Anthony Burgess is an inspiration to life’s late starters. The British novelist did not publish his first work until he was 39. Later he made up for lost time, churning out 28 more novels, 15 books of literary criticism, two children’s books, a volume of poetry and several translations. He is 70 now and, as he acknowledges in the first instalment of his projected twovolume autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God, near the end of his creative powers. Burgess even suggests that after he finishes his life story he will write no more. Perhaps—but no one should count on it. Burgess is compelled to pound his typewriter the way other people are compelled to breathe. Little Wilson and Big God is a testimony less to his artistry than his compulsive prolixity. Vast, careless and sometimes tedious, it is also littered with marvellous anecdotes and punctuated with its author’s dark, irascible and utterly infectious laughter.
If Little Wilson and Big God proves anything, it is that Burgess is a survivor. He was born John Burgess Wilson in 1917 to a Manchester soldier and his wife. But his struggles began two years later, when his mother and sister were fatally struck by Spanish influenza. As Burgess tells it, his father came home one day to find his womenfolk dead in one bed, while across the room
tiny Jack Wilson lay chuckling in another.
Burgess was brought up by a stepmother who cared little for him. In a startling admission, Burgess writes that his loveless childhood is to blame for “the emotional coldness that has marred my work.” Such candor makes Burgess immensely likable and gives the chapters of the first part of his life a subtle poignancy. For much of his first 40 years, Burgess looked like a man going nowhere. He drank too much, chased too many women and was a failure in his first calling, as a classical composer. It was not until he and his wife moved to what was then called Malaya in 1954 that he wrote his first published novel, Time for a Tiger.
But his writing career did not really take off until 1959, when doctors mistakenly diagnosed a brain tumor and he was told that he had only a year to live. Little Wilson and Big God ends just as Burgess receives the terrible news. “I had been granted something I had never had before: a whole year to live,” he writes. “I would not be run over by a bus tomorrow, nor knifed at the Brighton race track.” Fortified by that, Burgess started hammering out more novels, painfully aware that the final confrontation between little Wilson and big God was close at hand. Readers of his autobiography’s first volume can only hope that their meeting is postponed for a good while yet.
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