Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Burgess's The Doctor is Sick

Anthony Burgess's 1960 novel The Doctor is Sick is relatively early and more autobiographical than most of his 30-odd novels. As Burgess told the story, his collapse while teaching in Brunei and subsequent diagnosis of a brain tumor, which led to his repatriation to England and further time in a neurological ward before the diagnosis was shown to be false, led him, at the age of 42, to concentrate full time on his dream of being a writer. At the time of his passing over 30 years later in 1993 the penniless orphan and itinerant teacher would be a millionaire celebrity author, a Monaco-based tax exile with a string of properties across Europe. Burgess dramatized this story a bit: he was already a published author as well as an accomplished composer when he collapsed.

Nonetheless Burgess's talents and output were prodigious. In addition to several dozen novels he composed hundreds of pieces of music, spoke many languages fluently including Malay, Urdu, Arabic and Russian (he debriefed Dutch refugees in Gibraltar during the war), published works on literary criticism (including two book-length studies of Joyce that are well-regarded to this day) and linguistics, translations, and travel writings, all the while lecturing and teaching at universities across the world. In fact he resented the success of A Clockwork Orange (1962), the novel that made him rich and famous, for obscuring the rest of his work and skewing his reputation, which it certainly did (he would pointedly refer to it as one of his "minor works"). He is one of my favorite authors (one of my "culture gods," as my college poetry professor A. McA. Miller would say) and at this point I'm not sure how many of his books I've read. Thankfully there is always more.

The Doctor is Sick is, as I said, autobiographical, being the story of Edwin Spindrift, professor of linguistics, who is repatriated from Burma after a collapse and admitted to a hospital in London where he is scheduled to undergo brain surgery after a series of excruciating tests. He is accompanied by his wife Sheila, who has been for some time enjoying the company of other men owing to Edwin's impotence, and who quickly stops visiting him in the hospital in favor of haunting nearby taverns (Burgess's first wife Lynne died of cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholism in 1968, at which point Burgess married his mistress Liana and acknowledged their four-year-old son. One wonders what Lynne made of the present novel).

Doctor is a good example of my favorite Burgess mode, satirical farce. The best of his comic novels are the four Enderby novels, academic comedies following the misadventures of the hapless and sordid poet. Another favorite is Honey for the Bears (1963), a satire of the Soviet Union that, like A Clockwork Orange, reflects his love for the sound of the Russian language. All of these novels chronicle farcical drunken escapades where various characters meet up with each other and alternate between befriending and assisting each other and robbing and abusing each other. They have an obvious debt to Evelyn Waugh in that wicked satire and lampooning of human foibles is the sugar coating over a deeper strain of moralistic outrage at what society has come to (Spindrift passes through a pinball arcade where the goal of one game is the destruction of the Earth). In both Waugh and Burgess there is a surface of hedonism and ribaldry that is perfectly entertaining in itself, and an underlying moral space for those readers who care to look.

Burgess's fascination with language is also given free rein here through the vehicle of the desperate Spindrift, who, dreading and doubting his impending brain surgery, "escapes" from the hospital, penniless, head shaven and wearing his pajamas under a stolen jacket, and goes on a mock-epic search for Sheila. Both the residents of the hospital ward and the various London lowlifes he encounters display various accents; this is Burgess's London speech novel. Edwin also muses on etymologies, orthography, cognates and usage while trying to survive his desperate adventure.

A mock-moral of the tale is that Edwin, the otherworldly academic (his surgeon resents that Edwin insists on the honorific "doctor"), must actually learn to survive on the streets, and thus "finds himself," this consisting of a) realizing that he might not necessarily be desperate to find Sheila after all, b) finding that he rather likes petty theft, which he turns out to be good at and which opens the possibility of "living in the moment," and c) discovering and learning to act out on his own inner reservoirs of rage towards authority and hypocrisy. In the end he returns to his life as a linguist, but liberated (from Sheila, from Burma, from his job). A nice drunken romp through late 50s London. I recommend it.

1 comment:

Anderson Brown said...

This from my mother. I had heard this story before. It must have been during the year AB spent at Ames Iowa. The American midwest in lampooned in one of the Enderby novels. Hope he wasn't thinking of us!

Do you remember that Dad and I had dinner together with Anthony Burgess several times while he was in residence at K.State? He and the chair of the Eng. dept. were friendly and the Eng. dept. guy thought enough of us to expose Burgess to us....or us to him. I recall that the conversation was quite general and Burgess a gracious guest. This was somewhere between 1964 and l969 and I recall liking the man on a personal level.
Gettilng back to your African hat, I have just finished Hirsi Ali's "Infidel" and it is hair-raising about the mutilation of little girls (which she experienced when her mother was away and her grandmother arranged it). She is a Somali Muslim who began to question the religion and escaped being married off by running away. She subsequently became a member of the Dutch parliament and was a friend of Theo VanGogl who was murdered for questioning Islam. At the end of the book she is employed in Washington at a think tank-like place. The beginning of the book is a bit long and too detailed but it was a good read over all. Mom