Jonathan Meades on Anthony Burgess: ‘The encyclopedia in his head was like the internet’

Jonathan Meades takes a look at 'The Ink Trade', a new selection of Anthony Burgess’s literary journalism gathered from previously uncollected reviews and essays from throughout his career.

In his introduction to this absorbing and scrupulously chosen collection of Anthony Burgess’s literary journalism, Will Carr quotes a 1972 interview in which the novelist talks about the benefits of book reviewing. For Country Life, ‘I had to review books on stable management, embroidery, car engines – very useful solid stuff, the very stuff of novels’.

He might have qualified that as ‘my novels’. For one of the many characteristics that set this giant of a writer apart from his contemporaries was his engagement with the everyday and his detachment from what passes for ‘the literary life’. Quite how simulated that detachment was is moot.

However, it is undeniable that a formidable knowledge of just about everything is evinced in his fiction. He was too modest when he claimed that all a novelist needs is ‘imagination and a children’s encyclopedia’. The encyclopedia in his head was like the internet. To spend any time with him was to be dazzled by his sheer volume of knowledge and his (oddly humble) desire to keep adding to that volume, to be a specialist in all fields, trivial meadows included. Burgess would have agreed with Housman’s dictum that ‘knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use’.

“His best work belongs to the Nabokovian tradition – inventive, shocking, brutally poetic and proddingly boastful about the very words it is composed from”

Most of his preoccupations manifest here will come as no surprise to his devotees: Joyce, the perpetual futility of using high literature as the basis of films and the coarse chimera of synergy, slang and its lexicographers, the crassness of TV in 1993 (when, by today’s standards, it was at least watchable), the disgusting paltriness of censors, the brilliance of V. S. Naipaul and William Burroughs, the usefulness of pornography, the joy of blasphemy and the inadequacy of prose (and poetry) in comparison to music, where several lines can be played simultaneously.

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Many of the pieces suggest that Burgess adhered to Wilde’s paradox in The Picture of Dorian Gray, that criticism is a form of autobiography, an ever-accreting bildungsroman marked not by events, but by thoughts, spiritual moods and imaginative passions. Criticism is, in Burgess’s case, an autobiography of multiple contradictions.

The most fundamental contradiction is the constantly implicit debate about the nature of fiction. Ought it to be opaque, like that of, say, Nabokov, where the style is, as Burgess has it, a ‘character’, or merely a narrative in the manner of Somerset Maugham or Priestley? Burgess lurched between the two, although there can be no doubt that, with the exception of The Malayan Trilogy, his best work belongs to the Nabokovian tradition – inventive, shocking, brutally poetic and proddingly boastful about the very words it is composed from.

Dessicated browning newsprint is seldom as entertaining as this dense and generous collection of enthusiasms, expressions of self-doubt and civilised muscularity.

The Ink Trade: Selected Journalism 1961-1993 by Anthony Burgess, Edited by Will Carr, is published by Carcanet, £19.99