I’ve been poring over the intended final proofs of the first issue of the Ford Madox Ford journal, looking for misprints, of course, those tiny details that are capable of provoking rage or despair in some individuals, as I’m only too aware. I’ve reacquainted myself with the well-known phenomenon of staring at a word a dozen times before noticing, at the thirteenth attempt, that a letter is missing. Still, since I’ve come close on past occasions to dismissing out of hand people who can’t spell Ford Madox Ford’s name or who jam an apostrophe into Finnegans Wake, I can hardly rule out a similar intolerance in others, potential readers of our journal.
I’ve now reached the point where I tacitly assume that there will be errors in every book I read. Novels are less affected by the virus but anything with a lot of names, places and book titles is at risk. Usually, these are minor lapses, probably invisible unless you have that proofreading or editorial predilection – but not always. I’ve just been reading a highly enjoyable selection of journalism by Anthony Burgess, The Ink Trade (edited by Will Carr, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018) and, while ‘the playgoing pubic’ is mildly amusing, to be told that, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’, the word ‘buckle’ ‘resents a forceful ambiguity which is at the root of the strength of the poem’, gives me pause to frown. Resents? Presents? Represents? Interesting, anyway, to learn that, apart from Shakespeare, the two writers that have meant much to him are James Joyce – hardly a secret, that one – and Hopkins.
In any case, the book offers so many pleasures that it warrants a high degree of tolerance to such errors. There are sixty items, uncollected and several unpublished, with numerous reminders of Burgess’s energy, erudition, wit and wide-ranging enthusiasms. On censorship, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Erica Jong, A. S. Byatt, Evelyn Waugh and Malcolm Lowry; Ellmann on Wilde, V. S. Naipaul, Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis. Burgess is always readable, often provocative, generally engaging. Remembering Earthly Powers, whose main protagonist was reputedly based on, or drew upon, Somerset Maugham, it’s salutary to be reminded of Burgess’s considerable and genuine regard for Maugham’s writing. He describes Cakes and Ale as ‘a textbook of literary criticism as well as a superb novel’ and, though he proposes to modify that to ‘a superb work of fiction’, since the book may be seen as an inflated short story, he adds that some of Maugham’s stories are ‘among the best in the language.’ Of his first reading of The Waste Land: ‘I was only fifteen, and I understood very little of the poem, but I recognised that it was important. I seemed to hear a door, a long way down one of my mind’s corridors, trying to creak open but not quite making it.’ That last sentence is right on the money.
He writes often and well on Joyce, of course, is consistent in his championing of Ford—‘without doubt the greatest British novelist of the century’—offers some clear and often compelling insights into the writing of fiction (‘The problem for all fiction writers is to decide who is telling the story’), is always fascinated by language, slang, class differences in speech and pronunciation. I liked this, from an unpublished piece (a version of a speech given at the Tate in 1991): ‘I say that a thing portrays beauty when it induces a feeling of elation which is unrelated to the biological or the utilitarian. The orgasm produces elation because that is nature’s bribe to ensure the continuation of the race, even through that bribe is thwarted. The elation of health, or its recovery, or financial success, the winning of a difficult game doesn’t call into being the praise or near-worship of an artefact. The elation is probably the elation of a kind of metaphysical discovery, and that discovery is very frequently a sense of unity which only the arts can convey.’
(Anthony Burgess via theconversation.com)
That word ‘elation’ caught my eye because it recurs in several Jonathan Williams contexts, usually when he was quoting Louis Zukofsky to the effect that the function of poetry is ‘to record & elate’ (or, on occasion, ‘to elate and record’), while Elite/Elate was the title of his 1979 Selected Poems. It’s ironic that Burgess is mentioned in a Williams essay only in a negative context: ‘In one of the Sunday papers, Mr. Anthony Burgess considered it withering and simple enough to call [Zukofsky] “a New Yorker, a Communist, a Jew, and a poet” (I think in that order)’.
Still, Burgess and Zukofsky at least have in common the valuing of ‘elation’ as a desirable effect of literature or the arts and an indispensable element in the perception of beauty.
My other recent Burgess-spotting came in my fat volume of Patrick White’s letters. Writing to Marshall Best, his American publisher, in 1970, White commented that Burgess had seemingly ruffled a gathering of Australian writers with a talk given at the Adelaide Festival, in which he asserted that, ‘A country is only remembered for its art. Rome is remembered for Vergil, Greece for Homer, and Australia may be remembered for Patrick White.’ According to the newspaper report, no one clapped. ‘How I wish I had been watching and listening at a hole in the wall’, White remarked.