Saturday, February 25, 2017

Writers Born Today - Anthony Burgess

One hundred years ago today, Anthony Burgess was born in Manchester, England. His grim futuristic novel, A Clockwork Orange is the book that made him famous and for which he is best remembered. Ironically, Burgess thought this novel somewhat inconsequential compared to the rest of his work, which included over thirty novels, numerous volumes of poetry (he won the Governor's Poetry Award for oneand over 200 musical scores. At age 18, having taught himself to play the piano, he composed his first symphony.

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

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Writers Born Today - Pierre Boulle

It's the birthday of Pierre Boulle, born February 20, 1912 in Avignon, France. In a career that spanned nearly half a century he wrote more than two dozen novels and dozens of short stories. Two of his novels were made in epic films with instant name recognition, but almost no one remembers the author himself.

Boulle worked on a British rubber plantation in Malaysia during the 1930s. When World War II started, he became a secret agent working aginst the Japanese. After the war ended, he returned to France and began writing. Early in his career, he was so poor he was forced to live with his sister.

That changed with success. He used his wartime experiences to create his first best-selling novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai. The story was made into a popular film starring Alec Guinness, and won seven Oscars.

He later achieved even greater success with a 1963 science fiction novel unlike anything seen since the days of Jules Verne.  La Plan├Ęte des Singes was an international best seller that was made into an Oscar winning film in 1968, the first of seven movies based on the same book. The first English translation was called Monkey Planet, but we know it by it's American title - Planet of the Apes.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Writers Born Today - Ronald Knox

It's the birthday of Ronald Knox, born February 17, 1888 in Kibworth, England. Although he wrote detective novels, he was a priest first and foremost and wrote several religious texts. Among the most famous of these is a new translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek texts.  He also penned a guideline for crime fiction writers on how to practice their craft, titled The Ten Commandments For Detective Novelists.

Most of his detective novels featured a private investigator for the Indescribable Insurance Company, name Miles Bredon, whose job was to investigate suspicious insurance claims. His crime fiction is remembered best for its humor and wit, and the detailed descriptions of the local scenery. He once included a hint in his introduction to a story collection as to when the reader should try to solve the mystery.

His most famous novel is The Viaduct Murder. A classic from the golden age of detective fiction, it was included in The Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library of Detective-Crime-Mystery Fiction. First published in 1925, their is a paperback version and the novel is available on Kindle.

Knox was a contemporary of some of mystery fiction's most famous practitioners, including Dorothy Sayers and Ellery Queen. He was an early member of The Detection Club, a group of English detective novelists who met to discuss the craft and set rules for how their mysteries should be written. It was in this spirit that Robert Know composed his Ten Commandments, as a guide for his fellow members. Although somewhat dated by today's standards, and certainly politically incorrect, it still has a number of gems. From The Ronald Knox Society website:

CLUB RULES: The 10 Commandments for Detective Novelists

1.The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Knox was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, and wrote one of the earliest (and finest) works of critical analysis on Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective, called Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes.

For more about Ronald Know, check out the Ronald Knox Society of North America. You can also read a good analysis of his Ten Commandments at Classic Mystery Wordpress.