Little Wilson and Big God

by Anthony Burgess
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 460 pp., $22.50

Anthony Burgess
Anthony Burgess; drawing by David Levine

I saw them coming, an army of two with banners. He was tall, pale, eyes narrowed from cigarette smoke of his own making (an eighty-a-day man for years); she was small, round faced, somewhat bloated. In the gracious plywood-paneled room, the hard stuff was flowing, and the flower of British book-chat and publishing was on hand to drink it all up in honor, not quite the noun, of my return, after a decade’s absence, to Literature, with a long reflection on the origins of Christianity, novelly disguised as a novel. The year, 1964.

She said in a loud clear voice, “You,” and then I ceased to understand her, “chung cheers boog sightee Joyce yearsen roscoe conkling.” I am certain that I heard the name of the nineteenth-century New York senator, and I turned to the man—the senator’s biographer?—and saw, like infected buttonholes, eyes I dare not meet in dreams. “Tchess.” He took up the refrain. “Boog Joyce venially blind, too, bolder.” I had been drinking, but not that much, while the tall man appeared sober. Obviously, I was having my chronic problem with English voices: the low rapid mumble, the urgent wheeze, the imploding dipthong, vowels wrongly stressed, and consonants long since gone west with the thirteen colonies.

We were separated. I was told that I had been talking to Anthony Burgess and his wife Lynne. Burgess had written some comic novels about life east of Maugham—or Suez; now there was a new book called A Clockwork Orange. I knew nothing of him except for one splendid anecdote. Under another name, he had reviewed one of his own books in a British paper. The Brits were horrified. I was delighted: Whitman had done the same. Besides, I was stern, shouldn’t there be at least one review in all of England written by someone who had actually read the book?

Again the army approached, banners raised high. We worked out a common language. Lynne was pissed off that my novel Julian was a Book Society choice. She was even more annoyed when I wanted to know what the Book Society was. I had a vision of aged flappers reciting Dorothy Richardson over sugary tea. The society was like an American book club, she growled. I apologized. This was not enough. Truth crackled in the air. A novel by Burgess had finally been chosen, in 1961; yet he was eight years my senior. I was too young to be so honored. I mounted my high horse, tethered conveniently near. “I have written more books than Mr. Burgess,” I said, settling myself into the saddle. “And over a greater length of time.” Swift, suspicious adding and subtracting was done as we ate small but heavy sausages, diapered in a fried bread and speared with lethal plastic tooth picks. True, eighteen years had passed since my first book was published (at twenty) and a mere…

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