Anthony Burgess once confided to me many years ago that Stanley Kubrick had misinterpreted his novel A Clockwork Orange.
Ha! There’s nothing like a bit of name-dropping to get things going, is there? But at least the name-dropping on this occasion made for, I hope, an engaging opening sentence. And, it so happens, it told nothing less than the literal truth: the lie is not in what is stated, but in what is implied – that I had known Anthony Burgess personally, and even, perhaps, that he had been in the habit of confiding in me. Sadly, no. I had attended a lecture he had given in what was then the McLennan Galleries on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, and, in the book-signing session that followed, had queued up with many others with an inevitable copy of A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess dutifully signed my copy – I have the signed copy still – but didn’t frankly seem too happy with my choice. In retrospect, I think I can understand why: A Clockwork Orange, as a novel, is really no better and no worse than a great many other novels he had written, but its reputation far outstrips the others purely because it had famously, or infamously, been filmed by Stanley Kubrick; and Burgess’ authorial pride was very understandably hurt by being merely an adjunct to someone else’s work, to a mere film. And to make it worse, he did not seem to think too highly of that film to which his name was by then indissolubly attached. When I took up to his desk a Penguin copy of the novel, he waved at the picture on the cover featuring a bowler hat and a single eyelash, and said: “All this is Mr Kubrick’s invention, not mine.” And then, he added – and I use inverted commas as these were, I distinctly remember, his precise words – “sadly, Mr Kubrick misinterpreted my novel.”
I could, of course, have argued that Kubrick was creating his own work, using the novel as no more than a starting point, and, as such, was under no obligation to remain close either to the letter or to the spirit. But I didn’t, partly because I wouldn’t have had the nerve to engage in debate with so eminent a figure, and also because there was a long queue behind me of people waiting to get their Clockwork Oranges signed, Kubrick’s invention and all.
Anthony Burgess had been a very strong presence for me as I was growing up, and, without doubt, he helped shape my literary tastes and perceptions. I used to look forward to his book reviews in the Observer every Sunday (this was back in the days when Terence Kilmartin, translator of Proust, was their literary editor, and serious literature was taken seriously). These reviews were, as I remember, wonderful little essays, and I relished Burgess’ wit, his delight in putting together words in a manner that engaged and delighted, and the elegance and sparkle of it all. I enjoyed also, I admit, his rather grumpy and dyspeptic literary persona. I was then but a teenager, and, to be frank, I did not personally know anyone who shared my growing interest in literature sufficiently to discuss literary matters with me; and I most certainly did not know anyone sufficiently knowledgeable about literature to guide me. My literary conversation with Anthony Burgess was, admittedly, something of a one-way conversation, but it made its mark. There were times when I did find myself disappointed that Burgess did not always share my own taste: his strictures on Dostoyevsky, for instance, I remember finding particularly distressing, as Dostoyevsky was then – and remains still, albeit with grave reservations – something of a hero of mine. But I remember that his admiration for Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote had me going straight to the bookshop to place an order on it. And his boundless enthusiasm for Shakespeare and for Joyce – his two great literary heroes – was infectious. His biography of Shakespeare is both serious and unfailingly witty: I think I still see Shakespeare from the perspective presented in that book. And his book on Joyce I’d still recommend as the best introduction to this often intimidating writer. Indeed, when I wrote my own paean to Ulysses on this blog a few years ago, I had to be careful not to plagiarise. (Not consciously, at least: the unconscious echoes I don’t think I can be held responsible for.)
And there were the television appearances. Once again, although this was only some thirty or forty or so years ago, we are talking about very different times from our own: then it was considered quite acceptable to invite academics and scientists and opera singers and writers on to popular chat shows, rather than restrict the guest list only to showbiz celebrities. Anthony Burgess loved to appear on those shows, and he was a marvellous conversationalist, often eliciting more laughs from the audience than the professional comedians invited alongside him. It seemed almost a sort of revelation to me that one could write seriously about Shakespeare and Joyce, and still get huge laughs on the Wogan Show.
And he wrote also about music. Now, if literature was an area in which I could not engage in discussion with anyone I personally knew, classical music was way beyond the pale: neither my family nor my friends, nor, indeed, anyone else I knew, had the faintest idea about or interest in Western classical music. Burgess was not, admittedly, the first writer I’d turn to on the subject, but the very fact that he was knowledgeable about it, and could discourse on it with his characteristic wit and eloquence, and, above all, enthusiasm, made me warm to him. At the very least, it made me feel somewhat less strange for being so passionate about something that was greeted by all around me merely with a bewildered indifference.
I read some of Burgess’ novels as well. He wrote prolifically, and it would be foolish to claim that all his writings were on the same exalted level. And even considering him at his best – Earthly Powers, say – I’d hesitate to rank him amongst the foremost English novelists. But he was certainly at the head of the second division, and, to my mind, well ahead of many others who nowadays seem to enjoy a far higher reputation. And, whatever he wrote, he was unfailingly entertaining. He saw himself as a performer: the act of writing was, for him, putting on a performance for the reader. And they are wonderful performances – erudite, urbane, and sparkling. Brendan Behan once famously referred to Wodehouse as the “performing flea” of literature: Wodehouse was so delighted by this intended invective, that he used it as the title of his autobiography. But the term is better applied, I think, to Burgess, and I think he’d have taken it as a compliment also.
So when, recently, I found in a second-hand bookshop a book Burgess had written in 1991 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Mozart, I had to buy it. For if Anthony Burgess had been, in effect, my mentor in literary matters back in those days when my tastes were beginning to take shape, Mozart was the composer whose music I found myself turning to most often, and whose pre-eminence within my personal canon has never really been challenged.
I had not known about this book: Burgess wrote so many, that it’s easy for one or two to slip under the radar, as it were. It’s entitled On Mozart: A Paean for Wolfgang. But that’s only on the dust jacket. The title page gives a somewhat fuller version:
On Mozart: A Paean for Wolfgang
Being a celestial colloquy, an opera libretto, a film script, a schizophrenic dialogue, a bewildered rumination, a Stendhalian transcription, and a heartfelt homage upon the bicentenary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
And Burgess is as good as his word. We start off with a scene in heaven, featuring Beethoven and Mendelssohn, who are soon joined by Sergei Prokofiev and by Arthur Bliss, both of whom are celebrating their own centenaries, and, later, by Wagner. Their conversation, as they discuss how things stand in heaven and in earth, and how best to celebrate Mozart, is worthy of Shaw. Then we get an opera libretto: the opera is about Mozart, but the libretto, with its dazzling rhythms and unlikely rhymes, seems more designed for musical comedy than for opera. Between the acts, we are treated to heavenly conversations featuring Stendhal, Berlioz, Rossini, Schoenberg, Gershwin, etc. Even Henry James makes a surprise appearance for reasons that now escape me.
There follows the “Standhalian transcription”, although it seems more Joycean than Stendhalian to me: it is an attempt to tell a story using a musical structure – specifically, the structure of Mozart’s 40th symphony. I only know that it uses the structure of the 40th symphony because Burgess, very considerately, tells us so: there’s no way I’d have guessed otherwise. And the model seems to me not Stendhal at all, but Joyce – specifically, the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, in which quasi-musical effects are produced with words. However, I must admit to finding this passage tiresome: it’s the only tiresome passage in the entire book, but, thankfully, it’s only a few pages. Later, Burgess admits to its failure:
…things have occasionally to be done to show that they cannot be done.
Sorry, Anthony, but that’s pretty lame; but given how royally he entertained me the rest of the time, I’ll let that pass.
There follows the schizophrenic dialogue between two characters called Anthony and Burgess, which is interrupted by a few pages of a film-script – the subject of the film being, of course, Mozart. And then, after another brief scene in heaven with Beethoven and Mendelssohn, Burgess finishes off with his two selves put back together again, and, this time, speaking directly to the reader on the miracle that was Mozart.
Through all these fireworks, a great many themes are touched upon: the abstract nature of music; the definition of sentimentality and of vulgarity; the opposition between music as diversion, and – as Mozart puts it in the film-script – as “that language that reaches higher than the language of prayer, that tenuous golden chain that links the human soul to the divine essence”; art as an extension of craftsmanship, and as a legitimate product of professionalism; the characteristics in the various arts of Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modernist, and the relationship of these styles, even in the most abstract forms, to the societies in which they are created; the perception, or misperception, amongst many of a certain blandness in the music of Mozart; the breakdown of tonality; the significance of dance; and so on, and so forth. Perhaps, it may be said, Burgess does not delve into any of these themes deeply – but this book is not a thesis: it is, rather, an entertainment, and a very civilised entertainment it is too. Burgess, as ever, puts on a great performance.
This is not the greatest work I will read this year, nor the most profound. But for sheer fun, it’s hard to beat. It has been a long time since I last enjoyed Burgess’ company: reading this book was a bit like meeting up after a long separation with an old friend.