Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess

Having a marble bust of your head on the front cover is pretty badass, btw

Little Wilson and Big God is the idiosyncratic title of part one of novelist Anthony Burgess’s autobiography. The volume chronicles the author’s life from birth until his forty-third year - this juncture chosen as it was at that point that Burgess became a full-time novelist. Prior to reading his memoir, my only other frame of reference for Burgess was as the author of A Clockwork Orange which, I must confess, I didn’t particularly care for (the film was better).

Little Wilson and Big God recounts the life and times of John B. Wilson, as Burgess was known before adopting his better-known moniker for commercial reasons (a publisher told him that he needed a name more distinctive than John Wilson). Wilson/Burgess’s coming of age coincided with many of the seminal events of the 20th century, so the memoir plays out against an engaging backdrop. Burgess was born towards the end of the First World War, his mother dying in the influenza epidemic that followed the conflict. He served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War, and spent most of the war stationed in Gibraltar. After the war, Burgess joined the colonial service, and was stationed in Malaysia (Malaya, as it was at the time) and Borneo during the twilight of the British Empire.

The book reveals Burgess as quite the Renaissance man. Aside from writing, Burgess was also an artist and a linguist, and had aspirations as a composer: among other works, he produced a musical adaptation of the novel Ulysses. Joyce is one of Burgess’s fixations: he laboriously conveyed Finnegan’s Wake around with him for the entire Second World War under the mistaken assumption that it is a real book (it isn’t).

The memoir occasionally lags a bit when Burgess gets on one of his numerous hobby horses. And I know that it’s his autobiography and everything, but the poetry. Just when the narrative is getting particularly engaging, the author will stop to regale the reader with a sample of his verse (mediocrity in the Modernist mode, for the record). And Burgess regrettably reverts to that favourite motif of mid-20th century British authors: Catholic guilt. El Tarangu was raised RC, and yet we never seem to suffer the existential crises that so afflict the likes of Burgess and Graham Greene. As a matter of fact, the two were neighbours in Monaco, where Burgess had moved to escape Britain’s punitive tax regime. They probably had a high time in sunny Monaco, not paying tax and discussing their theologically-induced guilt complexes to their hearts’ content.

Bad poetry and belaboured Catholicism aside, Little Wilson and Big God is still a thoroughly enjoyable literary memoir. Roll on part two, which will presumably come with Stanley Kubrick anecdotes included.

Buy Little Wilson and Big God on Amazon (for one cent!)

No comments:

Post a Comment