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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Clockwork Orange Consumed at a Naked Lunch: Anthony Burgess & William S. Burroughs, Two (More) “Strange Bookfellows” in Covert Janeism

Over the past 5 years, I have collected a steadily growing number of instances of famous writers who have lived since JA died, who would seem to have been unlikely Janeites, but actually were positively engaged in some way(s) with JA’s writing.

In particular, I have written during the past year about three such writers—Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain, and Vladimir Nabokov--who are widely believed by Austen scholars and ordinary Janeites alike to have been hostile and/or indifferent to JA’s writing, but whom I assert were _all_ only pretending:

Now I would like to add two more strange bookfellows to this literary menagerie, the late Anthony Burgess, most famously the author of A Clockwork Orange, and his friend, the late William S. Burroughs, most famously the author of Naked Lunch. A month ago, luck led me to discover Burgess’s and Burroughs’s relationship to JA’s writing, and the following is the ore that I mined today from Part Two of Burgess’s autobiography just received by me from ILL (and note that Burgess’s first wife Lynne was an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis at 45 in 1968):

Ppg. 5-6: “[In 1960,] Lynne lay reading the Daily Mirror or a trashy novel. She had lost whatever literary taste she had ever had, except that she still adored Jane Austen, and one of my duties was to fetch her fictional garbage from the public library. If I brought Henry James or Anthony Trollope, the book would be hurled viciously at my head. It was her fault that I could not take JA seriously; it was a matter of association. If she could read trash and JA indifferently, JA had to be close to trash. But she used my ignorance of that scribbling spinster to trounce my own literary pretensions. In our cups I was catechized:

‘How many daughters have Mr. and Mrs. Bennet?’ ‘Four, or is it five?’

‘Who does Emma marry?’ ‘A man of decent education, appearance and income. I’ve forgotten his name.’

‘What is the play that is put on in Mansfield Park?’ ‘Something by Kotzebue, I think.’

Ppg. 69-70: “Lynne was nearly always in bed on holiday…Over in Tangier in the Miramar Hotel she lay in bed while I incessantly rolled cigarettes of adulterated kif for her. William Burroughs, author of The Naked Lunch, admirer of A Clockwork Orange, would read funereally Jane Austen to her as she lay. His cured junkie heart homed to Regency stability….One evening when Lynne lay in bed, [she made] me read Persuasion to her (William Burroughs’s lugubrious American tones were not right somehow)….” END QUOTE

First, I just love that line “His cured junkie heart homed to Regency stability”! Second, I revel in the irony of the conceit of a JA catechism administered to a great writer by his alcoholic wife. But third and most important, do you see the “tell” which I spotted in Burgess’s comments about JA, which is unmistakably a clue to Burgess’s deliberate echoing of Mark Twain’s famously (and I claim faux) dismissive comments about JA’s writing?

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Here it is. Just as Twain’s “Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone" is a veiled allusion to Lizzy Bennet saying to Darcy “I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry"... too is Burgess’s “she still adored Jane Austen, and one of my duties was to fetch her fictional garbage from the public library… If she could read trash and JA indifferently, JA had to be close to trash” a veiled allusion to not one but _two_ passages in JA’s fiction:

NA, Ch. 5: “Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body.”


Sanditon, Ch. 8: “The two Ladies [Charlotte Heywood and Lady Denham] continued walking together till rejoined by the others, who, as they issued from the Library, were followed by a young [boy] running off with 5 volumes under his arm to Sir Edward's Gig -- and Sir Edward, approaching Charlotte, said "You may perceive what has been our Occupation. My Sister wanted my Counsel in the selection of some books. -- We have many leisure hours, & read a great deal. -- I am no indiscriminate Novel-Reader. The mere Trash of the common Circulating Library, I hold in the highest contempt. “

So we have Burgess, a literary man, referring to JA’s novels as trash and referring to his wife reading fictional garbage (presumably also written by women) fetched by him for her from the public library. Then we have JA’s narrator in NA defending female novels against the charge that they are trash, and we also have Sir Edward Denham, the most literarily obtuse and opinionated male reader in all of JA’s fiction, referring to novels his sister wants to read, presumably also written by women, as mere trash of the common circulating library.

What a remarkable coincidence—NOT! As you can read in the second of my links, above, I claimed that Nabokov consciously emulated Twain’s faux criticism of JA. Now I claim that Burgess consciously emulated Twain _and_ Nabokov in the same fashion. The M.O. of the “quiz” is identical in all 3 cases.

In regard to Burgess’s awareness of Nabokov’s pretense vis a vis JA, note that Burgess, on ppg. 187-8 of his autobio, reproduced the text of the 45-line verse-letter Burgess wrote in 1969 _to Nabokov_, who was about to celebrate his 70th birthday and who, Burgess also points out, admired Burgess’s writing.

So it would make perfect sense that Burgess would add a fourth tier to this layer cake of mock-critical allusion to JA!

And to the above, I add yet another covertly erudite allusion to a famous female writer in Burgess’s “casually” dismissive comments about JA—calling her a “scribbling spinster” just happens to echo the way that Bronson Alcott referred to his famous novelist daughter Louisa May Alcott.

And I also believe it highly likely that the image of The Ambassadors or The Warden being “hurled viciously” at Burgess’s head owes something to the image of Mark Twain braining JA’s skull with her own shin bone!

So, in conclusion, Burgess, who was a writer like Nabokov engaging in complex literary gamesmanship, has to my mind clearly engaged in a very clever, witty, learned game in his comments about Jane Austen, and has, I believe, shown that he really did value JA’s writing.

And doesn’t that conclusion fit perfectly with the fact that Burgess was a good friend of William Burroughs, the ultimate unlikely Janeite, and also a world renowned satirist and literary game player in his own right?

Just as William Dean Howells taught Mark Twain the value of JA’s writing, so too it appears to me that Burroughs, the cured junkie, raised Burgess’s consciousness about JA’s writing.

A sweet irony that would, if JA were alive today and aware of it, elicit from JA a warm and fitting exclamation of praise, perhaps emulating the favorite word of Alex in A Clockwork Orange:

“Horrorshow!” ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. After posting the above, I discovered with a little further searching that, according to an early 19th century guide book to English resorts, in Ramsgate (where Wickham almost gets to Georgiana Darcy, and one of the real life sea-bathing towns from which JA drew her fictional resort town Sanditon), the larger circulating library was called.....BURGESS'S LIBRARY!

Which tells me that Burgess's little joke was even more erudite than I described it, above--the covert allusion by Anthony Burgess to Sanditon, in which he disdains to read Jane Austen's “trash” novels, takes on a very funny personal meaning when we realize that the circulating library in Sanditon which Sir Edward Denham disdained to frequent went by the name of Burgess's!
This is a little Chinese Box of self-reference-- a gem of erudite cleverness, which explains why Burgess chose that particular motif for his veiled allusion to Jane Austen. He was confirming, to a reader fully aware of all of Burgess’s hidden wordplay, that this was indeed all intentional on his part.

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