Roundup

  • Another day, another Robert Birnbaum interview. This time: Uzodinma Iweala.
  • Concerning the Jonathan Ames testicle controversy, it seems that the testicle is ahead of the shadow by a ratio of 5 to 1. Whether this will have any long-term impact on future perceptions of Jonathan Ames books remains to be seen, but there’s a rumor floating around that Augusten Burroughs has been considering “an accidental photo” for his next book. Just remember that Jonathan Ames was the first one there.
  • It seems that only John Freeman is allowed to talk with David Foster Wallace. That’s two articles in seven days. What deal did he cook up with Bonnie Nadell? Or is John Freeman part of the DFW inner circle of “approved” people? (Former Freeman link via Scott)
  • The history of mustard.
  • Believe it or not, Ivan Turgenev’s one and only play, A Month in the Country, is playing in North Carolina. Free Gutenberg text here. Background info here.
  • It started with a harmless exchange of information, but Maud and I have been trying to figure out why the Graham Greene-Anthony Burgess relationship was so strange. I sent Maud an interview with the two authors that I had read in Burgess’ But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?. Jasper Milvain dug up more, pointing out that Greene disowned the interview, claiming that “Burgess put words into my mouth which I had to look up in the dictionary.” The two authors fell out, apparently by 1990, when Burgess published his second autobiographical volume, You’ve Had Your Time. And while I don’t entirely trust Wikipedia, the Anthony Burgess entry notes, “In 1957 Graham Greene asked him to bring some Chinese silk shirts back with him on furlough from Kuala Lumpur. As soon as Burgess handed over the shirts, Greene pulled out a knife and severed the cuffs, into which opium pellets had been sewn.” Now if that latter tidbit can be corroborated, then it’s just possible that the Burgess-Greene relationship might be one of the strangest in literary history. As soon as I get an opportunity to hit the library, I’m going to follow up on all this. Did Burgess and Greene love to hate each other? Or did they hate to love each other? Or was it a little bit of both? Perhaps some bona-fide authorities might have some answers to all this.

[UPDATE: Jasper has an update on the Greene-Burgess contretemps, with some citations. And in the comments to this post, Jenny Davidson offers some materal from the forthcoming Biswell biography, which apparently deals with Graham Greene at great length.]

Give Burgess a Chance

Colin Burrow on the new Anthony Burgess bio (and more): “Burgess’s confused and not quite nasty response to his times (it is not quite nasty because it is so clearly a pose) makes it extremely hard to assess how good he is. There are those who think he was a miracle of style. Others regard him as a verbalist, someone who could perceive no reality beyond words, who liked the bigger ones the best, and who wanted his readers to cry out with ‘ahs’ and ‘ohs’ as they reached for their dictionaries….But despite all the show there can be a kind of brilliance in his work. Burgess is at his best, and his funniest, when he is a grammarian and a phonologist.”

Burgess-Style Beverages

The erstwhile all around good guy who, as it so happens, is currently living and breathing to great effect, Golden Rule Jones points to this alcoholic combo favored by Anthony Burgess:

Into a pint beer-glass doubles of the following are poured: gin, whisky, rum, port, and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added, and the whole is topped off with champagne. It induces a somehow metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover.

In honor of the late Burgess, we shall indeed try out this concoction this Saturday for NaDruWriNi and report just how metaphysically elating it is.