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Roger Lewis. Anthony Burgess: A Biography.

Roger Lewis. Anthony Burgess: A Biography. New York. St. Martin's. 2004. xl + 438 pages + 8 plates. $27.95. ISBN 0-312-32251-8

ROGER LEWIS'S BIOGRAPHY chronicles Anthony Burgess's life as it details disillusionment and lost esteem: namely, Lewis's for Burgess himself. Like the plaintiff in a nasty, acrimonious divorce, Lewis writes of "Burgess as he seemed to me then [as an Oxford graduate student, mid-1980s, and] as he seems to me now: it's a double story. How I was then, how I am now.... Where once I was attuned to his egotistical sublimity and vividness, this appears, after a lapse of time, straightforward calling-attention-to-oneself behaviour (on his part) and a need to bide intellectual insecurity behind over-literariness (on mine)."

Burgess's writings--and his life--allegedly lacked feelings; he had "little insight into the variety or inner lives of others--or of himself." His later "inflated epics," based in history and research (gasp!), allegedly lack concern with "reverberations of failed love affairs in Hampstead"--Burgess's disdainful term for fiction chronicling Suburban Angst and the domestic mundane. His phenomenal productivity, his self-evident erudition, and his language-play were mere compulsive showing off, Lewis contends--bad format Oxford, you know, deplorably predictable from a non-Oxford, "weak-eyed motherless swot who thought that being a bookworm would get him anywhere."

The index lists individual character flaws: anger, austerity, boastfulness, callousness, conservatism, detachment, didacticism, egotism, exaggeration, fearful[ness], fecundity, flamboyance, grandiosity, humourless[ness], isolation, liar, megalomania, misanthropy, obstinacy, pretentiousness, pride, self-praise, self-righteousness, [and] a show-off, among others. Within two pages, the reader learns that Burgess was "a bigot and a buffoon ... [who] never learned to relax.... He hate[d] his body.... I think he hated being a human being--and was only happy to be inside his head ... working all day." Something psychologists term reactive attachment disorder adds fifteen more neurotic symptoms. Burgess's physical appearance gets sneeringly derided, too. In fact, almost any two pages at random yield relentless, ultimately monotonous, personal animus. A chronology and select bibliography precede the text, so that Burgess's achievements won't impede almost unrelenting vituperation.

Intermittently, with almost supercilious ease, Lewis affords remarkably astute insights into Burgess's oeuvre--often in footnotes. He condescends toward all other published scholarship on Burgess as the work of "second-rate scholar-squirrels [Gore Vidal's epithet, here recycled without acknowledgment] from unheard-of institutions"; they're then listed by name and university affiliation. Nevertheless, Lewis's own lengthy, sciolistic footnote on Burgess's book for children, A Long Trip to Teatime, is virtually a Nabokovian parody of scholarship itself, clearly separating the true scholiast from the mere professoriate. Teatime is a "cryptograph" replete with arcane allusions to Dickens's Mystery of Edwin Drood and other Victoriana, Lewis explains--and "a fucking farrago" (italics his). No mere provincial academic could or would have told us that.

In Lewis's final paragraph and in the epigraph, Burgess is eulogized as "a great writer who, paradoxically, never wrote a great book"--and as "a prince of the powers of the air; a mountain range full of ravines and waterfalls, torrents, crags and snowfields, casting a shadow for leagues over the plains ... [even if his] house of fiction, for all its flights of stairs, antechambers, labyrinthine libraries, annexes, sliding panels, trapdoors, secret rooms, chambers of horrors and ornate carvings, is a bit gim-crack." That author's biography remains to be written; Lewis's version, saturated in personal animosity, offers dismayingly little support for such an assessment. Lewis's two previous books were show-biz biographies (Laurence Olivier, Peter Sellers); he now aspires to the literary iconoclasm of Lytton Stratchey but attains only the cattiness of Kitty Kelley.

William Hutchings

University of Alabama at Birmingham
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Author:Hutchings, William
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2005
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