Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Burgess

From Rolling Stone to Brighton Rock

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I haven’t had the chance recently to read much for my own pleasure, but as soon as I have enough time and distance from my current project, I’m hoping to check out Sticky Fingers, the new biography of Jann Wenner by Joe Hagan. Part of my interest lies in professional curiosity—it’s hard to imagine two men less alike than Wenner and John W. Campbell, but both were powerful magazine editors who shaped the culture out of a combination of vision and good timing—and its backstory is unusually intriguing. As the New York Times reported shortly before the book’s release:

Two previous attempts at an authorized Wenner biography had come to nothing. In 2003, Mr. Wenner enlisted Lewis MacAdams, a longtime friend and former Rolling Stone contributor, only to pull out after reading a few hundred pages…In 2011, a similar arrangement with the Rolling Stone writer and author Rich Cohen made it to the proposal phase—Spiegel & Grau offered a reported $1 million—before Mr. Wenner revoked his cooperation.

If nothing else, Hagan went into the book with both eyes open, and he evidently did everything that he could to thread a difficult needle, as the Times article notes: “When he was in the final stages of writing this year he prepared a memo detailing ‘every instance in which [Wenner] had sex with anybody in the book’ and anything else ‘super personal.’” It didn’t work, and Wenner has refused to promote or endorse the result, of which he says: “My hope was that this book would provide a record for future generations of that extraordinary time. Instead, [Hagan] produced something deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial.”

Wenner’s reaction doesn’t seem to have adversely affected the book’s critical or commercial reception, which has been very positive, but it inevitably sheds light on the fraught relationship between a biographer and a living subject. Perhaps the most fascinating case in recent memory is that of Norman Sherry and Graham Greene, which produced three massive biographical volumes that I confess I’ve only sampled in places. In his preface to the first book, Sherry describes his initial encounters with Greene with an air of intimacy that seems harmless enough:

[Greene said] with what I am sure was the instinctive decision of a novelist, “If I were to have my biography written, I would choose you,” and later, as we parted in Brook Street, he made up his mind. I was to be his biographer, and we shook hands on it…It was only very gradually that a mutual trust developed and I think it was expressed when we were crossing St. James’s Street in London and narrowly escaped being knocked down by a taxi. He said, “You almost lost your subject there,” and I replied, “That’s not half as bad as losing your biographer.” He laughed and I knew we had become friends.

Greene, like Wenner, was particularly guarded about his sex life, later writing to Sherry from the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton to ask him “not to interview certain women he had known.” (Wenner asked Hagan to omit “the name of the woman with whom he had lost his virginity.”) And although Greene didn’t live to see the final volume, it led to a similar dispute with with the writer’s family, as well as a bizarre controversy over Sherry’s exclusive access to Greene’s papers that hinged, according to a great gossipy article in the New York Times, on a single comma.

Some of the criticisms voiced by Greene’s relatives are strikingly reminiscent of those leveled against Hagan. Both biographers have been accused of inordinate attention to their subjects’ sexual activity. “His obsession with brothels far surpasses that of his supposed subject,” Greene’s son said of Sherry, while Joe Landau of Rolling Stone feels that Hagan went too far in his treatment of sex: “I believe Jann was entitled to expect a little more empathy from his biographer. To me it’s a question of degree and tone.” (In this line, I can’t resist mentioning the passage from Sherry in which he quotes Mario Soldati, the Italian movie director, who says that he spent his last conversation with Greene “confessing the varieties of oral sex we’d performed,” which I frankly find hard to imagine.) Sherry was also accused of inserting himself gratuitously into his work:

Mr. Sherry has interjected himself into the narrative, dropped in bits of his own poetry, even included a picture of himself riding on a donkey in Mexico as he retraced Greene’s research for the novel The Power and the Glory…“This book is not about Graham Greene, but about Sherry,” Greene’s son and literary executor, Francis, 67, said.

Many biographers have succumbed to this temptation, but Sherry didn’t do himself any favors, saying in response to the accusation that he minimized Greene’s relationship with his son: “I was the nearest thing to being a son to him as could possibly be.” Sherry claimed to have ruined his health and his personal life in his pursuit of his subject, and he summed it all up in words that would do equal credit to a biographer or a serial killer: “I often felt I must be him. I lived within him.”

On the other hand, I could list examples of the ambivalence of biographers toward their subjects for days. There’s Peter Manso, whom I’ve quoted here so often recently, who used the long afterword to the reissue of his oral biography of Norman Mailer primarily as a means of settling scores. And then there’s Roger Lewis, who seems to have realized about halfway through writing a biography of Anthony Burgess that he hated his subject. If familiarity breeds contempt, few people would have more reason to be contemptuous, as Lewis implies:

The sum of the parts [of an artist’s work] will not be greater than the totality—and nor is it, with Burgess. Though his work demonstrates great versatility, the versatility is always the same. To read one’s way through all of Burgess’s work (and how many have done that—except me?) is to make a startling discovery. It’s all the same.

I’ve never forgotten that aside: “And how many have done that—except me?” This is something that most biographers have probably caught themselves thinking, and if there’s a common denominator between the cases that I’ve mentioned, it’s that they all hinge on the fundamental weirdness of an enterprise that requires the writer to spend years “living within” someone else. If that person is alive, it can lead both to resistance from the subjects—who naturally see the work as an uncanny valley version of themselves—and to excessive identification by the writer. The victim, in both cases, is the work itself. Neither subject nor biographer, it seems, can be trusted to read the book objectively. And it may be as much a matter of luck as professionalism if the result ever ends up being close to the truth.

The Berenstain Barrier

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If you’ve spent any time online in the last few years, there’s a decent chance that you’ve come across some version of what I like to call the Berenstain Bears enigma. It’s based on the fact that a sizable number of readers who recall this book series from childhood remember the name of its titular family as “Berenstein,” when in reality, as a glance at any of the covers will reveal, it’s “Berenstain.” As far as mass instances of misremembering are concerned, this isn’t particularly surprising, and certainly less bewildering than the Mandela effect, or the similar confusion surrounding a nonexistent movie named Shazam. But enough people have been perplexed by it to inspire speculation that these false memories may be the result of an errant time traveler, à la Asimov’s The End of Eternity, or an event in which some of us crossed over from an alternate universe in which the “Berenstein” spelling was correct. (If the theory had emerged a few decades earlier, Robert Anton Wilson might have devoted a page or two to it in Cosmic Trigger.) Even if we explain it as an understandable, if widespread, mistake, it stands as a reminder of how an assumption absorbed in childhood remains far more powerful than a falsehood learned later on. If we discover that we’ve been mispronouncing, say, “Steve Buscemi” for all this time, we aren’t likely to take it as evidence that we’ve ended up in another dimension, but the further back you go, the more ingrained such impressions become. It’s hard to unlearn something that we’ve believed since we were children—which indicates how difficult it can be to discard the more insidious beliefs that some of us are taught from the cradle.

But if the Berenstain Bears enigma has proven to be unusually persistent, I suspect that it’s because many of us really are remembering different versions of this franchise, even if we believe that we aren’t. (You could almost take it as a version of Hilary Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment, which asks if the word “water” means the same thing to us and to the inhabitants of an otherwise identical planet covered with a similar but different liquid.) As I’ve recently discovered while reading the books aloud to my daughter, the characters originally created by Stan and Jan Berenstain have gone through at least six distinct incarnations, and your understanding of what this series “is” largely depends on when you initially encountered it. The earliest books, like The Bike Lesson or The Bears’ Vacation, were funny rhymed stories in the Beginner Book style in which Papa Bear injures himself in various ways while trying to teach Small Bear a lesson. They were followed by moody, impressionistic works like Bears in the Night and The Spooky Old Tree, in which the younger bears venture out alone into the dark and return safely home after a succession of evocative set pieces. Then came big educational books like The Bears’ Almanac and The Bears’ Nature Guide, my own favorites growing up, which dispensed scientific facts in an inviting, oversized format. There was a brief detour through stories like The Berenstain Bears and the Missing Dinosaur Bone, which returned to the Beginner Book format but lacked the casually violent gags of the earlier installments. Next came perhaps the most famous period, with dozens of books like Trouble With Money and Too Much TV, all written, for the first time, in prose, and ending with a tidy, if secular, moral. Finally, and jarringly, there was an abrupt swerve into Christianity, with titles like God Loves You and The Berenstain Bears Go to Sunday School.

To some extent, you can chalk this up to the noise—and sometimes the degeneration—that afflicts any series that lasts for half a century. Incremental changes can lead to radical shifts in style and tone, and they only become obvious over time. (Peanuts is the classic example, but you can even see it in the likes of Dennis the Menace and The Family Circus, both of which were startlingly funny and beautifully drawn in their early years.) Fashions in publishing can drive an author’s choices, which accounts for the ups and downs of many a long career. And the bears only found Jesus after Mike Berenstain took over the franchise after the deaths of his parents. Yet many critics don’t bother making these distinctions, and the ones who hate the Berenstain Bears books seem to associate them entirely with the Trouble With Money period. In 2005, for instance, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post wrote:

The larger questions about the popularity of the Berenstain Bears are more troubling: Is this what we really want from children’s books in the first place, a world filled with scares and neuroses and problems to be toughed out and solved? And if it is, aren’t the Berenstain Bears simply teaching to the test, providing a lesson to be spit back, rather than one lived and understood and embraced? Where is the warmth, the spirit of discovery and imagination in Bear Country? Stan Berenstain taught a million lessons to children, but subtlety and plain old joy weren’t among them.

Similarly, after Jan Berenstain died, Hanna Rosin of Slate said: “As any right-thinking mother will agree, good riddance. Among my set of mothers the series is known mostly as the one that makes us dread the bedtime routine the most.”

Which only tells me that neither Farhi or Rosin ever saw The Spooky Old Tree, which is a minor masterpiece—quirky, atmospheric, gorgeously rendered, and utterly without any lesson. It’s a book that I look forward to reading with my daughter. And while it may seem strange to dwell so much on these bears, it gets at a larger point about the pitfalls in judging any body of work by looking at a random sampling. I think that Peanuts is one of the great artistic achievements of the twentieth century, but it would be hard to convince anyone who was only familiar with its last two decades. You can see the same thing happening with The Simpsons, a series with six perfect seasons that threaten to be overwhelmed by the mediocre decades that are crowding the rest out of syndication. And the transformations of the Berenstain Bears are nothing compared to those of Robert A. Heinlein, whose career somehow encompassed Beyond This Horizon, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and I Will Fear No Evil. Yet there are also risks in drawing conclusions from the entirety of an artist’s output. In his biography of Anthony Burgess, Roger Lewis notes that he has read through all of Burgess’s work, and he asks parenthetically: “And how many have done that—except me?” He’s got a point. Trying to internalize everything, especially over a short period of time, can provide as false a picture as any subset of the whole, and it can result in a pattern that not even the author or the most devoted fan would recognize. Whether or not we’re from different universes, my idea of Bear Country isn’t the same as yours. That’s true of any artist’s work, and it hints at the problem at the root of all criticism: What do we talk about when we talk about the Berenstain Bears?

The switch point

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“I’ll tell you a thing that will shock you,” Anthony Burgess once said in an interview with Writers Digest in the late seventies. “It will certainly shock the readers of Writer’s Digest.” Here it is:

What I often do nowadays when I have to, say, describe a room, is to take a page of a dictionary, any page at all, and see if with the words suggested by that one page in the dictionary I can build up a room, build up a scene. This is the kind of puzzle that interests me, keeps me going, and it will even suggest how to describe a girl’s hair, at least some of it will come, but I must keep to that page.

Burgess went on to reveal that a description of a hotel vestibule in his novel M/F was based on a page in W.J. Wilkinson’s Malay English Dictionary, although nobody seemed to have noticed this. He concluded:

The thing you see, it suggests what pictures are on the wall, what color somebody’s wearing, and as most things in life are arbitrary anyway, you’re not doing anything naughty, you’re really normally doing what nature does, you’re just making an entity out of the elements. I do recommend it to young writers.

I love this little trick for two reasons. One is that it’s a convenient way to conduct a raid on the random using nothing but the materials on your desk, which is exactly where you’re most likely to need it. The other is that it only works with the dictionary, rather than with a novel or work of nonfiction. As soon as you’re looking at words that have been chosen by another writer, you inevitably get tangled up with an exterior consciousness. With the dictionary, the only meaning there is the one you extract from it, and it helps that we’re dealing with two levels of impersonal structure—alphabetical order and the slice created by the boundaries of the page. I’m reminded of my favorite description of Buckminster Fuller going over his page proofs:

Galleys galvanize Fuller partly because of the large visual component of his imagination. The effect is reflexive: his imagination is triggered by what the eye frames in front of him. It was the same with manuscript pages: he never liked to turn them over or continue to another sheet. Page = unit of thought. So his mind was retriggered with every galley and its quite arbitrary increment of thought from the composing process.

The key phrase here is “quite arbitrary.” As Burgess puts it: “I must keep to that page.” Total freedom can lead to total paralysis, and simply limiting your options is a form of liberation.

That’s true of nearly every creative strategy, of course, but there’s a deeper point to be made here about the movement from order to disorder to order again. The most useful sources of randomness tend to be works that are rigorously organized. A dictionary is an obvious example, but an even greater one is the I Ching, which is so conceptually perfect that it may actually have retarded the development of Chinese civilization. As the historian Joseph Needham wrote:

The elaborated symbolic system of the Book of Changes was almost from the start a mischievous handicap. It tempted those who were interested in Nature to rest in explanations which were no explanations at all. The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system…The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for “routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.”

Yet if the I Ching was limiting when taken as a system of thought, that’s also why it made such a good oracle. You don’t get useful results by looking for randomness in chaos, but by taking an existing order, extracting an arbitrary piece of it, and then using it to create something orderly on the other side. It’s the series of switch points that matters. Going from structure to randomness to structure again is more productive than pursuing either extreme on its own, because it’s in those moments of transition that the mind awakens to itself.

Economists speak of the negative impact of “switching costs,” but in creative thinking, it’s usually the act of switching—along with the act of combination—that generates ideas. Not surprisingly, most artists find that they’ve built switch points into their process, even if it isn’t entirely conscious. If you switch too often, you never settle into a groove, but if you don’t switch at all, you end up in a rut. And that rhythm of alternation, as well as the state of mind that it creates, may matter more in the long run than any particular method you use. It has affinities with the concept of dialectic, in which thinking is structured as the movement from thesis to antithesis to a synthesis of the two, and it gets results because of the regular switch points that it demands. I don’t think it’s an accident that dialectic was embraced as a tool by the Surrealists and the Dadaists, who took a systematic approach to cultivating the irrational. In one of Antonin Artaud’s letters, we read the very exciting sentence: “Dialectics is the art of considering ideas from every conceivable point of view—it is a method of distributing ideas.” And Tristan Tzara may have gotten even closer to the truth: “The dialectic is an amusing mechanism which guides us—in a banal kind of way—to the opinions we had in the first place.” He’s right to call it banal, but it can also be hard to figure out what we already believe, and the switch point has a way of clarifying this. It can result in a philosophy of life, or it can take the form of an ad hoc trick, like Burgess and his dictionary. But we all end up with our own strategies for producing it, and we may not even have a choice. As Trotsky is supposed to have said: “You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”

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March 16, 2017 at 8:54 am

Anthony Burgess on artistic punctuality

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Anthony Burgess

The practice of being on time with commissioned work is an aspect of politeness. I don’t like being late for appointments; I don’t like craving indulgence from editors in the matter of missed deadlines. Good journalistic manners tend to lead to a kind of self-discipline in creative work. It’s important that a novel be approached with some urgency. Spend too long on it, or have great gaps between writing sessions, and the unity of the work tends to be lost. This is one of the troubles with Ulysses.

Anthony Burgess, to The Paris Review

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March 24, 2013 at 7:59 am

Quote of the Day

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April 17, 2012 at 7:50 am

Quote of the Day

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August 9, 2011 at 8:03 am

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Quote of the Day

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March 7, 2011 at 8:04 am

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