Thursday, January 7, 2010


This is bloody good.

Its the first part of Anthony Burgess's autobiography set from his birth in 1917 until he believed he was dieing of a brain tumour in 1959. And as he says " I wasn't the spy Burgess."

"Confessions" in the sub-title is also apt, nothing is held back. Perhaps it was his Catholicism that made him so open, but what ever it was this is a fascinating read.

This Catholicism plays a large part in his life and it is always in the background and constantly referred to. This not to say he was a good Catholic, but like us all born one, once in never out.

He was brought up by a drunken father and an unloving stepmother after his natural mother died during the 1918 influenza epidemic. It was not a childhood of poverty however, he always had access to books, film and freedom as he was left alone for long periods.

As with all Burgess's books I needed a dictionary close at hand due to the fact I do not have his vocabulary but this is never a inconvenience due to the quality of the writing.

There is great humour throughout , especially when describing the ineptitude displayed by his officers during his service in the Second World War.

A great example of this being a 'memo' placed on a depot notice board instructing - "all illiterates to report for education classes at 8.00 pm."

Burgess's army stories show that Evelyn Waugh was not exaggerating with his tales of the fools in the officer class in the Sword of Honour trilogy.

The war reminiscence's are very insightful, telling how men sat around for years without any involvement in the war. Some were lucky enough to have nothing to do with it. the biggest danger they faced was boredom.

Another little gem for someone as shallow as myself is that according to Burgess, Welsh women are the sex machines of the UK. Useful information like this can be stored for a rainy day if the desire to pack up and head for the valleys ever comes over me.

Burgess followed his own beliefs here and married a Welsh woman whom he stayed married to and loved for 30 years until she succumbed to cirrhosis due to her alcoholism.

Both parts of the marriage were afraid of neither a drink or an affair. The marriage was open and many opportunities were taken by both.

On landing in Singapore en route to take up a teaching position in Malaya, Lynne, his wife was laid up in bed with exhaustion. So Jack,as he was then (John Burgess Wilson) goes for a wander out of the hotel and picks up a prostitute in Bugis Street.

Now as shallow as I am, this was a bit tacky and sad. But confessions its called and confessions we get.

It was in Malaya that he began writing, and I am very grateful that he did, because he is the greatest 20th century novelist. He inches out Evelyn Waugh because he took a few more risks and kept working. Burgess and Waugh both liked a drink but I think Waugh gave up writing prematurely and of course died young.

The only problem with this book is that it ends and I now have to go out and find part two.

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