• Q&A with Andrew Biswell • 10.05.18
Updated: Sep 8
Prof. Biswell is the director of the IABF and co-editor of Obscenity & the Arts
For the uninitiated, please explain the purpose and work of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation With pleasure. The International Anthony Burgess Foundation is an educational charity, created by Liana Burgess (Anthony’s widow) in 2003. The Foundation exists to promote knowledge about Burgess’s life and work to the general public, and it makes grants to students of literature and music.
When Liana died in 2007, she left a legacy which allowed the Foundation to move to a large building in Manchester city centre. This operates as a library, a study centre and a venue for events, music and live literature. So the Foundation has become an important landmark on the cultural landscape of the city. We undertake work such as conferences and exhibitions. Every year since 2012 we have awarded a writing prize, in association with the Observer newspaper and the Guardian Media Group, to encourage new talent in arts journalism. The other main element of the Foundation’s work is to manage Burgess’s literary estate, through a series of reprints, translations and editions of new work, based on manuscripts in the archive. Obscenity & the Arts is one of the fruits of this labour. The Irwell Edition of the works of Anthony Burgess is another.
What was your background before becoming the Burgess Foundation’s Director? Before I came to the Foundation eight years ago, I had worked as a university lecturer, a literary journalist and a freelance writer. At Warwick I researched a PhD on Burgess’s literary essays, and spent the next three years writing a full-scale biography, The Real Life of Anthony Burgess, published in 2005. The 1990s and early 2000s were a good time to be finding out about Burgess’s life, as many of his close friends were still alive and willing to share their memories. I came to the director’s job by way of having been a trustee when Liana Burgess was still with us. She was a person of great charm and determination, and the Burgess Foundation as it exists today is very much her creation.
Why work with PARIAH PRESS?
The Foundation got to know PARIAH through hosting a launch event for The Myth of Brilliant Summers, a first collection of flash-fiction by Austin Collings. I also made a radio programme with Jennifer Reid, who is another PARIAH author. The greatest advantage of working with a smaller press is that they have more time and energy at their disposal—unlike a big, commercial publisher, who will give your book no more than a few days of their attention. In such circumstances, with a genuine conversation going on, the publishing process becomes a true collaboration.
In the case of Obscenity & the Arts, the period of gestation has been more than two years from the first conversation to the published book appearing. During that time, it’s been delightful to watch the work evolving, in collaboration with the editors at PARIAH and the graphic designer, Adam Griffiths. As the research which stands behind the book has taken shape, I’ve been pleased to find out more about the history of Burgess’s time in Malta. I’ve made new friends, such as Marie Benoit, the Maltese journalist who has contributed her interview with Burgess to the book. And the Foundation has come to a much better understanding of its photographic collection, some of which appears in the book. We have just installed a new exhibition, ‘BANNED BOOKS: Anthony Burgess and Censorship’, which coincides with the publication of the Obscenity book.
"Art is dangerous. It is one of the attractions: when it ceases to be dangerous
you don't want it." – Anthony Burgess
Why does Anthony Burgess’s life and work continue to be relevant in the twenty-first century? I think Burgess was ahead of his time in some (but not all) of his thinking about the pressing social questions of his day. He was an innovator when it came to language and neologisms, and I suppose that extended into other areas of experience. Right from the start of his publishing career in the 1950s, his novels engaged in contemporary debates about decriminalizing drugs and homosexuality. In Honey for the Bears, published in 1963, he wrote about same-sex relationships, between both men and women, at a time when the law in Britain was hostile to such practices. His championing of dissident writers such as William Burroughs and Hubert Selby can be related to his forward-thinkingness about other political questions. After the Moors Murders trial in 1966 there was a movement to suppress dangerous books which were said to have driven the killers to commit their crimes. Burgess resisted this as a matter of principle, and partly because he was worried about his own books being suppressed. I have a strong impression that many of these debates about censorship are being revisited in our own time. In that sense, Obscenity & the Arts seems to me to be entirely relevant to a twenty-first century readership.
For anyone looking to delve past A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers, which of Burgess’s works would you recommend? A remarkable new collection of Burgess’s literary essays, The Ink Trade (edited by Will Carr) has just been published by Carcanet. Inside Mr Enderby and Enderby Outside (both available in The Complete Enderby) are two of his best comic novels. Earthly Powers, his most ambitious long novel, is a rich and rewarding epic of the twentieth century. Other high points include Nothing Like the Sun and A Dead Man in Deptford. And I’ve always had a fondness for Byrne, a late novel in verse which deserves to have more readers. November 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of Burgess’s death. Where does his reputation stand today? That’s hard to say. I have the impression that, as Kubrick’s film version of A Clockwork Orange has faded from view, Burgess is now better known in his own right. There more of his novels are in print today than there were ten years ago, but a huge amount of work is still below the waterline. Burgess is also becoming known for his orchestral and piano music, which is now available commercially. So I suppose he has the reputation of a writer-composer, which is an unusual thing to be. Some of his music (a short piano piece) has found its way into Obscenity & the Arts, which is very cheering.
Is there much left to be discovered about Burgess? A lot more than you’d think. Some of the novels have been out of print for more than 50 years. My hope is that they will come back in the near future. The Foundation is planning new editions of Burgess’s short stories and letters over the next couple of years. None of this work has been published before, and it really does show him at his best. There is interest from PARIAH PRESS in publishing a book of his essays and introductions. That sounds like an excellent project.
What’s next for the Burgess Foundation? 2018 has been a very busy year for us, with the musical version of A Clockwork Orange playing at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, two new critical books coming out, the launch of a Naxos CD of Burgess piano music (The Bad-Tempered Electronic Keyboard, performed by Stéphane Ginsburgh), and the No End to Enderby films, which were screened at the Glasgow International Festival.
Future projects will include three new Irwell Editions (Puma, Beard’s Roman Women and ABBA ABBA), a new theatre production in the autumn, a Stanley Kubrick conference in London, and a collaboration with English PEN in December. As if that wasn’t enough, new translations will appear in Russian, Chinese, Turkish, Romanian and other languages. Give us your favourite fact about Burgess. In 1972 Burgess was asked to write a stage musical about Harry Houdini as a vehicle for Orson Welles, who was fascinated by magic and claimed to have been taught magic tricks by Houdini himself. A letter from Burgess’s agent confirms that he completed this work and delivered it. After which point it disappeared from sight completely. We went to the agent, who said that his office and its contents had been destroyed by fire, and there seems to be no trace of the Houdini script in the Orson Welles archives, or in the files of the producer who commissioned it. But I’m sure it must exist somewhere. Just imagine 'Houdini: The Musical' by Anthony Burgess. If we can find it, could it be a possible publishing project for PARIAH PRESS?