And what a time it has been! Novelist, composer, sometime poet, part-time pedant, Anthony Burgess may have written more books, spoken more languages and made love to more women than the entire male population of Arkansas.
In "You've Had Your Time," the second part of his autobiographical "confessions," Burgess conducts us through a first-rate tour of his fascinating life with the familiar understated humor that is the trademark of his best novels, such as the superb "Enderby."He breezes through this remarkable journey with aplomb that makes all his accomplishments seem effortless. Now 75, Burgess presents us with the best account I've ever seen of what the life of a nomadic free-lance writer is like. He also provides, though regrettably to a lesser extent, glimpses into the workings of the creative process.
Here's a small sample of what Burgess's life was like: Late in 1963, still haunted by a dream he had that predicted John F. Kennedy's death, Burgess went to Chiswick to secure a small house for himself and his by-then alcoholic wife, Lynne. He meets a ravishingly beautiful Italian girl, Liana, who is married to a black American professor, named, improbably, Ben Johnson. They make love on cushions on the floor of the unfurnished house.
She then vanishes from the stage. Five years later, with Burgess's wife now dead of cirrhosis, the Italian turns up and casually announces that she is the mother of Burgess's 4-year-old son, a lad named Paolo Andrea who has a passion for eating raw bacon and running around naked. Burgess falls totally and immediately in love and wants her to marry him. Eventually, she more or less agrees, after disentangling herself from her current live-in boyfriend.
The Burgesses buy a sort of bulky house trailer called a Bedford Dormobile and set out on Europe's highways, ending up more or less in Malta, then later in Italy and Switzerland, and living to this day more, rather than less, happily ever after.
The life of the author born John Wilson in Manchester, England, in 1916 has never been simple or tidy, as even cursory fans may have guessed. Three years ago, the first volume of these confessions, "Little Wilson and Big God," opened the curtain on a dreadful scene; Burgess's father returns from the war to find baby John cooing in his crib - and his mother and sister dead nearby in their beds, casualties of the influenza epidemic of 1918.
Young John grew up in pubs and among publicans; fell in love with music and literature, especially James Joyce, and went off to Malaya to be a teacher.
The story of how Burgess became a writer is well known, but may deserve one more retelling: In the late 1950s he was diagnosed with brain cancer and told he had a year or less to live. His wife was sick, unable to work (due largely to a ghastly episode that figures in Burgess's best-selling "Clockwork Orange") and they were essentially penniless. Burgess set out to become a novelist, on the theory than any fool could write novels. He wrote five in a year, found his brain tumor had mysteriously disappeared and went on writing.
Among many other things, Burgess is a noted aficionado of Shakespeare, and this marvelous book makes it accidentally clear there is something quite Elizabethan about its author: multitalented, by turns lowbrow and high, refined and bawdy (he has composed symphonies and, in his 50s, lost teeth in barroom brawls with sailors), he fits into an older tradition when intellectuals were also, well, real people.
One comes away from this book, however, with the feeling that Burgess, perhaps like Orson Welles, is too intelligent, too talented for his own good as a writer; some of his books have failed precisely because he has tried to do too much in them.
His efforts to write novels with the structure of music are mainly lost on the reader; his Joycean love of words and wordplay sometimes succeeds but sometimes gets in the way of his narratives.
He also has, as has been noted, written too much and too fast; often, as he makes it painfully clear here, he simply needed the money.
Yet he is an astonishing man; among other things, this book is supremely funny; he has a marvelous sense of humor. If you can't have dinner with Burgess anytime soon, this is the next best thing.