Tuesday, October 21, 2008

`Extraordinary Performances'

The first famous writer I met – the first celebrity from any profession – was Anthony Burgess. This was in early April 1971, at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. I was 18, a freshman, and Burgess was approaching the zenith of his fame: Less than a year later Stanley Kubrick released A Clockwork Orange based on Burgess’ 1962 novel.

The week before his visit to campus, Burgess had appeared on Dick Cavett’s show, and I watched it with friends. At Bowling Green he read from his soon-to-be-published novel M/F and took questions from the audience. Someone asked, “What’s Dick Cavett [then at the zenith of his fame] really like?” and Burgess replied, “He has read all of Henry James.” The audience was filled with science fiction fans. At the time, Burgess, with Heinlein, Vonnegut, Hesse, Tolkien and a few others enjoyed vast, dope-driven popularity beyond the bookish ghetto, though Burgess was clearly the finest writer among them.

I remember almost nothing of the literary portion of the evening. I crashed a reception for Burgess, though I have no memory of where it was held, and got very drunk on free English Department liquor. On our way back to the dormitory, my roommate and I climbed to the top of the old football stadium, then being razed, and dropped glass bricks onto the adjacent parking lot from a height of about 25 yards. The crash and the accompanying Whoomp! were deeply satisfying and attracted the attention of the campus police. We were not apprehended.

I bring this up not as a tired war story but a reminder of the fickle nature of literary renown and the perils of memory. Burgess, more than most writers, was hugely prolific and much loved by readers. Since his death in 1993 his reputation has eclipsed. I read perhaps 10 or 12 of his books, most everything published through the early nineteen-seventies, including M/F and much of the nonfiction, and I remember almost nothing. I recall numerous scenes from Kubrick’s awful film and they seem to have displaced whatever I once retained of the book. In other words, I devoted hundreds of hours of my young life to Burgess, and what has it left me? I don’t say this out of despair or resentment, and I don’t feel cheated. I have a generalized memory of enjoying Burgess’ Joycean wordplay, particularly in the Enderby novels and M/F, but I can’t cite an example and probably couldn’t do so even with the books in hand.

Frank Wilson has often praised Earthly Powers (1980), most recently here. As an experiment I’ve ordered it through the library. I’m curious to see how, after more than three decades, I react to a writer I once prized so highly. For now I’m browsing through Burgess’ The Novel Now: A Guide to the Contemporary Fiction (1967) and Urgent Copy (1968). I read both almost 40 years ago and they helped introduce me to several English writers I learned to love (Waugh, Powell, Spark) and confirmed my love for some of the recent American masters (Bellow, Nabokov, Malamud). I found this Joycean credo in the final essay in Urgent Copy, “Epilogue: Conflict and Confluence”:

“I like my pie here and now. That’s why I trust the artist more than the Marxist or the theologian. That’s why I regard the artist’s trade not merely the most honourable but also the most holy. The vision of unity, which is what the artist sells, is preferable to any mere religious or metaphysical manifesto.”

An anonymous reader asked on Monday in regard to recent posts concerning Dr. Johnson, “how [do] you come across these quotes you post? Do you have that good of a memory, or are these things that you've come across in the last day or so?” Both. Like Burgess, I’m blessed with a large but capricious memory. Sometimes I remember only an image or sentiment, even a single word, and then I hunt for it, online or hard copy. Multiple readings over many years give me the advantage of reinforced familiarity – perhaps the secret of a reliable memory. That hasn’t been my experience with Burgess but it is with Dr. Johnson. About the transitoriness of reputation and renown, consider The Rambler #78, published Dec. 15, 1750:

“"That desire which every man feels of being remembered and lamented is often mortified when we remark how little concern is caused by the eternal departure even of those who have passed their lives with public honors, and been distinguished by extraordinary performances.”

3 comments:

Ron Slate said...

Amazing to recall that American talk shows once accommodated a mind and raconteur like Burgess. It was once assumed that there was a large enough slice of the Neilson-measured audience eager to be entertained by such a vibrant personality and able to appreciate it ... Another such big character, Harold Bloom, on Charlie Rose's program, said that Burgess' novel NOTHING LIKE THE SUN is one of the best books on Shakespeare, period. I concur.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Burgess has a chapter in Kingsley Amis' Memoirs, wherein Amis laments his own inability to say a good word about any of Burgess' books.

Will said...

I'm enjoying Burgess's 1977 novel Abba Abba, recommended by the Neglected Books page editor.