The Author is Sick

In 1959 Anthony Burgess received his death sentence. A year was what he had left, at the most.

He'd been in the Colonial Service for years, teaching English to the dark-hued natives of the East, finally ending up in Brunei. He wasn't a particularly happy man at the time. His wife was an alcoholic and chronically promiscuous to boot. He'd written a few novels and published three of them, unsuccessfully. They hadn't sold terribly well but they had been noticed: he was being sued for slander. That didn't look too promising. He and his wife, especially she, had caused quite a stir in the colonial circles and nobody really wanted him there. They particularly didn't like his wife barking abuse at the visiting Prince of Edinburgh. Or her getting blind drunk and trying to fight a rajah. The clouds were gathering and one day he snapped. He was teaching class and the fans in the classroom weren't working, there was a cobra looming somewhere on the premises and he was fed up with it all.

"At the end of the lesson I felt I had also come to the end of my tether. A great deal of tension had been building up - a dissatisfied wife, a libel action, Australians who called me a pommy bastard, a disordered liver, dyspepsia and dyspnoea which morning drops of Axe oil did nothing to alleviate, a very large measure of simple frustration. I had done my best; could do no more; let other agencies take over. I lay on the classroom floor and closed my eyes."

He was carried to the local hospital where he was examined. He felt fine but remained passive. His head was X-rayed. Upon which he was sent back to England. That was the end of his colonial career which is what he wanted. But of course, now that it was actually happening he didn't want to return to England.

In England there were further tests. The result: he had an inoperable brain tumour.


What to do? His first concern was his wife. There was no money, absolutely none. But he had a year. In one year's time he'd be able to write a bunch of novels, which is what he wanted to do anyway, and she'd have the money from them after he was gone. Not much perhaps but it was better than nothing. And what else could he do? There was nothing else.

"I sighed and put paper in the typewriter. 'I'd better start,' I said. And I did."

He had a plan. Write 2000 words polished text a day, every day, and you were set. Absolutely in the clover. The brilliant thing was that one could do it early in the day, before the pubs opened, and then spend the rest of the day getting gloriously plastered.

So he started. It was January 1960. He wrote the first novel, The Doctor is Sick, in six weeks. It was a light-hearted comedy with darker undercurrents, based on his time in the hospitals and the people he met there. He started another, Inside Mr. Enderby, about a poet who for some reason can only write his poetry in the bathroom, when his wife attempted suicide. Clearly the marriage wasn't going too well.

Inside Mr. Enderby was finished in late June. He was a bit behind. He calculated he needed to write five novels within the year. But he doubted his capacity to produce even four. A novel he'd written earlier, The Right to an Answer was published. His wife made another suicide attempt. His publisher wanted more. He gave them a book rejected some six years previously, The Worm and the Ring. This time it passed muster. He wrote a novella, The Eve of Saint Venus.

What else. He needed a new novel. Quick, quick. But he had nothing. He started scrounging classics: Flaubert's Salammbo, John Ford's Jacobean play 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. But every idea seemed not to work. "In despair I typed a new title - A Clockwork Orange - and wondered what story might match it. I had always liked the Cockney expression and felt there might be a meaning in it deeper than a metaphor of, not necessarily sexual, queerness. Then a story began to stir."

It was to be about the new and bizarre youth culture that had sprouted while he was abroad, the violent gangs called the Edwardian Strutters or Teddy boys. The gist of the novel was a personal incident. During the war his wife Lynne was savagely assaulted by four American deserters, causing her to miscarry and very nearly die. This was the primary cause of her alcoholism and erratic, often deranged behaviour. The book was to be about violence, but with a solid theological backbone. And very stylised with a language all its own. It was to be set in the future. He started it. There was still something missing. He didn't finish it.

The Doctor is Sick was published in the autumn. Before Christmas he delivered a new manuscript to his publisher, One Hand Clapping.

Then it was suddenly 1961 and he wasn't dead. He thought he might want to become a teacher again. Writing novels clearly wasn't bringing in enough dosh. He started a new novel, a science fiction thingy called The Wanting Seed, loosely based on the Ford play. And finished it.

He and his wife took a trip to Russia. That's when A Clockwork Orange finally clicked and he got his missing piece: the mock Russian teen lingo Nadsat. The book came out in 1962.

And it seemed he wasn't dying after all. Unlike his wife who was slowly but surely drinking herself to death.

In his recent biography The Real Life of Anthony Burgess Andrew Biswell sheds light on the curious events surrounding Burgess's impending demise. There never seems to have been an official or rather conclusive diagnosis. At one time it might have looked as if there was a tumour. On the other hand Burgess was never told anything definite by the doctors. When he was released from the hospital he was supposed to have more tests. He never went.

And this is the really interesting bit. He was told he had an inoperable brain tumour, not by any doctor, but by his wife Lynne. She opened the envelope entrusted to her, the envelope containing the Brunei doctor's X-rays and preliminary diagnosis. She read his notes. She told Burgess.

Could she have gotten it wrong?

Could she have lied?

Well, yes.

Could Burgess even have made that bit up?

Again, yes.

The story as I've recounted it is in Burgess's autobiography in two parts: Little Wilson and Big God and You've Had Your Time. But he's told it in several different versions, depending on where he told it or when. It seems to vary wildly. Biswell pricks many holes in the account Burgess gives in the autobiography. Several facts are flawed or even quite erroneous.

Faulty memory? A gifted writer of fiction at work?

But it's a good story. Problem is, perhaps a bit too good to be quite credible.


Anonymous said...

Otan vapauden sinutella. Miksei profiilissasi tms ole listaa sinun kirjoittamistasi novelleista tai kuunnelmista? Vai enkö vain löydä? - nimim. utelias

PS said...

Ei ole. Syy liene joko 1) En ole tullut ajatelleeksi moista, tai 2) Laiskuus (ei jaksa kirjoitta), tai 3) Laiskuus (ei jaksa kaivaa niitä esille kun ei enää itse muista mitä on tehnyt), tai 4) Syy tuntematon