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Anthony Burgess

Best known for his counter-culture novel, A Clockwork Orange (1962), novelist, composer, and literary critic Anthony Burgess was a prolific author whose novels are characterized by verbal inventiveness and social satire.  Although most often associated with his cult classic, Burgess also wrote several biographies and composed a number of musical works. 

On Feb. 25, 1917, Burgess was born John Anthony Burgess Wilson in Manchester, England, into a Catholic middle-class family.  His father was a cashier and piano player in a local pub.  After his mother died in the flu epidemic of 1919, Burgess was raised by a maternal aunt and, later, a stepmother.  He enrolled at Xaverian College and Manchester University, where he majored in English language and literature.  He was graduated in 1940.  When World War II erupted, he joined the Royal Army Medical corps and served in the Army Educational Corps until 1946.  In 1942, he married Llwela Isherwood Jones, who died of alcoholic cirrhosis in 1968.

Burgess taught at Birmingham University from 1946 - 1950, worked briefly for the Ministry of Education, and was a teacher at Banbury Grammar School.  He wrote relatively little until a fluke medical examination.  He wrote his first novel, A Vision of Battlement, in 1959, although it wasn't published until 1965.  It was based on the story, Aeneid, and showed a marked influence of Joyce.

In 1954, Burgess became an education officer in Malaya and Brunei.  He completed his Malayan Trilogy, which included Time for a Tiger (1956), The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), and Beds in the East (1959).  After collapsing in a classroom at the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin College in Bandar Seri Begawan, Burgess returned to England. 

"One day in the classroom I decided that I'd had enough..." he said.  "I just lay down on the floor."  Burgess was diagnosed as having a cerebral tumor, and doctors gave him only a year to life.  Concerned about not having enough money to leave his wife, he set off on a breakneck schedule of writing novels and reviews.  As it turned out, the doctor's prognosis was wrong, and Burgess went on to live another 33 years, during which he produced more than fifty books and hundreds of short journalism pieces

His first wife, Lynne, proposed the pseudonym Anthony Powell, which Burgess used in some of his writing, and her second suggestion was Anthony Gilwern.  Burgess was the maiden name of John Wilson's mother.  He also used the pseudonyms, Joseph Kell and Mohamed Ali, an outraged Pakistani moralist.

In 1959, Burgess began writing full time.  Between 1960 and 1964, he wrote 11 novels.  The Wanting Seed (1962) depicted an overpopulated England of the future caught up in the alternating cycles of libertarianism and totalitarianism.  He published his most famous science-fiction fable, A Clockwork Orange, in 1959.  It was filmed by Stanley Kubrick in the 1970s.  The novel was born from the growth of teenage gangs and the universal application of B. F. Skinner's behavioral theories in prisons, asylums, and psychiatric clinics.

Set in future London, A Clockwork Orange is told in gypsy talk interspersed with random bits of Jacobean prose, with a large dose of nadsat (a mixture of Russian, English and American slang) thrown in for luck.  Alex, the main character, is a juvenile delinquent who rapes and kills people.  He is captured and brainwashed by authorities bent upon changing his aggressive nature.  As an unanticipated side effect, he begins to hate hate Beethoven's music. 

The novel's central question is primarily as old as philosophy: is a "good" human being with no free will preferable to an "evil" human being with free will?  As a film, A Clockwork Orange received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, although critics on the whole didn't quite understand the film. 

Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker (January 1, 1972), "Literal-minded in its sex and brutality, Teutonic in its humor, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange might be the work of a strict and exacting German professor who set out to make a porno-violent sci-fi comedy.  Is there anything sadder - and ultimately more repellent - than a clean-minded pornographer?... How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?"

Burgess returned to the questions of A Clockwork Orange in the humorous novel Enderby (1968), which followed the travels of a non-conforming poet across England and the continent.  In a sequel, The Clockwork Testament; or Enderby's End (1975) the hero, who is Burgess's alter ego, lived in New York.  The book was a merciless assault on American society, media and academia, and the decline of language.

In 1970, Burgess became a visiting professor at Princeton University.  He taught at the City College of New York (1972-72) and was a writer-in-residence at the University of New York at Buffalo (1976).  He was appointed in 1972 a literary adviser to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

Through the seventies and eighties, Burgess turned out more than 30 books.  "I write a thousand words a day," he once said.  "At that rate, you'll write War and Peace in a year... or very near the entire output of E.M. Forster."  The Earthly Powers, considered by many critics Burgess's finest novel, is narrated by an 81-year-old successful homosexual writer, Kenneth Toomey, whom the author loosely based upon W. Somerset Maugham.  The novel also contained numerous jokes about other major literary figures.

Burgess also wrote several screenplays and critical studies.  He was a specialist in Shakespeare and Joyce.  His musical compositions include symphonies, a ballet, and an opera.  His autobiographies, Little Wilson and Big God (1987) and You've Had Your Time (1990), reveal a more self-doubting person than the one that Burgess showed off in public.  His third symphony was performed at the University of Iowa in 1975, and his musical version of Ulyssess, Blooms and Dublin was performed on radio on the centenary of James Joyce's death.

Anthony Burgess returned to London in the early 1990s, shortly before his death of lung cancer on November 22, 1993.  His son Andrew died in London in 2002, while Liana Burgess still lives in Monaco.

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