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Biography of Anthony Burgess (1917-1993)

Anthony Burgess Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess was a diversely talented Englishman whose reputation, lamentably, rests almost exclusively on his best-known (and his least favorite) work, the novel A Clockwork Orange. The 1962 futuristic novel, an impassioned yet even-handed plea for the necessity of human free will, stirred up controversy with its ultra-violent content narrated largely through a Russian-influenced slang of Burgess's invention, "nadsat." The 1971 film version by Stanley Kubrick provoked enough "copycat" crimes - a great irony, considering both the book and film decry unconscious, deterministic acts, yet tolerate evil so long as it is willfully chosen - that Kubrick banned the showing of it in the United Kingdom in 1973 (only recently was the ban repealed).

But Burgess was a far more complete artist than A Clockwork Orange suggests. Born John Anthony Burgess Wilson on Feb. 25, 1917, in Manchester, England, to Catholic parents, his mother died of the flu when he was two, and he was brought up by his aunt and later his stepmother. He studied English at Xaverian College and Manchester University and, after graduation in 1940, served in the British Army Education Corps during World War II as the musical director of a special services unit, entertaining troops in Europe. He was an education officer in Malaya and Brunei from 1954 to 1959, adding to the eventual total of nine languages in which he was fluent.

By the time he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 1959, Burgess had already published his Malayan trilogy of Time for a Tiger (1956), The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), and Beds in the East (1959). Burgess returned to England and, with the prospect of only one year left of life, industriously rattled off five books in 1960 and eleven between 1960 and 1964. He outlived the doctors' prognosis by 33 years but continued his prolific pace. A lapsed Catholic whose early religious views maintained some influence over him, Burgess wrote over fifty books, numerous critical studies (notably of Shakespeare and James Joyce) and journal articles, and screenplays and teleplays (he was even called upon to devise a prehistoric language for the film "Quest for Fire"). But his preferred field was classical music, and he wrote several accomplished symphonies (Burgess also integrated music with his prose writing; his 1974 novel The Napoleon Symphony structurally mirrors Beethoven's Eroica Symphony). Burgess held distinguished academic posts and lived in places as far-flung as Malta throughout the 1970s, and he maintained a steady literary output until his death from lung cancer in London on Nov. 26, 1993.

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