Anthony Burgess Biography

Poet, Composer, Author (1917–1993)
English writer and composer Anthony Burgess is best known for his disturbing dystopian novel 'A Clockwork Orange,' which gained a cult following when Stanley Kubrick released his 1971 film version.


Anthony Burgess was an English novelist, poet, playwright and composer born on February 25, 1917, in Manchester, England. In total, he produced 33 novels, 25 non-fiction pieces and more than 250 musical works. His well-known novels include The Wanting Seed, Inside Mr. Enderby, Earthly Powers and A Clockwork Orange, the latter of which was adapted into a 1971 Stanley Kubrick film. Burgess died on November 22, 1993, in London, England.

Childhood and Schools

John Anthony Burgess Wilson was born on February 25, 1917, in Harpurhey, Manchester, England, to Elizabeth and Joseph Wilson. Tragedy struck soon afterward, as his mother and sister, Muriel, died a few days apart during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Imbued with the artistic leanings of his parents – Elizabeth had been a singer and dancer and Joseph a piano player – Burgess began submitting drawings and poems to publications. He taught himself to play piano and at age 18 he composed his first symphony.

Burgess enrolled at the University of Manchester, where he directed stage works and contributed to the university magazine. He also met Llewela "Lynne" Jones, who would become his first wife, before graduating with a degree in English Literature in 1940.

Early Career

Conscripted into the armed forces in 1940, Burgess served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Army Educational Corps. During this time he submitted poetry and film reviews for Army publications, and also acted as musical director of the 54th Division Entertainment Section.

After leaving the military in 1946, Burgess held teaching positions at the Mid-West School of Education and the Bamber Bridge Emergency Training College. In 1950 he became an English teacher at Banbury Grammar School, where he was involved in theater productions and completed his first novels, though he was unable to secure a publisher.

In 1954, Burgess moved with Lynne to Malaya, where he began teaching at Malay College. Two years later he published his first book, Time for a Tiger, under the pseudonym Anthony Burgess. He followed with two more novels in what would become known as The Malayan Trilogy, or The Long Day Wanes.

Full-Time Writer

After falling ill, with what was reportedly diagnosed as a brain tumor, Burgess returned to England in 1959 and thrust himself into his writing. He dashed off several novels, including The Doctor is Sick (1960), The Right to an Answer (1960) and The Wanting Seed (1962), with much of his material based on his experiences overseas.

The author displayed his gift for languages with A Clockwork Orange (1962), in which his characters spoke in an unusual slang. The dystopian novel became his most famous work, largely due to Stanley Kubrick's shocking film adaptation in 1971. However, that reputation somewhat obscured his abilities as a comic writer, which were apparent in his 1963 novel Inside Mr. Enderby (published under the name Joseph Kell) and subsequent three books featuring the hapless poet.

Burgess also was very much interested in historical figures. In 1964 he published Nothing Like the Sun, a fictional biography of William Shakespeare, and six years later he penned a non-fiction profile of the Bard. Burgess also delivered fictionalized versions of historical greats in Napoleon Symphony (1974), Man of Nazareth (1979) and Mozart and the Wolf Gang (1991). Additionally, he devoted two books to the study of James Joyce, one to Ernest Hemingway and another to D.H. Lawrence.

Unafraid to dip into new formats and genres, Burgess turned to epic poetry for Moses (1976). Around this time he also wrote two children's books and 1985 (1978), a combination of a critique of George Orwell's 1984 and his own futuristic narrative. Burgess returned to more straightforward fare with Earthly Powers (1980), a retelling of many of the major events of the 20th century, for which he garnered several major award nominations.

Travels, Music and Other Writing

After Lynne died of liver failure in 1968, Burgess remarried, to Italian translator and literary agent Liana Macellari. He resumed living life overseas with his new wife, with stops in Malta, Italy and the United States, before they settled in Monaco in the mid-1970s.

Burgess successfully turned his translation of Cyrano de Bergerac into a musical, which starred Christopher Plummer in the 1973 Broadway production. He also enjoyed a 1975 presentation of his Symphony No. 3 in C by the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra, an experience he called his "truly great artistic moment."

Burgess's operetta Blooms of Dublin, based on James Joyce's Ulysses, aired on BBC radio in 1982. He also wrote new libretti for a Glasgow production of Oberon in 1985 and for the English National Opera’s production of Carmen in 1986, and turned A Clockwork Orange into a musical around that time.

Additionally, Burgess wrote scripts for televised miniseries of Moses and Jesus, and attempted a screenplay for the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, which was rejected. He also spent many years as a theater and literary critic, and regularly contributed essays to the New York Times.

Late Career and Death

Burgess remained highly productive even as he approached the final years of his life. He delivered a two-volume memoir, Little Wilson and Big God (1987) and You’ve Had Your Time (1990), and a book on linguistics, A Mouthful of Air (1992). He returned to his format of biographical fiction for A Dead Man in Deptford (1993), about the life of playwright Christopher Marlowe.

Burgess died of lung cancer in London on November 22, 1993. Two years later, his final novel, Byrne, appeared in print. All told, he produced 33 novels, another two dozen non-fiction works and more than 250 musical pieces over the course of his highly prolific career.

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