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Little Wilson and Big God by Anthony Burgess (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $19.95; 448 pp.)

May 10, 1987|Bevis Hillier | Hillier is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

On the British literary scene, Anthony Burgess is most notorious for a monument to wounded vanity that he created in 1984. The Times of London had published, after consultation with all sorts of literary bigwigs, its list of the 100 Best Novels since 1939. The name Anthony Burgess was not in the roll of authors. Mortally piqued, Burgess at once set to and wrote a book called "Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939." By rare restraint, he managed not to include one of his own novels, but there was no doubt in anyone's mind about the author he had in mind for that 100th place. (And, of course, such was the provocative intent of the book's title.)

Beyond England, Burgess is probably best known as writer of the novel that became Stanley Kubrick's Zeitgeist -capturing film "A Clockwork Orange" (1971). And Anthony Burgess, novelist, is taken very seriously by some literary pundits. For example, Peter Conrad, Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, devotes only three sentences of "The Everyman History of English Literature" (Dent, 1985) to Evelyn Waugh, and six pages to Burgess. If Burgess is vain, he has something to be vain about. And vain men write the best autobiographies: At least we can be sure they are world authorities on their subjects.

"Little Wilson and Big God" is the first part of a two-part memoir. In it, Burgess is just as truculent as I remember him being on a British television quiz show. He gripes and pays off old scores (to Robert Graves and historian A. J. P. Taylor among others). But I ended the book liking him a lot more than when I began it. Burgess, who was 70 on Feb. 25, was christened John Burgess Wilson--hence part of the autobiography's title, which is derived from a dismissive remark about Burgess by a Roman Catholic priest.

Burgess' mother, an actress, died when he was 2. He was brought up in Manchester by a drunk father and a coarse, uncaring stepmother. It was a loveless childhood, and in the adult Burgess, we see the familiar characteristics of the man unloved as a boy (Bertrand Russell, handed over to chill grandparents, is another example): a desire to prove that he is lovable, by securing the scalps of many women as his lovers; a tendency toward show-off, look-at-me! attention-grabbing, and a difficulty in expressing--maybe in feeling?--love. Bertrand Russell's memoirs were parodied in the British satirical magazine Private Eye: "It was at this party that I met Lady Utterly Immorrell (Lady Ottoline Morrell), who looked like a horse. We decided to become intimate on the following Thursday." In Burgess' memoir, there is much of tumescence; hardly anything about the emotion of love.

Future research students in Burgess Studies will find many clues in this book. Burgess reveals the originals on whom his characters were based, but also emphasizes where fact ends and invention begins. Though not self-taught (he was at Manchester University), Burgess often writes with the show-off long words of the autodidact, so familiar from his other works. (The section on George Orwell's "1984" in "Ninety-Nine Novels" begins: "This is one of the few dystopian or cacotopian visions which have changed our habits of thought." Sure.) In "Little Wilson . . . " we are treated to: exophthalmic , desquamation and pococurantists . (No, you look them up.)

But Burgess is more wordsmith than wordmonger. At his best, he has what his beloved Gerard Manley Hopkins called "the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation"--and never more so than when having a bash at the Roman Catholic Church in the doctrines of which he was reared:

"Sister Ignatius was a sort of Lancashire fishwife got up as a nun. Prayers were lengthy and featured the Virgin Mary more than her son or the great fuming dyspeptic God who raged round his punishment laboratory."

Like the best of Burgess' novels, the book has terrific pace and vivacity. If you do put it down, you will return to it, eager to find out whose sensibilities Burgess is going to trample on next, or who is going to trample on his. It is the story of a sort of Unlucky Jim. His family photographs are eaten by termites (a sad loss to the book); his wife uses four-letter words to the Duke of Edinburgh at a garden party in Brunei; Burgess is tested at a neurological hospital by Dr. Roger Bannister (the first man to run a four-minute mile) and is told by his wife that he has a year to live--in 1958.

Burgess has an almost too perfect recall, especially for the foreign phrases that spatter the "abroad" parts of his narrative like those in the memoirs of a Victorian proconsul. But he is never a bore: Everything is redeemed by his ironic, underdog's sense of humor, which is frequently turned on himself.

So much for Little Wilson; what about Big God? Though Burgess acknowledges himself a lapsed Catholic, it is clear that the church has never wholly lost its hold on him. "I have found no metaphysical substitute for it," he writes. If it were not presumptuous, impertinent and irreverent to do so, I would take a large bet on his dying in the church's arms.

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