Anthony Burgess, born 100 years ago today, is most famous for writing A Clockwork Orange, the violent dystopian novel with its own teenage slang – Nadsat – and an infamous protagonist, Alex. Whilst A Clockwork Orange is a fantastic and hugely influential novel, a lot of Burgess’ prolific other work is lesser known, so for the centenary I’m picking a few of my favourites. For more info on Burgess himself and all of his work, check out the International Anthony Burgess Foundation website (or visit them in Manchester where they also have a lovely cafe).
- A Dead Man in Deptford – I am starting with Burgess’ final completed novel and my personal favourite, his linguistically playful and endlessly delightful story about the life of Elizabethan playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe. The prose revels in the scandalous life of Marlowe and creates a vivid picture of the dark world of spies, atheism and controversy in which Burgess has placed him. Also the image of Marlowe singing an ironic song about “dis-cre-tion” in the middle of a tavern will never leave you.
- Byrne – Published even later than A Dead Man in Deptford, Byrne is the story of a Don Juan type Irish composer and his many descendants, written entirely in verse. Burgess plays around with the metres in which Byron wrote Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as he self-consciously rewrites the former poem, making the novel a treat for Byron fans and anyone who likes ridiculous rhymes and long comic poems.
- Earthly Powers – I stray away from Burgess’ work on my favourite writers with this pick, a fantastic novel spanning the twentieth century and following the life of a gay writer whose sister is married to the brother of the Pope. The narrative weaves through famous events and past historical figures as Burgess deals with one of his favourite topics, Catholics in crisis. Plus there’s a lot about defending literature from censorship and accusations of obscenity, to which Burgess and his infamous A Clockwork Orange had not been immune.
- Honourable mentions to: ABBA ABBA (like A Dead Man in Deptford but about Keats dying and then Burgess writing dirty poems for the second half), Tremor of Intent (a Bond parody spy novel with a hapless main character), Burgess’ two part autobiography which is great for realising that the themes that come up in all his books were genuinely all the things he was obsessed with in life too.