Wednesday, January 21, 2015

`The Only Thing in the World That Matters'

“To some of us, the wresting of beauty out of language is the only thing in the world that matters.” 

This is from Anthony Burgess’ least-read book, English Literature: A Survey for Students (1958, rev. 1974), a characteristically overachieving undertaking in which Burgess presumes to read everything written from Beowulf to Kingsley Amis. It’s the only book he published under his given name, John Burgess Wilson. Seasoned readers will learn little about the history of English literature but Burgess, a literary raconteur, will often keep them amused: “The English are sometimes said to be mad: this is certainly a tradition in some European countries. It is hard to say what this means, but possibly it refers to impatience with restrictions, dislike with anything which interferes with personal liberty.” 

Burgess shares the sentiment, and favors writers who are waywardly sui generis – Swift, Sterne, Joyce. Like them, Burgess, who was born in Manchester, carries a strong Irish taint. I still associate him with that bunch, along with Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett, all of whom I was reading while an undergraduate more than forty years ago. One of my nagging regrets is not having spent more time talking to Burgess when he visited our campus in April 1971. I attended his reading and talk (his novel M/F and Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange were soon to appear), which were entertaining, and crashed the author’s reception, getting drunk (at age eighteen) on free English Department liquor. But I was intimidated by his fame and didn’t wish to appear a sycophant, so mostly I remained a spectator. In a 1973 interview published in Studies in the Novel (collected in Conversations with Anthony Burgess, 2008), Burgess sized up the university students of that era: 

“I am curious as to what people write, and I am prepared to be sympathetic to students whose velleities I understand for the most part, but they don’t make any effort to meet me. They won’t read the books that I’ve read, although I read the books they’ve read. They will not bring to a course I give the requisite background. They don’t think it is necessary. They don’t think any preparation is necessary. They will not read the books of the past. You must read them before you reject them. You must know what you are rejecting.” 

Burgess goes on to condemn the era’s flourishing drug culture and the literary trash du jour among students – Hesse, Vonnegut, Tolkien. “All these idols disappear [at least two of them haven’t, I’m sorry to say],” he goes on. “They look for the wrong things in a book. They look for content rather than form, and they honestly believe the world can be changed.” They are (we were), in short, nearly as sub-literate as most students today. I sense that even Burgess, who was never a great writer but almost always a good, entertaining writer, is largely unread, despite the ongoing popularity of Kubrick’s film. Here is the larger passage from which the line quoted at the top was excerpted: 

“The story of English literature, viewed aesthetically, is one thing; the story of English writers is quite another. The price of contributing to the greatest literature the world has ever seen is often struggle and penury: art is still too often its own reward. It is salutary sometimes to think of the early deaths of Keats, Shelley, Byron, Chatterton, Dylan Thomas, of the Grub Street struggles of Dr. Johnson, the despair of Gissing and Francis Thompson. That so many writers have been prepared to accept a kind of martyrdom is the best tribute that flesh can pay to the living spirit of man as expressed in his literature. One cannot doubt that the martyrdom will continue to be gladly embraced. To some of us, the wresting of beauty out of language is the only thing in the world that matters.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Hear hear!