M/F, page 1
Anthony Burgess was born in Manchester in 1917 and studied English at the university there. He was drafted into the army upon graduation in 1940 and spent six years in the Education Corps. After demobilization, he worked first as a college lecturer in speech and drama and then as a grammar school master. From 1954 to 1960 he was an education officer in the Colonial Service, stationed in Malaya and Borneo, and it was while he was there that he started writing The Malayan Trilogy (published in Penguin as The Long Day Wanes). In 1959 Burgess was diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumour and was given less than a year to live. He then became a full-time writer and, proving the doctors wrong, went on to write at least one book a year and hundreds of book reviews right up to his death in 1993.
A late starter in the art of fiction, Anthony Burgess had previously spent much creative energy on music, and in his lifetime he composed many full-scale works for orchestra and other media. His Third Symphony was performed in the USA in 1975 and Blooms of Dublin, his musical version of Joyce’s Ulysses, was presented in 1982. He believed that with the fusion of the musical and literary forms lay a possible future for the novel. His many other works include Inside Mr Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament, Enderby’s Dark Lady, Tremor of Intent; Honey for the Bears; Urgent Copy; Nothing Like the Sun; Man of Nazareth, the basis of his successful TV script Jesus of Nazareth; Earthly Powers, which was voted the best foreign novel of 1980 in France; The End of the World News; The Kingdom of the Wicked, winner of the Prix Europa in Geneva; The Piano Players; Any Old Iron; A Mouthful of Air; Home to QWERTYUIOP, an anthology of his reviews and journalism; and two volumes of autobiography: Little Wilson and Big God, which was awarded the J. R. Ackerley Prize for 1988, and You’ve Had Your Time. A Clockwork Orange was made into a film classic by Stanley Kubrick and was dramatized by the RSC in 1990. His last novel, published in the spring of 1993, was A Dead Man in Deptford, based around the murder of Christopher Marlowe.
Anthony Burgess died in November 1993. The Times described him as ‘one of the cleverest and most original writers of his generation’, and among the many people who paid tribute to him were David Lodge, who considered him ‘an inspiration and example to other writers’, and John Updike, who believed that ‘The literary world seems much more sparsely populated with Anthony Burgess gone. He had the energy and the wide-ranging interests of a dozen writers… [and] seemed not only a prodigious intellect, but an affectionate spirit, whose mind, like Ariel’s, circled the globe in a few seconds.’
Gilbert Adair is a novelist, screenwriter and critic. His most recently published novels were Buenas Noches Buenos Aires and The Dreamers, the latter of which was filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci. He lives in London.
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Published by Jonathan Cape 1971
Published in Penguin Books 1973
Published in Penguin Classics 2004
Copyright © Anthony Burgess, 1971
Introduction copyright © Gilbert Adair, 2004
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
In ‘Oedipus Wrecks’, one of the eleven essays that make up This Man and Music, an eclectic anthology of writings on musical composition and culture, Anthony Burgess offers a lengthy, comprehensive gloss on the intricate web of references embedded in the narrative of M/F. His justification for this critical apparatus, a justification inscribed within the essay itself, is that it was important for him, in a period of ruthlessly remaindered and/or pulped novels, that some significant trace remain of what was presumably one of his, if few other people’s, personal favourites. Or, putting it bluntly, Burgess, who in his day reviewed innumerable books for the British press, elected to write a review of one of his own books, the kind of densely analytical review he himself patently believed it deserved but never received (except for a lonely rave from Frank Kermode).
The Burgess of ‘Oedipus Wrecks’ (which was, interestingly, also a title used by Woody Allen) is very much the writer as back-seat driver, steering the reader towards the completest possible appreciation of his work like somebody lending unsolicited assistance at a game of solitaire. (‘Black eight on the red nine.’) The most Irish of English writers, he prefers to flaunt his learning rather than wear it lightly or simply let it be. Hence we learn that the plotline of M/F, combining two immemorial literary themes, incest and the double (or incest and what one might whimsically call ‘twincest’), derives essentially from a legend told by the Algonquin tribe of North American Indians – which is why, in its opening chapter, the protagonist, Miles Faber, one of the novel’s several M/F referents, along with male/female, motherfucker, mezzo-forte and so forth, is staying at what is still perhaps the best-known Manhattan hotel, the Algonquin. We learn that he, Burgess, first encountered this legend via a lecture given in Paris by the doyen of structuralist anthropologists, Claude Lévi-Strauss – a source reflected in the rigorous structural underpinning of M/F’s ostensibly corkscrewy storyline as also, more trivially, in its allusions to jeans (Lévi) and Viennese waltzes (Strauss). We learn that one character’s name, Feteki, comes from the Sanskrit word for ‘riddle’ (M/F is not only stuffed with riddles but is one itself); another’s, Fonanta, from Zoon Fonanta, Greek for ‘talking animal’ (virtually all its characters are metaphorised as animals); and a third’s, Aderyn, from the Welsh for ‘bird’ (she, for it’s a she, trains exotic birds for a circus act). Burgess even mischievously directs our attention to a handful of proper names which have no referential significance whatever, inevitably making us wonder fretfully if there might be a meaning in the very absence of meaning.
‘Oedipus Wrecks’, if read after M/F, will certainly provide the novel’s readers with all the exegesis they are ever going to want, and then some; if, on the other hand, read before M/F, it will just as certainly prove counterproductive. What, the pre-M/F reader will be tempted to ask, is the point of Burgess genning up (as even he, famously erudite as he was, must have had to do) on all this arcane linguistico-cultural lore, encoding it into his narrative then blithely supplying us with a master key permitting us to decode it at the other end? The impression would be of a futile and claustrophobic indulgence.
Yet, for the lucky reader who comes to M/F without either preconceptions or foreknowledge, that isn’t at all the case. And, to explain why, I submit the following superficially paradoxical theory: that the experience of reading M/F, a magically virtuosic fable
Consider this string of examples, all of them taken from the novel’s earliest pages. Burgess’s hero – Miles Faber, as I say – is determined to quite New York and fly down to Grencijta, capital of the Caribbean island Castita, in one of whose streets, Indovinella, is located a house containing the literary and artistic remains of his idol, the late poet and painter Sib Legeru; he is, however, repeatedly prevented from doing so by two cartoonishly sinister characters, Loewe and Pardaleos, both lawyers, along with a weird posse of thugs and perverts. I might add that, while still marooned in Manhattan, Faber dreamily overhears the waitresses of a restaurant barking out his fellow diners’ orders: ‘Indiana (or Illinois) nutbake. Chuffed eggs. Saffron toast. Whiting in tarragon, hot. Michigan (or Missouri) oyster-stew. Tenderloin. Hash, eggs. Ribs’.
Now – what the reader of ‘Oedipus Wrecks’ discovers (either before or after the event) is that Grencijta means ‘Big Town’ and Castita ‘Chastity’, which one might just have been capable of guessing on one’s own; that ‘siblegeru’ was the term coined by an Anglo-Saxon bishop, Wulfstan, for incest or ‘lying with one’s sib’, something absolutely nobody could conceivably have guessed on his own; that ‘loewe’ is German for ‘lion’ (and, of course, ‘ewe’ is also lurking in there) and ‘pardaleos’ Greek for ‘leopard’. Of ‘Indovinella’ Burgess cavalierly remarks, ‘I need not translate.’ As for that lovingly detailed menu – which, as it happens, is spread over three pages of M/F as though to render solving the puzzle an even trickier challenge – it turns out, naturally, to be an acrostic. How could the reader have failed to notice, one imagines Burgess thinking, that the initial letters of each of these dishes spell out INCEST WITH MOTHER?
That is, to be sure, all very enlightening, but it’s also a little like being given a crossword clue just as you are about to hit on it yourself. And I think of G. K. Chesterton’s comment when confronted for the first time with Times Square’s gaudily neon-lit advertising billboards. ‘How beautiful they are!’ he exclaimed; only to add, ‘If only one didn’t know how to read!’
Similarly with M/F. If one doesn’t know how to read them (‘read’, that is, in the sense of ‘interpret’), how self-sufficiently beautiful are Burgess’s character- and place-names. Sib Legeru, let’s say, might be one of Tolkien’s goblins. Z. Fonanta, Professor Feteki, Llew Aderyn all sound like enigmatic eccentrics out of Kafka or Borges. And one would not be too surprised to come across Castita in one of Stevenson’s pirate romances. For an ‘innocent’ reader, M/F in its entirety bristles with meaning, meaning all the more potent, the more subtle and insidious, for being uncaptioned, for one is constantly aware of the hum of implied meaning even if one doesn’t always know, on a casual conscious level, precisely what that meaning means. Yet, though one may not instantly understand why the author chose this or that specific name, this or that turn of plot, one nevertheless cannot help feeling, as one hacks one’s way through the novel’s lexical thickets, that this is how it had to be, this way and no other. By thus burying its complex network of symbols and references deep in the textures and trappings of the text, so deep that no reader, realistically, will be capable of extricating them without the author’s aid, Burgess is not just flourishing his fabled cleverclogs erudition; it is, supremely, a device by which he was allowed to mine his way to the indelible and indivisible ‘thisness’ of myth.
If Frank Kermode is to be believed, Burgess himself, notwithstanding his own self-exegesis, was ultimately alert to the implications of having what theorists of language call the ‘deep structure’ of his novel, a novel with as many concealed layers as a smuggler’s suitcase, laid too bare. According to Kermode, he became persuaded not just that it was unnecessary for a reader’s enjoyment of M/F that its riddles be answered in advance but also that any instinctive hunger, on the part of that reader, ‘for an alembicated moral’, as he characteristically put it, was a form of cowardice. Magic must be left intact. A riddle is more potent when it remains unanswered and a solved puzzle is as dispiriting as it is momentarily gratifying. Like incest itself, as Kermode pithily proposes, ‘it brings together elements that ought to stay separate’.
The novel, in any case, offers the motivated reader such a cornucopia of less latent inventions and ingenuities that one soon forgets the itch to apply the author’s decoding key. The real pleasures of M/F are those familiar from all of Burgess’s fiction. There is his deft story-telling skill; this mastery of dialogue; his very Irish way with a pun; his brilliance as both an aphorist and a metaphorist (of a limo, he writes that it was ‘a vehicle polished like a shoe’; of a rancid cut of meat, that ‘the beef was as alive as a telephone exchange’); his monstrous climactic twist (one which he reveals in ‘Oedipus Wrecks’ but which I refuse to reveal here); and, as Nabokov phrased it in the last, lyrical sentence of Ada, much, much more.
la mia vita
per voi, più gente,
In his Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada Hans Kurath recognizes no isogloss coincident with the political border along Latitude 49°N.
C’est embêtant, dit Dieu. Quand il n’y aura plus ces Français, Il y a des choses que je fais, il n’y a aura plus personne pour les comprendre.
Enter Prine, Leonato, Claudio, and Jacke Wilson Much Ado About Nothing
– Totally naked, for God’s sake?
All this happened a long time ago. I had not yet come of age, and I’m imposing the postures and language of what I call maturity on that callow weakling in the Algonquin bedroom. I do not think, for instance, that I really replied:
– Functionally naked, call it. All the operative zones exposed.
– And in broad daylight?
– Moonlight. Chaste Massachusetts moonlight.
Loewe’s sadness lay between us, unappeased. Believe that I said what follows. Believe everything.
– It was mainly her idea. She said it could be regarded as a mode of protest. Not that she herself, being well past student age, was qualified to protest. It was meant to be, in the British locution, my shew. Shameless public copulation as a means of expressing outrage. Against tyrannical democracies, wars in the name of peace, students forced to study –
– You admit the shamelessness?
– Skeletal Indian children eating dog’s excrement when they’re lucky enough to find any.
– I asked if you ad—
– There was no shame at all. It was outside the F. Jannatu Memorial Library. The assistant librarian, Miss F. Carica, was just locking up for the night. I distinctly saw her snake-bangle as she turned the key.
Part of my brain was engaged in riddling Loewe. I’d arrived at:
Behold the sheep form side by side
A Teuton roarer of the pride.
Loewe the lawman sat sadly on the chair while I lay unrepentant on the bed. I was naked, though not totally. He wore a discreetly iridescent suit of singalin for the New York heat which raved, cruel as winter, outside. He was leonine to look at only in the hairiness of his paws, but that, after all, was, is, a generic property of animals. His name, though, had bidden me see it as non-human hairiness, and, seeing it, I felt an inexplicable throb of warning in my perineum. I had known a similar throb, though located then in the liver, when Professor Keteki had presented the problem of that entry in Fenwick’s diary, May 2nd, 1596. I drew in the last of my cigarette and stubbed it among the other stubs. Loewe snuffed the smoke like a beast. Throb. He said:
– Is that, er, hallucinogenic?
– No. Sinjantin. A product of the Office
I read that out from the white and greengold pack, adding:
– I first came across them at the Montreal Expo. It was there too that I first got this feeling of the evil of divisions. I had crossed a border, but I was still in North America.
Loewe sighed, and it was (throb) like a miniature imploded roar. His glasses flashed with reflections of burning West 44th Street.
– I needn’t say, he needn’t have said, how shocked your father would have been. Thrown out of college for a shameful, shameless –
– My fellow-students are agitating for my reinstatement. Firearms flashing on the campus. Books burned at sundown – reactionary Whitman, fascist Shakespeare, filthy bourgeois Marx, Webster with his too many words. A student has a right to fuck in public.
I took another Sinjantin out of its pack and then reinstated it. I must watch my health. I was thin and not strong. I had had cardiac rheumatism, various kinds of asthma, colitis, nervous eczema, spermatorrhea. I was, I recognized, mentally ill-balanced. I was given to sexual exhibitionism despite my low physical energy. My brain loved to be crammed with the fracted crackers of useless data. If a fact was useless, I homed unerringly on it. But I was determined to reform. I was going to find out more about the work of Sib Legeru. Useless really, though, for who would care, who would want to know, how many knew even the name? And Sib Legeru’s work was exciting to me because of its elevation of the useless, unviable, unclassifiable into –
– How, for God’s sake, could you be so crazy?
– There was this lecture given by Professor Keteki. Early Elizabethan drama.
– But I understood you were supposed to be studying Business Management.
Other author's books:
- A Clockwork Orange1985A Dead Man in DeptfordThe Doctor Is SickHoney for the BearsNothing Like the SunInside Mr. EnderbyOne Hand Clapping
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