What with all the seminars and symposiums, it has been a busy year for Burgess scholars. This week the carnival continued in Manchester, where the International Anthony Burgess Foundation hosted a centenary conference. Delegates had some of the great man’s musical compositions inflicted upon them, but the literary discussions sounded suitably wide-ranging and exotic: papers covered such intriguing topics as “The Spin and Drift of Linguistic Picaresque”, “Boredom in Burgess’s Malayan Novels” and “Anthony Burgess and Orson Welles: Hackwork and Bricolage.”
By December, I dare say that even the most resilient Burgess devotee will be exhausted, but a final treat will be provided by the University of Angers. In western France the great talking point will be “Anthony Burgess, Religion and the Sacred.” This sounds like an excellent idea because, as we’re always being told, Burgess’s curious relationship with Catholicism was crucially important in shaping his life’s work.
Given the cast of Catholic characters, themes and obsessions that permeate Burgess’s writing, this is not an unreasonable proposition. But the utility of this interpretative prism is limited, or at least complicated, by the fact that Burgess’s attitude towards faith was, for my money, one of the dullest things about him.
Burgess was one of those countless bright young sparks who, in his teens, read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and decided that the God he was being exposed to by his Catholic teachers was a “vindictive invisibility”. Like so many who decide to ditch the Church, he was unable to jettison the cultural and intellectual deposit of his upbringing. Catholicism, as he put it, was a “kind of nationality one is stuck with forever”.
So far, so ordinary. Of course, Burgess had a specific understanding of what constituted authentic Catholicism. He was a Manchester boy, a “cradle Catholic with Irish blood”, and while this made him, in his romanticised phrase, a “renegade”, it also fuelled a sense of superiority. Converts couldn’t really lay claim to the history of Reformation, recusancy and persecution and, bemused by the “glamour” of their new Church, they used it for their petty purposes. For Evelyn Waugh, this meant “dreaming of an old English Catholic aristocracy”, while for Graham Greene it was just an excuse to be “fascinated by sin in a very cold-blooded way”.
Burgess could express such sentiments with flare, but this made them no less banal. Similarly, his sideline grumbles about the direction of the post-Vatican II Church were entirely unremarkable. In the late 1960s, Burgess declared that “I find that I have no quarrel with the whole corpus of Catholic doctrine”, but he styled himself a purist, however lapsed, with no patience for slackness or “ecumenical dilutions”. When his cousin, George Patrick Dwyer, became Archbishop of Birmingham, Burgess attended Mass for the first time in ages and was “horrified by the turning of the altar around… it was like a butcher’s shop.”
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