BUT DO BLONDES PREFER GENTLEMEN? Homage to QWERT YUIOP and Other Writings. By Anthony Burgess. McGraw-Hill. 589 pp. $24.95.
BERNARD SHAW has commented on the avidity with which music enthusiasts will read reviews of performances long past; so also there are people who get a special sort of pleasure from reading reviews of books which they may have read, or may have meant to read, or which they did not know existed. I am one of this kind, and I have read this collection of Anthony Burgess' reviews with undiminished satisfaction, right up to the 589th page. I would recommend it as a fine bedside book but its effect is not to encourage sleep, only to banish it.
Anthony Burgess is surely one of our foremost enthusiasts among literary men. I use the word in its primary sense of "god- possessed"; the god that possesses Burgess is literature, with special emphasis on literature as language. Again and again he emphasizes that books are not made up primarily of thoughts but of words, and the writer who thinks that his thought will make up for sloppy, or tasteless, or even illiterate writing is hopelessly wrong. He does not call for a mandarin form of English; his enthusiasm embraces all sorts of English, and he has a soft spot for what he calls Crimespeak and Yidglish. What he has no patience with is muddled, flashy language reflecting, as it must, muddled, flashy thought. "We're living in a very cynical world, also sentimental, also ill-educated, also vulgar," he writes, and much of what is published in a society where more books come out in a year than might have appeared in a decade two hundred years ago are what he very properly calls "rabbit- droppings." And rabbit-droppings, as every gardener knows, are bad manure; things grow not because of but in spite of them.
This is not to say that he is one of those savage, snarling critics who rip books apart to give pain, pouncing on ineptitudes and stupidities with minatory glee. Like a true enthusiast, he would rather review a book he likes than one that disgusts him, and most of the reviews preserved in this collection are friendly and often generous in their admiration. But every reviewer meets with books against which he thinks readers ought to be warned, and the warning must be sharply worded. He is dead against the modern craze for "creativity," which insists that anything that anybody -- talented or not -- chooses to say or write or paint deserves sympathetic consideration. "Nous sommes tous des artistes ces jours," said "a haired and barefoot pot-smoker" to Burgess at the University of Nantes recently. "That is a growing view and the consequence of misguided democracy," says Burgess. "We all have a right to everything, to speak of the greatness of Shakespeare or Mozart is elitism, and we may all wear tee-shirts proclaiming we went to Princeton or Harvard. Jangle guitar strings and you are ipso facto a musician, daub ordure on canvas and who will deny you are a painter? Shout alliterative words of protest and you are bound to be a poet." Also, I may say from recent personal experience, if you assert archetypal patterns from the Bible or the great mythologies, you may be rebuked for irrelevancy, because the spiritual power of our day obviously inheres in science fiction and the epiphanies of Disneyland. It is unpopular in some quarters to insist that art is the product of talented people who work like slaves to body forth their talent in worthy forms. "Art is rare and sacred and hard work, and there ought to be a wall of fire around it," says Anthony Burgess. Yea verily, and amen. "There is no substitute for craft." Bang on, brother.
He is no pedant; artists and enthusiasts cannot be pedants. The scope of their sympathy is too wide for what is merely pernickety. Nor is he awed by academic opinions. As a writer about good literature he is possessed of an uncommon advantage, for he is a musician and a composer, which divides him from those critics who have refined literary sensibility hampered by a tin ear. His revaluation of the poems of Thomas Moore rests on the fact that he treats Moore as a musician, exquisitely sensitive to the Irish airs for which he provided new words. Moore was a musician with a good classical education, and his lyric "At the mid hour of night, when stars are weeping. . ." shows that he could wed a fine old tune and a classic meter as no other poet in English has been able to do. This is the kind of valuable insight that Burgess can provide in intervals of scolding the French for their Cartesian aridity, and walloping the get-penny vendors of what he calls Telejesus and Mediachrist.
He holds the balance fairly when discussing writing which is essentially political or sociological in its inspiration -- protest writing, racial-equality writing or feminist writing. Such books are not literary art nor are they intended to be, but there is a good deal of muddy thinking today which feels that writing is best when it serves a cause. It is this attitude, carried to its logical limit, that makes the writing of the USSR what it is. He is not sympathetic toward wails about a supposed nuclear holocaust; lapsed Catholic though he may be, he still thinks God knows His own business better than the journalistic Chicken- Lickens who shriek that the sky is falling. He is very sound on the Novel, that much picked mass of bones, and, although he does not say so, he seems to think that the relationship between Scheherazade and the Caliph Schariyar has much to suggest to the writer of fiction. I must not close without saying a word of special praise for his fine review of the 20 volumes of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which would make clear to the stone deaf why this is a very important book.
In concusion I must declare what politicians call a conflict of interest: this book contains a most complimentary notice of a novel of mine. But does that influence me? Shame on you for asking! Am I not the Lucius Junius Brutus of reviewers?