Luca Fumagalli

When diagnosed with a brain tumor, Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) decided to hastily write three or four novels, the proceeds of which would help his wife after his death. The diagnosis turned out to be incorrect and it was instead his wife, who had long been ill with cirrhosis, who died. Married to the Italian Liana Macellari, his second wife, Burgess continued to publish book after book throughout his life, although today he is remembered for his best-seller, A Clockwork Orange, which became famous thanks to the film by Stanley Kubrick.

Lynne, Burgess’s first wife, was Anglican, and during the marriage the writer definitively abandoned the Catholicism in which he had grown up. Later in religious matters his privileged interlocutor became Liana, in truth an anticlerical atheist. Yet until the end of his days Burgess maintained an ambiguous relationship with the Roman Church: he was certainly no longer Catholic, he was not a practising one, but at the same time he did not have the courage to completely cut off all links with religion. He himself, while his wife was sleeping, baptized his son Paolo Andrea with rainwater, just to be on the safe side. At a certain point he also decided to leave England both to escape the oppressive taxation and to finally encounter that Christian Europe towards which he felt a strange attraction, a Christian Europe which unfortunately – as he discovered with pain – no longer existed.

All this and more is described in his two-volume autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God and You’ve had Your Time, which also tells of his love for music, for Shakespeare and for those linguistic inventions that appear in A Clockwork Orange (partly the result of his fascination for Joyce, another writer self-exiled from the Church and his homeland).

Burgess’s literary career had a promising start with a trilogy of Malaysian setting novels that displayed his prose qualities, with a style reminiscent of George Orwell and Graham Greene in equal measure. Later he wrote a lot of poetry and children’s stories, touching almost all genres. To supplement his meager income he also worked as a translator: after all he was a man of letters and his pen was his only source of sustenance.

Burgess defined himself as “an apostate Catholic”, even though he harshly criticized many of the doctrinal evolutions of the modern Church. In his novels he mixed the flesh and the spirit with a sometimes embarrassing ease: in addition to the blasphemous Man of Nazareth, this is demonstrated by the remarkable Earthly Powers, perhaps his best work. Despite this, he never tired of seeking God through the experiences of his characters, who manifest themselves as variegated derelicts on a pilgrimage towards an identity.