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NL1 - Anthony Burgess as Television Critic
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Consider this novel alongside Burgess’s final television review, and it is possible to see how far his opinions had shifted in the intervening seven years:


Now I give up reviewing but not, I hope, viewing. Television was invented for people like me, a man who can’t bear to switch off for fear of missing something. Wherever I go to live now, it will be the same … Of the importance of the medium I have never had any doubt, and I sincerely despise those who talk of the idiot’s lantern.

There is room (though not here) for a more detailed study of the connections between Burgess’s fiction and his journalism. The critic Malcolm Bradbury sums up Burgess’s achievement well and accurately when he writes: ‘If his work sometimes resembled an unstoppable monologue, it was also intellectually, morally and artistically complex. It bounced with ideas, was laden with freight.’ The one thing I’d disagree with in Professor Bradbury’s summary is his use of the word ‘monologue’. Burgess’s fiction and his journalism both seem to me to exhibit what Mikhail Bakhtin terms the dialogic imagination, a desire to dramatise intellectual problems and to engage with a variety of sometimes conflicting points of view. Bakhtin writes of Dostoyevsky’s ‘passion for journalism and his love of the newspaper, his deep and subtle understanding of contemporary society in the cross-section of a single day, where the most diverse and contradictory material is laid out, extensively, side by side and one side against the other.’ Perhaps this idea of the newspaper as the site where ideas and ideologies fight it out helps us to understand why Burgess was so drawn to journalism as a literary form. Dialogue takes place most conspicuously in the columns of newspapers. And it is one of the fascinations of Burgess’s journalism that we can see ideas evolving, taking shape, shifting around, being discarded, sometimes contradicting each other, but never standing still, always pushing restlessly onwards.

In terms of the considerable light they throw on his other writing, Burgess’s articles for the Listener have outlived many (if not quite all) of the books and television programmes he reviewed there. I would argue that these pieces of journalism are worth having in their own right, both as a record of their time and because they display so many of the qualities which we value in Burgess’s novels, qualities such as word-play and unreliable narration – but also reflections on the creative process, and moments of autobiography. Burgess was invariably a careful and performative writer, and the journalism I’ve been discussing frequently connects in unexpected ways with the concerns of his novels. Having said that, I want to add that the pieces Burgess wrote for the Listener represent more than an interesting series of footnotes which might help us to make a reading of his fiction. Although they are also worth having for that reason, they are part of a much larger body of journalistic writing which merits closer attention than it has received so far.

Everyone who values Burgess’s writing will have welcomed Ben Forkner’s recent edition of hitherto uncollected essays, One Man’s Chorus (1998), which has brought back into circulation many items of literary and biographical interest. One of the fascinations of this book is that it has been edited from typescripts, so it restores the pieces to their original state, prior to any editorial cuts.

The hard job of collecting everything still remains to be done, and I can think of no better institution than the Anthony Burgess Centre to house a complete archive of Burgess’s journalistic writing. For the future, what is needed is a complete and properly annotated edition of Burgess’s journalism – similar to Peter Davison’s recent collected edition of the works of George Orwell. If it is to be done thoroughly, then it seems to me that this task is an urgent one. Although many of the publishers and editors who commissioned Burgess are still alive, some of them are advancing in years. Others, such as Maurice Ashley and Terence Kilmartin, are already dead. Those who survive will be able to provide important contextual information about the process of editing Burgess’s work, and their memories of the institutions which published him will be crucial to the complete, annotated edition which I am proposing.


Andrew Biswell is a research student at Warwick University, England, where he is completing a doctoral thesis on Anthony Burgess. He is a regular book reviewer for the Daily Telegraph, the Boston Globe and the New Statesman.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 30 June 2013 18:59