‘To some of us, the wresting of beauty out of language is the only thing in the world that matters.‘
The more I learn about Anthony Burgess, the more I like him. According to the excellent and informative website of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Burgess was treated for a brain tumour in the 1960s by Roger ‘four minute mile’ Bannister; wrote a script for the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me that was sadly never made (and which involved wealthy patients at a private Swiss clinic being turned into unwitting nuclear bombs); and in 1992 delivered the eulogy at Benny Hill’s funeral, a man Burgess called ‘a comic genius steeped in the British music-hall tradition… one of the great artists of our age.’
And that’s before we get onto the writing. Burgess was extraordinarily prolific, the author of over 30 novels, several hundred pieces of music, plays, screenplays and countless pieces of journalism. This lead to him writing novels under several different pseudonyms, and once resulted in him being sent one of his own books to review. Burgess obliged, later pointing out that at least he was guaranteed to have read it – which is more than some critics can manage.
I went through a Burgess-binge in my teens and early twenties, reading A Clockwork Orange (who didn’t at that age?), Earthly Powers, A Dead Man in Deptford, Any Old Iron, A Mouthful of Air. Burgess also nearly achieved the impossible, and got me a third of the way through Ulysses on the strength of his introduction alone. Nice try, Tony – but I’ll have to shoulder the blame for not finishing it.
What’s remarkable about Burgess’s oeuvre is the range it covers, encompassing historical novels, satire, crime fiction and (in the case of Tremor of Intent) spy fiction. There’s a clue on the Foundation’s website as to what motivated Burgess: ‘I should like to write a novel that has the surface of pure entertainment (capable of being taken as easily as an Ian Fleming thriller) but, underneath, essays all the new-wave devices imaginable, getting away with them because of the solidity of the surface structure. In other words, I want the novel to be Shakespearean… We have two fictional extremes at present; I want the extremes to meet in a single work of universal appeal, compact of action, psychology, ideas, as well as symbolism and poetry.‘
As a long time devotee of the crime genre (and, before that, horror – and what are crime stories but horror minus the supernatural?) this idea appeals to me very much, and is precisely what the best practitioners of a genre can achieve – using a familiar set of tools to tell a narrative that can rival anything ‘literary fiction’ (whatever that may be) has to offer. Burgess was unusual in being an intellectual who also had mass appeal and success – he regularly appeared in the media and was keen to talk about his work, even a ‘minor work’ (as he viewed it) such as A Clockwork Orange.
Tremor of Intent is the first of Burgess’s books I’ve read in many years, but it was a powerful reminder of why I grew to love his work. The author originally described it as an eschatological (end of the world) spy story, and on the surface Tremor of Intent appears as a James Bond pastiche. The plot has British secret agent Denis Hillier sent after rogue scientist Edwin Roper, now working for the Soviets in the Crimea. Much of the action is set on a cruise ship, with Hillier travelling under the assumed identity of a typewriter salesman – a cover that is blown almost immediately by a precocious teenage boy. You wouldn’t see this sort of thing happening to Bond.
This part of the novel features a very funny (and somewhat nauseating) eating contest between Hillier and the mysterious villain Theodorescu. They munch their way through endless courses at dinner – ‘shellfish tart with sauce Newburg; souffle au fois gras; avocado halves with caviar and a cold chiffon sauce; peace mousse with sirop framboise. Cream dessert ring Chantilly with zabaglione sauce. Poires Helene with cold chocolate sauce. Cold Grand Marnier pudding. Strawberry marlow. Marrons panache vicomte’ – in a terrific re-imagining of the card game from Fleming’s Casino Royale. Where Bond loses his shirt, Hillier is finally violently sick into the Adriatic – ‘that traditional vomitorium.‘
The novel has moments of genuine excitement, such as when Hillier is betrayed, or when he finally meets Roper and learns more about the true motive behind his mission. But below the surface, Tremor of Intent is a novel that deals with complex questions of faith, guilt and loyalty – not just to one’s friends, but also one’s religion and one’s country. Burgess’s characters are also remarkably rounded, and Hillier in particular possesses a psychological depth missing from Bond. Towards the beginning of the book, the spy describes himself thus: ‘For my part, I’ve always played the game of being a good technician, superb at languages, agile, light-fingered, cool. But otherwise I’m a void, a dark sack crammed with skills.’ Not only do we have Burgess’s description of Hillier, but also perhaps his opinion on James Bond, a man much less self-aware than Tremor of Intent‘s lone agent.
The relationship between Hillier and Roper is also well drawn. The two men have known each other since childhood, and the opening chapter vividly describes their Catholic schooling (one which no doubt draws heavily on Burgess’ own time at Xaverian College in Manchester). The central theme of faith, of losing it and regaining it (in a religious, personal and political context) recurs through the book, lending it a depth that keeps the novel balanced. But it is the quality of Burgess’s writing that keeps the reader engaged, as does the unmistakable impression that the author was thoroughly enjoying himself – often the most reliable indicator that the reader will as well.