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An Interview with Roger Lewis

An exclusive interview with Roger Lewis about his forthcoming biography of Anthony Burgess.

[h]INTERVIEW WITH ROGER LEWIS, biographer of Anthony Burgess
9 October 2002
(transcript from BWP agency, Holland)[/h]

[b]INTERVIEWER[/b]: How did you first come to write about Anthony Burgess, and why?

[b]ROGER LEWIS[/b]: I first started reading his books in 1982. I was just bowled over by this great firework prose, wonderful energy, all the great exuberance of Burgess. It took some years to gather his books and go through them. There were always more coming out, I was very impressed by his writing. So then I was asked to do a small critical book, asked by Malcolm Bradbury. He was a professor at the University of East Anglia. I used to write articles about Burgess?s books and review them. So eventually I decided to do a big biography. I like biographies ? HBO are making a film of my Peter Sellers book. I always loved his stuff. You begin all the research and meet people who knew him. You end up walking in the footsteps of your subject.

[b]INT[/b]: You must have put a lot of your own money into the Burgess book. I cannot imagine that your advance covered tracking down rivers in Malaysia.

[b]RL[/b]: That is true. But I wanted to cover Malaya in depth. The advance ran out and I used some of the money I had made from my other books. I thought it was fascinating about Burgess being in Malaya. He came from this post-war, rainy, drab England but while he was there [in Malaya] as schoolmaster he started writing. He got ill in the tropics. He had been there too long, you see, it doesn?t agree with Westerners. There was no evidence for a brain tumour. I talked to his doctor. He had the tests for a brain tumour which was suspected, but in effect he was suffering from malnutrition and overwork. He had been drinking too much gin and not eating properly. Back then there was no air-conditioning. I can?t imagine how Westerners could survive there at all. I put a lot of my own money into this research.

[b]INT[/b]: You know all this stuff you are saying about Burgess ? how he used to make himself out as someone he was not, really being a kind guy making himself out to be rough and gruff ? I get the impression that this is what you are doing in your book also. You are using statements like ?he is a liar? and ?a complete fucking fool? but what you are really doing is using Burgess humour and it is a declaration of love. You are writing the opposite of what you mean, isn?t that correct?

[b]RL[/b]: It is true that I had admiration for him. It is like a parent: you love them and you hate them and you can?t get away from them. I hope this is what gives the book its narrative flow ? huge admiration and affection for someone who was exasperating. You say things to shock, you take on the mannerisms of your subject, you get really absorbed by it. The real Anthony Burgess was always immensely charming and gracious and kind. Part of my anger was because I knew this kind, sensitive man who would portray himself as a beast ? that made me angry and I used his own approach in my book. I hope people will be able to read between the lines and realise that I am using black humour, Burgess humour, to wake people up. I do agree that public figures often get stuck between the public image and who they really are ? this was certainly the case with Burgess. When he writes about himself, he tries to make himself out as roaring and coarse. He was much more gentle than that. The real John Wilson was very different. In his memoirs he is always getting into fights, always shouting at customs officers at airports, always arguing with the police. That is one of his great fictions. The other is that he was a great womanizer. I really didn?t get much of a sense of that. I think he was a very kind, very loyal man.

[b]INT[/b]: I was amazed that you did not write much about Liana, and what you have written seems to be very cautious. Why?

[b]RL[/b]: I didn?t get much of a sense of her. I was much more interested in the first wife. I think he was so battered and traumatized by her death, he almost didn?t know what was happening to him. I was also taken aback by what he wrote about Liana. It seemed very sentimental how he wrote about it, he?d been so honest about the ups and downs of his first marriage. So I realised he didn?t want us to know about the second marriage and I respected that really, she is still alive. I got the sense she was breathing down his neck, reading all his stuff, but I am sure they were very much together. She was his protector.

[b]INT[/b]: What happened with your book? You were at Picador first, isn?t it true you got fired there?

[b]RL[/b]: No, that was not what happened. Jon Riley was at Picador first and he was a Burgess admirer and wanted to do the book. When he moved to Faber, I couldn?t get anyone to publish the book at Picador. So I thought: if you aren?t sure whether you want to publish it while I?m writing it, you are not going to be sure about it when I am done either. So I took my book and went with Riley. Jon Riley was a Burgess fan. Burgess was very much a figure on the London literary scene, he was at all the parties, always in London launching books, very available.

[b]INT[/b]: And it was Burgess who picked you to write his biography? I find this hard to believe.

[b]RL[/b]: Well, he didn?t actually want me to write a biography per se. He wanted me to write a literary criticism of his works but I honestly cannot disentangle the two. When you write about Burgess?s books in Malaya, you write about Burgess.

[b]INT[/b]: How did Burgess treat you?

[b]RL[/b]: He was encouraging, he seemed very proud that someone was taking him seriously. He used to phone up a lot. We would meet, we went to the opera. I had enough of a sense of him as a person, I think, to be able to write about him.

[b]INT[/b]: How come you did not write about his final year? What happened then?

[b]RL[/b]: Well, I wanted to concentrate on other things. But I know he went to the Sloane-Kettering Clinic in New York. He was living in Switzerland ? in Lugano, actually ? he was going back and forth to Monaco a lot. But anyway, he came back to England to work on a book in the last two years, early 1990s, I think. He got diagnosed in New York ... not quite true, he got diagnosed earlier but was diagnosed as hopeless in New York. He announced this in England, when he came back from New York, to attend the Cheltenham Literary Festival, that was where he announced it was a terminal condition. Sloane-Kettering is one of the greatest cancer clinics in the world, and if they said there was nothing to be done, there was nothing to be done. Before then, he was seeing doctors in Switzerland for what he thought was bronchitis. He was losing weight, not eating, but when it came to it actually being cancer, he decided to go the best places, have the most sophisticated tests. I didn?t want to write about this. He was an old man dying of cancer. That was his business.

[b]INT[/b]: Were you impressed by how he handled his last year on earth?

[b]RL[/b]: Oh yes, very much so. I immensely admired the fact that he kept writing, that there are books still coming out after his death. He was writing a lot of music, too. That was when he was at home in England, in Twickenham, by then he had moved there. Being treated on the NHS was appealing because it was free. On four or five occasions he mentioned that he wanted to be buried in Manchester, yet he is buried in Monte Carlo. This was organized by the widow, not his wish. But I am speculating, unless there is some tax reason for where you are buried. He was in a private ward in the hospice, I assume he had a single room there. He was a paying patient then.

[b]INT[/b]: Why didn?t he die at home?

[b]RL[/b]: Well, it is a debilitating condition.

[b]INT[/b]: What else could you find out from the hospital?

[b]RL[/b]: Not a lot. When I phoned them to ask they clammed up, claiming medical confidentiality. They wouldn?t give me any information.

[b]INT[/b]: Were his wife and son with him when he died?

[b]RL[/b]: I don?t know. His wife registered his death, so she must have been there.

[b]INT[/b]: Why do you think she did not announce it until days later?

[b]RL[/b]: I think she was grief-stricken. She knew all the newspapers were after a story, and she probably needed time to make all the arrangements.

[b]INT[/b]: Is it true that the hospital told her that their cooler was getting a bit full?

[b]RL[/b]: Dear God, no. That is speculation on my part. I would never ask something like that.

[b]INT[/b]: When, exactly, did your admiration for Burgess turn into hostility and resentment? Isn?t what you are now saying about him a case of professional jealousy, because his reputation as a writer is larger than your own?

[b]RL[/b]: It is not hostility. I think it is a Stephen Dedalus-Leopold Bloom relationship: two ambitious writers, very different, exasperated with each other. I used to hate that gap between the big monster he made himself out to be and who he really was. I am not the only one. People who knew him, they all told me they used to keep wanting to scream at him, Why are you doing this? He built this great performance around himself. He was a shy, sensitive man who wanted to pretend to all this machismo, like Mailer or Byron.

[b]INT[/b]: Why, do you think?

[b]RL[/b]: I think it was a typical Burgess performance, but I can only speculate.

[b]INT[/b]: Do you really think he was a spy?

[b]RL[/b]: I think he was in Malaya, and when I was told all that stuff about his CIA file, this occurred to me.

[b]INT[/b]: But, you know, in the US you can get a CIA file for saying something against the government. A lot of actors and the like have CIA files. A wrong remark is enough for one.

[b]RL[/b]: Yes, that is enough. As you know from having seen the book, they [the CIA] really clammed up when I asked about the file, as though this were an issue of national security. That?s what gave me the idea.

[b]INT[/b]: Why did you decide not to look at the large collection of papers and manuscripts in Texas?

[b]RL[/b]: Everything is available on their website. They haven?t got any correspondence.

[b]INT[/b]: That?s not correct. I looked up the website. It lists all the material they have, but you cannot access it from the website. They have piles of correspondence.

[b]RL[/b]: Ah yes, now I remember. I didn?t want to go through all that. I felt there was no use.

[b]INT[/b]: Did Liana prevent you from accessing the files? I understand that she really turned against the idea of you writing the Burgess biography. Did that hinder you in any way?

[b]RL[/b]: Not really. I felt it set me free to do what I wanted. She wouldn?t have liked anyone writing a biography, it doesn?t matter who. I don?t think it was personal. As a matter of fact, she wouldn?t have liked some of the areas I had gone into. She is so protective that anyone else writing about Burgess would be regarded with suspicion ? she would never understand what I am doing with my book, all that irony she is going miss. She is very quick to take offence, in a very fiery, maddening way. But she is very friendly when it?s not a matter of protecting Burgess. I wrote this extremely pro-Burgess piece, an obituary in the Independent. All my credentials were there. I was completely going to exalt Burgess: it is the concept of a biography she didn?t want.

[b]INT[/b]: He must have seen a lot of himself in you.

[b]RL[/b]: I see a lot of myself in him.

[b]INT[/b]: Is it true that Andrew Burgess is not his son?

[b]RL[/b]: According to official documentation. A signed birth certificate.

[b]INT[/b]: What about the guy who is on there as a father. Does he exist?

[b]RL[/b]: I tried to track him down, without success. But then I looked at Burgess?s books again for more evidence. Earthly Powers is about someone whose father is not who he thought he was. I just don?t think you have an afternoon of passion and four years later someone comes out of the woodwork and claims they have your child ... it doesn?t ring true. Any normal person would have wanted corroboration.

[b]INT[/b]: What was Burgess?s relationship with kids in general, you think?

[b]RL[/b]: Burgess was no good with children. Regarding Andrew, in articles from way back he describes himself as the step-father, and only much later did he start to write ?father?. You don?t sense any love or affection for the child ? or anyone else ? in his writings.

[b]INT[/b]: Other than Liana. His books are full of how wonderful she is.

[b]RL[/b]: Yes, but she was always looking over his shoulder, she would proof-read things, and when stuff was published she was the one that would create a fuss. It must have made life difficult.

[b]INT[/b]: And this is why he had to portray Lynne as worse than she was, you suppose? You say her family felt very upset by this portrayal. Did you talk to them?

[b]RL[/b]: No, this came from published material. They all had died by now, they were all very elderly. In the memoirs, first volume I think it was, that whole story he had to make out that Lynne was such a devil ... This was why I decided to end my book when he goes off into exile with a new wife. I am sure that Liana would be jealous of the memory of Lynne ? they were together from the 1930s to 1968. Italians can be very jealous and possessive.

[b]INT[/b]: Let?s talk about Lynne for a while. All that stuff about you writing ?He could have done more to save her,? etc etc ? that is you using Burgess humour again, I suppose. Like you got so mad at his unfounded sense of guilt that you played it out on paper? You do know, of course, that it is impossible to save an alcoholic from a trip of self-destruction unless they want to be saved?

[b]RL[/b]: Of course. I was writing with a sense of irony. Obviously you can?t save them unless they want to be saved ? the story is so sad and tragic that I decided to make it black comedy. From a distance, as long as we didn?t have to be part of it, it is all very funny: the fights at literary parties, the rudeness to Prince Phillip, how she would be angry with people who wrote nasty reviews about him.

[b]INT[/b]: Lynne would get angry at people for nasty reviews? Uncaring Lynne?

[b]RL[/b]: That was how he had to portray her. In fact, I think she was a very protective wife, devoted to him in her own way. He always wanted women to mother him, women who wanted to protect him.

[b]INT[/b]: Not that this could be said about his step-mother...

[b]RL[/b]: I met survivors from that period. He was looked after, he had a home.

[b]INT[/b]: In a physical sense, maybe. But they couldn?t relate to him on an intellectual level nor provide the kind of warmth the sensitive young boy craved.

[b]RL[/b]: Well, he took refuge in his books.

[b]INT[/b]: Okay, he did not get on with his son, whether he was his son or not, as you claim. His son did not want to write, but you did. You were interested in absorbing everything he wanted to teach. Do you suppose that Burgess saw you as a surrogate son of sorts? Because that is the impression I get from your book ? you are writing all this crap about him, but it is only skin deep. You love the guy, deep down, so what was going on with you and him?

[b]RL[/b]: This is very interesting, I think he was fatherly toward me. He was certainly concerned for my career, he always asked me am I getting plenty of work, am I all right. I went to Greece once, and he was so kind, he went on about ?Be careful what you eat, look after yourself, get enough sleep?. He was very concerned for me on a personal level, and professionally, too. He introduced me to Leslie Gardner, his agent, and insisted she take me on.

[b]INT[/b]: So, Roger, your book is really crap. It is a love letter and you are making it out to be a hate letter. You are doing exactly what you are accusing Burgess of doing ? you are writing lies in order to shock the public, and too bad if nobody gets the joke.

[b]RL[/b]: It?s true that beneath all the harsh words you have this great emotion, you realise you are mirror images.

[b]INT[/b]: Like on your last two pages?

[b]RL[/b]: That is the moment where the mirror-image of me and him coalesces, where father and son come together, from when I first knew him, in the early 1980s, to twenty years later, some things that happen to all kinds of writers, all that belittlement, paranoia even. But paranoids are people in possession of all the facts.

[b]INT[/b]: That depression you talked about, did you suffer from that?

[b]RL[/b]: Yes, I sometimes suffer from terrible depression.

[b]INT[/b]: A famous writer once told me that writing causes depression, would you agree?

[b]RL[/b]: I think it does cause depression. Since finishing the book until now, I have been in this awful black mood. It is like post-natal depression, terrible bereavement, no energy, very bleak outlook, you feel completely lost.

[b]INT[/b]: Grief for Burgess?

[b]RL[/b]: Perhaps. Burgess maintained he?d finish one book and start another the next day. I can?t. I have to recharge, I have to kind of regroup and find myself again. I get lost in my characters, walking in their footsteps

[b]INT[/b]: When you are writing about Burgess ?conking out?, and ?cooling in a refrigerator? ... that is a callous way of writing about someone dying. In effect, are you not doing precisely what Burgess was doing in his books? You said he?d write about things as though there were no emotions behind fundamentally painful events, because he was hiding it, didn?t want the public to see it. It seems to me you are doing the same. You grieve, and your callousness hides the grief.

[b]RL[/b]: That is probably true ? there is a lot of black humour in this. Burgess would understand it, I think. I don?t know if readers will.

[b]INT[/b]: Tell me about your own background, because I think that your life mirrors Burgess?s in a lot of ways and you are using his story to tell your own. I read a strange tale about you going off to France and running off with your babysitter or maid or whatever. Your wife kicked you out, you set up home with the maid, and then she died. What on earth was going on there?

[b]RL[/b]: Dear God, where did you find out about that?

[b]INT[/b]: It was in the {Sunday Times}, I think. Someone from the agency pulled it from the archives for me.

[b]RL[/b]: Everything in that story is true, it happened. We came to the UK, she started to get really strange, I didn?t know how to cope ....

[b]INT[/b]: That is like Burgess with Lynne, so you should understand that when someone goes off the deep-end, you cannot do anything but to helplessly stand by and watch.

[b]RL[/b]: Of course I know this. I experienced it myself. There was nothing he could have done for Lynne. In fact, I used this experience in another book. When I was writing about Vivien Leigh I was drawing on what I was going through....

[b]INT[/b]: So what happened then?

[b]RL[/b]: She got stranger and stranger. She was from Kent. She was perhaps not the love but the infatuation of my life. We were together in Mid-Wales, then suddenly she went back to her parents in 1997. She refused to write or phone. I was in New York in November, launching my Olivier book, and I got a call saying she had hanged herself, aged 29. It was devastating for me. The only person who tracked me down, who could get through to me and had any sense of how I felt was my ex-wife. We got back together, we remarried. We are very happy now. Now I am kind of back where I was, with the children, but it has taken a lot out of me, that brief excursion into madness, as I call it. I did everything, you see, to help her, but the more you do, the more it makes you feel inadequate.

[b]INT[/b]: You should have understood the sense of helplessness and the pain Burgess went through with Lynne, then?

[b]RL[/b]: Of course. I knew what it was like to live with someone determined on self-destruction, they were looking for excuses to derail the train ? that was why I could relate to what he was going through, romping around in adventure, frolic, and it turned very rapidly into a realm of darkness and madness. Burgess had nothing to blame himself for. I got angry because he blamed himself. My wife and I were remarried in 1999, I think. We were remarried, and now it all seems a very small, mad interlude.

[b]INT[/b]: Okay, so we?ve got some parallels between you and Burgess. Let?s go back to those last two pages, where you go on about the life of a writer. Ever attempted suicide?

[b]RL[/b]: Me?

[b]INT[/b]: Yes, you.

[b]RL[/b]: No, I think about it at times, but I would never do it. Who was it who wrote that contemplating suicide is better than the actual event, it keeps you on your toes?

[b]INT[/b]: Hesse, in Steppenwolf.

[b]RL[/b]: Yes that is what I am like. I would never do it. Thinking about it is a different matter.

[b]INT[/b]: Okay, how about impotence, do you suffer from that?

[b]RL[/b]: Not that one, no. I think that was a brief novelistic interlude, one day maybe I can write about ?

[b]INT[/b]: I don?t think Burgess was impotent either.

[b]RL[/b]: Well, he made plenty of references to it, in his writings.

[b]INT[/b]: Gee-whiz, Roger, can you please stop to think for a while? Has it never occurred to you that Burgess was using impotence as meaning lack of power?

[b]RL[/b]: But he had power in a literary sense, his books were being published.

[b]INT[/b]: He was referring to impotence to change the world, to be heard, to make a difference. It is one thing whether people read your books, another one altogether whether they understand what you are trying to tell them. He did not mean impotence in a sexual sense, for heaven?s sake.

[b]RL[/b]: Maybe you?re right. Maybe all artists feel that, in a way, that they are court jesters, fools in a Shakespearean sense, that they are people who can be disregarded and it drives you mad with rage. He did feel that there he was trying to educate people about language, and nobody cared enough. Yes, I suppose you are right. But then there was this Moyna woman who said he was really infatuated with her. She said there was no snap in his celery, she said he couldn?t get it up.

[b]INT[/b]: Roger, please, she also said that he never, ever tried to make romantic advances toward her. How could she have known whether he could have gotten it up or not? Think about this for a minute. When you get famous, a lot of hangers-on try to get a scrap of your fame. What better way than to claim this famous writer was in love with you?

[b]RL[/b]: I suppose that is also true. Nothing ever happened between them. And a lot of that happened to Burgess, groupies at American universities and so on.

[b]INT[/b]: All that tough stuff going on in your book ... Not quite as it seems.

[b]RL[/b]: It was all language and cleverness, but what the hell was going on underneath? People would always ask themselves that about Burgess?s books, and now they are going to ask it about mine. This means that I have done the job right and written the kind of book I wanted to write.

[b]INT[/b]: Do you miss him?

[b]RL[/b]: The great thing about writing a biography is that he is still fully alive. I am very friendly with Leslie Gardner, and she was friendly with him. That?s a way of keeping him alive. We talk about him a lot.

[b]INT[/b]: How did you feel when he died?

[b]RL [/b]I was very shocked when he died. I hadn?t spoken to him for a while. I don?t think he wanted to see anybody. But it was very rough for me when he died.

[b]INT[/b]: Just because there were no more Burgess books coming?

[b]RL[/b]: Not only that.

[b]INT[/b]: Also because someone who had cared for you, who was concerned for your well-being, who was always trying to foster your career, was gone?

[b]RL[/b]: Yes, that, too.

[b]INT[/b]: This book is you dealing with your grief, isn?t it? Like Burgess, you don?t want to deal with painful emotions, so you turn them into the opposite.

[b]RL[/b]: That is very perceptive.

[b]INT[/b]: It is the only truth that makes sense. When I read the book, I didn?t buy all that stuff about you turning on someone who?d been that kind to you ? the only thing that remotely made sense was that you and Burgess were a lot alike and you did exactly what he had done: avoid the issue, avoid pain, say the opposite of what you meant, express your own emotions by taking on a different character.

[b]RL[/b]: Amazing that you picked that up. I hope everyone else will understand it.

[b]INT[/b]: Depends how well they know Burgess?s works. Depends, largely, also on what you are going to say about the book in public. By the way, I noticed you didn?t make a lot of mention of his last novel, Byrne. Any reason for this?

[b]RL[/b]: Byrne is a big puzzle to me. I couldn?t really get through it, I couldn?t get on with it, I have no idea what or who it was about. It is a puzzle. The only thing I did get out of it was that he was this great Catholic, it?s his way of trying to make peace with everyone, he had more faith than he was letting on, getting closer to God. A deeply religious man.

[b]INT[/b]: Have you any funny anecdotes to tell of when Burgess was still around and you were doing the book?

[b]RL[/b]: He got very worried when I tracked down Moyna Morris.

[b]INT[/b]: Did he ask for her number? I mean, if he ?loved? her, he would have done.

[b]RL[/b]: No, she asked for his. I gave it to her and he was saying something like ?Oh my God, silly woman, this was a long time ago.? He didn?t really want her to get in touch. I don?t know whether she did, I think so. I know she tried to get back in touch with him.

[b]INT[/b]: Talking of staying in touch, do you realise that when he did not answer letters he probably did not get them?

[b]RL[/b]: I think that may be true. A lot of stuff went through his London office. They were selecting what got forwarded on. He was bad correspondent, as well.

[b]INT[/b]: All these houses they bought, you realise they were not fancy houses?

[b]RL[/b]: True, more pieds-?-terre, and a lot of them were bought as investments. All these houses, they were neglected, just sort of shut up. When other people would have to sell one house to buy another, they just bought another and left the old house empty.

[b]INT[/b]: Do you know what became of the Lugano house? Are his papers still in there?

[b]RL[/b]: I think the Texas people went round the houses gathering up everything ? everything was damp, they said. The house outside Rome was $20,000 when they bought it. Now it is worth more.

[b]INT[/b]: Why so many houses in Monaco?

[b]RL[/b]: They bought about three of them, outgrew one.

[b]INT[/b]: And Lugano? Were they separated or what?

[b]RL[/b]: In order to get a place in Switzerland, you had to have residency. I think only she had that ? he was travelling around a lot. But they were as together as any couple, probably more so.

[b]INT[/b]: I read that Observer article when your book was being researched. About you and that other biographer, you know, the young kid doing his first biography on Burgess.

[b]RL[/b]: Ah yes, I know nothing about him or what he is up to. I thought it was maliciously conceived, that article. It was unfair.

[b]INT[/b]: So you can relate to what happened to Burgess? You got a taste of what Burgess always had to deal with?

[b]RL[/b]: I suppose that is true, yes.

[b]INT[/b]: So you know what was written about him was often untrue, just like it was untrue about you?

[b]RL[/b]: Yes, I suppose you have a point.

[b]INT[/b]: Burgess helped your career enormously, didn?t he?

[b]RL[/b]: He introduced Gardner and I, and insisted she was the agent for me. She is still my agent on everything but the Burgess book.

[b]INT[/b]: Now, that article stated that you were going to portray Burgess as a paedophile and child molester ? you, of course, realise this is not the case.

[b]RL[/b]: Of course I do. This was not what I wanted to do. Look, Burgess himself said in his memoirs that he went to bed with prostitutes.

[b]INT[/b]: He probably wrote it to shock, you know, he always used to do things like that.

[b]RL[/b]: Yes, true.

[b]INT[/b]: You already found out his womanising tales were untrue, maybe this was untrue also?

[b]RL[/b]: Most likely, yes.


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