Anthony Burgess had a remarkably diverse range of interests and talents. Adding to the title of novelist, he was a poet, composer, librettist, playwright, critic, essayist, translator, linguist, and teacher. Today, his most famous work is the 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, a shocking and lyrical classic of twentieth-century dystopian literature.
The writer was born John Burgess Wilson in Manchester, England, on February 25, 1917, son of Joseph and Elizabeth (Burgess) Wilson. His mother and only sister died in the influenza epidemic of 1918–1919, when Burgess was a little over a year old. His father, who held various jobs, including that of bar piano player, was rarely around and often drunk. Burgess was raised first by an aunt, and once his father remarried, by his stepmother. His childhood was a poor one, a fact which probably contributed to Burgess’s driving work ethic as an adult.
Music was an early love for Burgess. After hearing a flute solo by Claude Debussy on the radio, around the age of 14, he decided he would like to become a composer, and began teaching himself to play the piano and violin. Burgess was educated in Roman Catholic schools, although he lapsed in his faith as a teenager. The influence of his Catholic upbringing, as well as his lifelong passion for music, is clearly to be seen in A Clockwork Orange.
In 1940, Burgess graduated from Manchester University with a degree in English literature and joined the British Army Corps, which he served all throughout World War II, working variously as a teacher and musical director. In 1942, he married his first wife, Llewela Jones (known as Lynne). Years later, Burgess recounted a tragic incident in their early married life, in which Lynne was raped by American soldiers gone AWOL, leading to a miscarriage. This devastating event led him to write the scene in A Clockwork Orange in which F. Alexander’s wife is raped in front of his eyes.
After serving in the army, Burgess taught speech, drama, and English literature, first in British schools and then in Asia, in both Malaya (now Malaysia) and Brunei, Borneo, for the British Colonial Service. A talented linguist who spoke nine languages, Burgess became fluent in Malay and immersed himself in the culture, producing a trilogy of novels set in Malaya: Time for a Tiger (1956), The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), and Beds in the East (1959). In the midst of teaching a class in Brunei in 1959, he suddenly collapsed. He was sent back to England suffering from a suspected brain tumor.
Told he had only a year to live, Burgess began to write prolifically. He published seven novels within the next two years, among them The Doctor is Sick, The Worm and the Ring, and A Clockwork Orange. By the end of the decade, he had produced eight more, proving that he was in fact far from dying. In 1968, however, his wife Lynne died of alcoholic cirrhosis. Burgess married a second time to an Italian linguist Liliana (Liana) Macellari, who became his literary agent and translator. The two had a son, Paolo Andrea, and lived in various places all over Europe, including Italy, Switzerland, and Monaco. Now quite wealthy and successful, Burgess maintained homes in different cities. Over the next twenty years of Burgess’s life, he served as a radio commentator, journalist, screenwriter, poet, playwright, literary critic (notably of James Joyce and Shakespeare), biographer, editor. Among his many musical compositions, he wrote an operetta based on Joyce’s Ulysses and several symphonies. A complete bibliography of his creative output takes up many pages. When he died in 1993 of lung cancer, Burgess had written more than fifty books, including 30 novels. Although he often said it was not his favorite, the shocking futuristic vision of A Clockwork Orange, vividly adapted to the screen in the 1971 film by Stanley Kubrick, remains Burgess’s most famous and influential work.