An essay on pornography cost Anthony Burgess his Malta house. It will now be a book
The 1970 lecture, to be published as a book titled Obscenity and the Arts, will also include a provocative response to Burgess’s essay by academic and feminist Germaine Greer,Updated: Jul 20, 2017 11:52 IST
A lecture about pornography, which landed Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange, in hot water with the Maltese authorities in 1970, is to be published for the first time, alongside previously unseen photographs.
The talk, which was given to a packed audience of priests and government officials, so upset the Mediterranean island’s authorities that they seized Burgess’s house.
The book, to be published as Obscenity and the Arts, will also include a provocative response to Burgess’s essay by academic and feminist Germaine Greer, who knew him personally, and an essay about his years on the island. It will be the first new work by the author, who died in 1993, to appear in 20 years.
Published by small Mancunian independent Pariah Press , it has been released in conjunction with The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, to mark the centenary of the writer’s birth.
Andrew Biswell , professor of English at Manchester Metropolitan University and director of the foundation, said the author had been provoked by the authorities, after state censors seized some of his books on his move to the island in 1968. “He was trying to move in with his library when quite a large chunk of it was seized by the Maltese post office,” said Bissell.
Among the books taken were The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, everything by DH Lawrence and any featuring homosexuality. However, Biswell said, the authorities appeared to be motivated less by the content of the titles than by their packaging and titles: “He struck up a correspondence with the post office asking for the books to be returned, and they said they would let him know as soon as they had read them.”
Newly married to his second wife, Italian translator Liliana Macellari (known as Liana), Burgess fled to the island in 1968 amid a wave of celebrities who left Britain after the then Labour government introduced a 90% tax rate for the highest earners. The lecture was given at the invitation of the Malta Library Association to a 1,000-strong audience, dominated by Catholic clergy.
Burgess, whose work included the Enderby quartet and Earthly Powers , regarded himself as a conservative libertarian and used the lecture to argue that obscenity and pornography should be judged according to literary merit.
In a move guaranteed to raise hackles with his religious audience, he cited a range of texts, from the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus – which he described as a “story of rape, murder and cannibalism” – to argue against banning books, quoting John Milton’s 1644 anti-censorship pamphlet, Areopagitica , that to destroy a good book is to kill reason.
“Burgess’s defence is basically that it is a slippery slope to ban books: if we start with the Marquis de Sade, then we end up banning Saul Bellow and Sartre and eventually he would be next,” Biswell said. To offset the author and composer’s argument, Germaine Greer has been commissioned to write what Biswell described as a “punchy counterpoint” for inclusion in the new book.
Unfortunately for the author, his arguments fell on deaf ears in the newly independent state. On leaving the island for a short break to Italy, the Maltese government sequestered his family home, which was returned only after it made front-page news in the Guardian. So bitterly did the author feel about the action that he never returned, choosing to write about the experience in novels including M/F and Earthly Powers.
Publisher Jonny Walsh, of Pariah Press, said the famously prescient author’s work spoke to modern concerns about censorship and freedom of speech. It is likely though that, had he been alive, he would have moved the focus of his criticism towards religious censorship. He was a vocal supporter of Salman Rushdie during the Satanic Verses furore.
However, Biswell said that there were limits to what Burgess thought acceptable: “There is another essay by him about a pornographic novel that he was sent to review and he felt was just too much.” The novel that pushed the author of A Clockwork Orange too far was The Night Clerk by Stephen Schneck.
Among other publications planned to mark the author’s centenary is the novelisation of a previously unpublished screenplay, The Black Prince, written in the 1970s. It will be adapted by Adam Roberts, if he receives sufficient backing through the crowdfunding website Unbound.
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First Published: Jun 20, 2017 13:11 IST