Anthony Burgess's Secret


A biography of Anthony Burgess has just come out, the first of two. Anthony Burgess was himself lauded as producing the most candid of autobiographies. Interestingly the most intriguing of his 'secrets' is yet to come out. So I'll blow it here.

Anthony Burgess said goodbye to two of his teaching colleagues in Malaysia. It was a curious goodbye, along the lines that they were not to worry should something mysterious befall him during his next lesson. Standing in front of the boys in his classroom, he duly collapsed. Subsequent diagnosis was of a brain tumor and he was given months to live. Pensioned off, he returned to England and wrote two books in quick succession, ostensibly to provide an income for his soon-to-be widow.

It became a good story for those two colleagues - one of whom was to be knighted and ran a college in England, the other was minister for tourism in Malaysia when they told me the tale. Anthony Burgess had hoodwinked the authorities to buy himself some writing time, and had milked the drama of the event ever since, recounting the fraudulent version of the tale in his own account of his life. This story amused his colleagues more than their other information about Anthony Burgess's homosexual escapades, which also never made it into the light of his autobiographies.

It is perhaps curious to expect truth from a novelist, who is by profession devoted to conjuring tales more intriguing and resonant than regular life. In my own case, my first novel was declared autobiographical by critics, and my first non-fiction book (zealously accurate) was ajudged fictional by some, which gave me freedom to treat fact and fiction how the hell I like in the future. Somehow though I do recognize a difference between truth and honesty. I found Burgess's autobiographies impossibly dead and dry - in such tomes surely there's an obligation to see through the guff of one's own life and become as clear as possible. Truth can be bent to make a better story, but dishonesty comes across as poison.

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