He came from a family of entertainers; his mother a dancer, his father a piano player. Tragedy struck early in life. He lost his sister and mother in the Spanish flu epidemic that swept the globe in 1918. He was a loner in school, but good grades got him into college. A voracious reader, he traveled as a teenager to France to buy a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses, which had been banned in England, and smuggled it past customs officials. After serving in the army in World War II he began to teach, eventually moving with his wife to Malaysia where he taught for several years, all the while writing. He fueled his tremendous output with massive amounts of gin and 3 to 4 packs of cigarettes a day. His first published novel was released in 1956. Time For A Tiger, was set in Malaysia and became part of a trilogy he wrote that examined the colonial breakdown of the British Empire and it's effects on the indigenous people.
As a literary critic, Burgess produced well regarded criticisms of some literary giants, including James Joyce, William Shakespeare and D. H. Lawrence. But in many ways he was a comic writer, and not above poking fun at himself and others. He was once fired from a job as a reviewer at the Yorkshire Post after he reviewed one of his own books, Inside Mr. Enderby, published under the pen name Joseph Kell. The owners thought this was unethical, but Burgess actually gave the book a bad review, calling it a laughing stock and saying it was "full of bowel-blasts and flatulent borborygms, emetic meals...and halitosis". Some of his early novels with settings in Malaysia were banned by the country, in part because he gave insulting names to some of the cities. One city is called Kenching, which means "piss" in Malay.
Critics regard the novel Earthly Powers as his greatest work, and it was nominated for a Booker Award. Part parody, part fictional autobiography, it tells the narrator's life story in 82 chapters, one for each year of his life. It covers both World Wars, the Spanish pandemic, the rise of fascism in Europe and the fate of post-colonial Africa. There's even a reference to the Jonestown massacre in Guyana (in the novel the event takes place in California in the 1960s.)
In 1962 Burgess published A Clockwork Orange, using a slang language he invented called Nadsat. The book features a juvenile delinquent named Alex and his gang, who roam through a futuristic London creating mayhem and terror wherever they go. Alex evens beats members of his own gang, and after being abandoned by them, he is arrested. In prison he undergoes aversion therapy, a form of brainwashing, to cure him of his violent behavior. Released from prison, he finds himself scarred by the treatment. When he encounters some of his former victims and hoodlum friends the therapy renders him defenseless against their brutal revenge. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones was an early admirer of the novel, and expressed an interest in playing the character of Alex, if a film were ever made. The film version did appear in 1971, produced by Stanley Kubrick. It starred not Jagger but Malcolm McDowell. Burgess gained fame and fortune when the movie became a hit and his book became an international best seller. But he thought the film misrepresented the novel, saying "the film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die." The American publication also left out the final chapter of the book, because it presented a more uplifting and hopeful outcome for Alex, and this was contradicted by the popular movie version. By 1986, Burgess had finally gotten the final chapter restored.
To learn more about Anthony Burgess, check out his interview with the Paris Review.
To watch a ballet whose score was written by Burgess in celebration of Shakespeare, watch the video below.
“The best first thing to do, when you’ve got a dead body and it’s your husband’s on the kitchen floor and you don’t know what to do about it, is to make yourself a good strong cup of tea.”
- Anthony Burgess, from One Hand Clapping