"Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. . ."
The waiter has brought him Camembert, not Cheddar, the afternoon light is failing, the darkness is descending, and Anthony Burgess, who has heard the voices of the dead in the trees of Malaysia and watched the work of voodoo there, and talks of evil as others might mention the stock market, and applied the structuralism of Levi-Strauss to the thrust of the centurion's spear in the side of Christ, is watching Toni Tennille.
The golden image on the screen is bobbing her golden head encouragingly at her guest, who goes by the name of David Copperfield. "I've never seen this one before," Burgess says from his corner of the couch. "But I always watch the talk shows when I'm here. It's a way of learning about what's going on in this country. In Ohio, there was an outbreak of some virus and everyone was acting as if it had come from outer space until they discovered it was an outbreak of a particularly virulent form of herpes. And, two weeks later, I watched a show where they talked about women dying from using the wrong kind of tampon. This is a great country for new diseases. Europeans, I think, are more resigned to death -- we are burdened by the past."
At 63, Burgess is most famous for "A Clockwork Orange" (a fact that provokes him to a shuddering groan). But he has written 42 other books as well, after having started rather late for a writer. At age 41, he wrote five books within the space of a year after being told that that was all the time he had left to live. "A constantly astonishing writer," says one critic. "Writer's block?" says Anthony Burgess. "Never had it. That would be rather like a cobbler having cobbler's block, wouldn't it? You just push on."
His latest book, "Earthly Powers," has brought him to America, a country he observes with fascination. "There is a lot of money in America," he says, "a lot of money, just waiting to be used." The book is his longest and most ambitious, playing on themes of good and evil, God and man, "a fine, angry book for anyone who has ever given thought to the incalculability of god," as one review described it.
He finds his refuge in literature. "Literature is subversive," he says. "It denies there is one truth, that there is simplicity. Shakespeare told no lies." With lesser authors, he is less kind. Norman Mailer, for instance. "A very vituperous man, but I admire him, though I wish he wouldn't play his Mafioso game. He should have turned out a novel by now, instead of a thousand pages about a bloody criminal, making him into some existential hero of our time. That bloody fool Capote started it -- that quote in the beginning of 'In Cold Blood' about how these men are our brothers. It's true in a sense, but it's not right. People love that sort of thing. It's the death urge, I suppose, death and sex come very close together -- oh, we're damned, we're damned, we're damned."
A sigh, a flick of the ash from the cigar he's holding. Solitude surrounds him, constant companion of the exile. He wears an air of distraction as muted as his green suit.
He lives now in Monaco, with his second wife and their 16-year-old son. The move there was made in haste from Italy several years ago, after an "ex-Mafioso" warned them that their son was next in line to be kidnaped. But by then, the wandering had long been a part of his life, beginning, in its way, when his father, who played piano in a Manchester music hall, and composed his soul in the Manchester pubs, came home to find his wife (a singer and actress known as Beautiful Belle Burgess) and his daughter dead of influenza and the infant Anthony crying in his crib. His father remarried -- "an illiterate Irishwoman" -- and Burgess spent most of his time alone, listening to music on a homemade wireless.
Burgess was educated at the Xaverian College in Manchester, and at the University of Manchester, and while he did return to England after the war, there was a way in which, he says, he never came back. "One never goes back, you know, the war disrupted all our lives, there was a need for a fresh start." He taught grammar school in Banbury for a while, "a terrible time, there was no money anywhere," and then, in what he reconstructs as an act of drunken decision making, he applied to be a foreign civil servant in Malaysia. dHe had meant his destination to be the Channel Islands.
In Malaysia he learned the dialects spoken by the people there and something of their lives as well, not just the anorexic planters' wives of Somerset Maugham, but the natives living under the last lash of British colonialism. He confronted evil in the form of a Tamil who was the head of the local public works department, an ugly squat little man, as Burgess describes him, who became enamored of Burgess' first wife, Lynne, blond and blue-eyed.
They were having a drink at the bar, says Burgess, when the Tamil caused him to leave the bar by making him feel very ill. "Then he changed his appearance, he made himself quite handsome to my wife and took her away in his car. I followed them, and we entered my house, where he asked for a glass of water. That's how they get control of you, of course, by getting hold of something that is yours. I refused. I said, 'I can see a fiery cross on your head,' and he went away."
The dread was not confined to the dark tropical nights. In the offices in the King's Pavilion where he worked, he remembers, there was one room that had been used for interrogating prisoners during World War II. The room was always freezing, no matter what the temperature outside, and it was caked in blood that could not be removed."In the trees outside, you could hear the voices of the dead -- you knew that's what they were. They were voices without any humanity in them."
The specter of his own death confronted him in 1959, when he was diagnosed as having a brain tumor that would leave him only a year to live. He wrote the five novels in that year ("the total output of E.M. Forster," as he points out) in the hopes of leaving his wife with a sufficient legacy. At the end of the year the verdict was withdrawn -- a mistake had been made. But by then he had been sent home to England and it was his wife who was destined to suffer an untimely death.
She died in 1968, after a slow, steady deterioration that Burgess believes began with an incident that happened to her during to the World War II and which ultimately proved the inspiration for "A Clockwork Orange." Late one night, she was set upon by three American soldiers, lost the child she was carrying, and never fully recovered. When she died, he married an Italian contessa, by whom he already had a 4-year-old son, and moved with her to Italy.
"You can't get rid of the dead, you know," he says, his voice retreating with his thoughts. "I still get visitations. I dream that I see her and I say, 'but you're supposed to be dead! It's a terrifying situation -- what would you do if someone you loved came back like that, after life had gone on?"
The phone call that came to tell him his first wife lay dying came at 3:49 a.m., he remembers. One week later, the phone rang again, at exactly the same time. It was the American actor, William Conrad, asking him to come to Hollywood, Burgess explained the circumstances. Death's a lot of crap, said Conrad. Come to Hollywood, he said, promising Burgess the kind of dalliance that dies before the dawn.
Burgess repeats the precise words Conrad used, making them sound more foreign than any of the nine languages he knows. Not possible, he says, "I have to love. But oh my God, my God, the word love doesn't exist anymore." He tells the tale of teaching a college campus and talking to some of the women students there. "And they would tell me how many men they'd had and I would ask them how many had said I love you. And they said that none of them had." The pale blue eyes look incredulous, widen further when the subject turns to marriage. "In America, you have so much divorce -- perhaps because adultery was once a capital crime. You've ended up with serial polygamy."
Burgess himself does not believe in divorce. "I've had the same troubles as anybody else, but I was married once for 26 years, the other for 12 years.I'm a much married man. The family is the only community that has values that can be pitted against the state, you protect it against the rest of the world. There's a certain satisfaction in that."
And yet, he is uncomfortable with the word emotion, shifting uneasily when it is mentioned that critics have sometimes found his work brilliant, but somewhat passionless. "Yes, yes, I've heard that," he says. "I've always been unwilling to show affection, even to my son. We call each other 'sir' -- is that bad?
"Someday," he says, "I'd like to write a novel that milks people's hearts. I'd like to make them cry, just to show I have a heart."
But passion leaps the barrier of his reserve when he talks of the Catholic Church, whose fold he left at 16, but whose precepts define him still. "Earthly Powers" contains as a central character a figure based in part on Pope John XXIII. "A whole area of my heart was cauterized," Burgess says of his reaction to the ecumenical reforms begun by the late pope. b"Pope John was intended for Reader's Digest. He killed the intellectual vitality of the church. Things were not redefined. The central authority of the church was destroyed.
"The words!" he says, his voice rising. "The words are so dangerous. In Africa, there are places where they say the mass with bits of animal flesh hanging from the cross and use animal blood at communion -- they took the translation of what in English is 'This is My Body, This is My Blood' quite literally. John XXIII showed a terrible innocence of what the world is really like. In Arabic, God becomes Allah, it becomes very confusing. You have to control the world. You have to control the ambiguities of life."
In addition, Burgess maintains, Pope John made it all the harder to recognize evil, a subject which he takes up as eagerly as others do the theory of transference. "I think he had a terrible influence on the young. By making evil something outside of man, a Charles Manson can say, 'It wasn't me who did these things, something got into me, it was due to some diabolic force.' I think in the moral sphere, we are totally free, but one has to be instructed."
If the devil is within, the God without provides cold comfort. "The God we worship is a destroyer," Burgess says. "He is just malevolent. Things wouldn't be so bad if there weren't a God. He has to be placated." It is interesting to note, Burgess says, that "during World War II, during the Nazis, there were no earthquakes. It was left to man to do the dirty work."
Christ, on the other hand, "is a fine idea. It is his father who is totally unmoved. God had done me very little harm. It is always the innocent who suffer -- those poor pious people in southern Italy, for example." No, he doesn't think he willever return to the church. "Perhaps I'd become a Jew. They're used to the idea of God being very bad to them. Just look at the book of Job."
At a local bookstore, where he patiently signs autographs for over two hours, Burgess serves up a quick pastiche of conversation to the endless line of admirers that have come for this signature. "I'm actually three people," says a young man as he presents him with three books to be autographed to different people. "Ah, says Burgess, "Father, Son and Holy Ghost." Someone presents him with "A Clockwork Orange" for his signature and Burgess shrinks away. "That horror," he says, "that horror." Another asks for his autograph in a copy of Camus' "The Plague." "What should I write?" he asks. "That I wish I'd written it? But I don't wish I'd written it." He draws an orange in some of the books, signs his name in Arabic for others. One admirer tells him that she has read all his books. "And has it changed your life?" asks the author. A disconcerted pause. "No," he says, answering his own question. "I don't suppose it has." p
The artist as the afternoon is ending: "As I get older," he says quietly, "there are fewer and fewer new sensations in which to take pleasure, although there is always pleasure in good literature, good painting, good architecture. These things are always there." He does not find the same solace in friendship. "I've never really cultivated friends," he says. He writes every day, working on each page until he is thoroughly satisfied with it before moving on to the next. He stops to do the marketing, and to cook the evening meal. He reads voraciously, at times old favorites (at the moment "The Purgatorio," at others, "any trash I can find.") He tries to help the young writers that come to him for advice. They are always, he says, "ungrateful."
Burgess seems at times to roam in his own sort of literary purgatory, exiled from the comfortable complacency of the Oxbridge set by his own Manchester education. Does he feel shut out? "Oh, yes, oh, yes," he says with an indifferent shrug. "They accept me with a mixture of diffidence and disdain." He mentions a British literary award for which he was in competition with William Golding. "I think I deserved it more than he did. cBut he belongs to the establishment and I don't -- there's a great deal of that."
It is not, he insists, honors that he wants out of life now, and besides there is not much celebrity involved in being a writer these days. "Oh, they call you cher maitre, caro maestro, he says, caressing the words with polylingual irony, "but the television stars are the celebrities these days. The talk show hosts, like your Johnny Carson. Johnny Carson! It's not like a Lindbergh being a celebrity, is it? But they're all alike really, all so bright, so inane, with so many teeth."
Now, says Anthony Burgess, he wants only, "a quiet life, a measure of peace, a peaceful death. There are a couple of novels I want to write, a couple of decent books. I've no right to have lived this long, so many good writers were dead before they were 68. Life after death? No, I don't believe in it. We're not important enough. We're just an interesting experiment contained within history."
He is at work now on a novel that will be told from the point of view of a lower-class English girl and wants to do another about a man in Los Angeles watching three television sets -- one tuned to a James Bond movie, another to a program on Sigmund Freud, and the third to a disaster movie. "There are things I have to say -- the period from '45 to '80, I have to deal with that, with the things that have happened." Television, for instance. "People are no longer able to distinguish between the real and the imagined. Moral judgments change, moral and esthetic judgments become one. Television," he says, "sets a premium on ignorance," and meditate for a moment on the metaphysics of "The Gong Show." Those people humiliate themselves. Why will they do it? Why? Why? That's what I've got to find out."
There is an esthetic of the novel Burgess wants to write and a trip to Africa he plans to make -- "I want to spend a lot of time there. I think it's a place where something might be found."
But the reality is still in Europe. It is, he says, "the main current of Western civilization, the land of the garlic and the olive. You have a sense that you are home on the Mediterranean. It was the cradle of civilization. You don't get that sense on the Hudson or the Potomac."
And it is on the Mediterranean that Anthony Burgess believes he will die.
"Although I would prefer to die in Rome." Why Rome? The answer to him is obvious. "Because," he says, "it is the center of civilization, the center of faith."