Famous First Words: Time for a Tiger
For a writer whose reputation would come to be defined by a tensely frenetic rate of production over the course of his professional life, perhaps the most notable aspect of Anthony Burgess’s career in the field is the fact that he arrived at the decision by consolation. Born under humble circumstances in Manchester, England, in 1917, it was as a composer that he had aspired to support himself, working steadily toward that goal before being denied admission to the music program at the University of Manchester due to a lack of preparatory physics coursework. Settling on a literature tract instead and immersing himself in the theater, Burgess went on to claim credits as a journalist, novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, critic, screenwriter, biographer, linguist, and translator, distinguishing himself well considering that it was always his second choice.
Burgess adopted a philosophy of strict self-reliance early on in life by necessity. He lost his mother and sister to the flu pandemic of 1918 when he was just over a year old and was raised by his aunt for the next few years. When his father, a piano player with a chronic drinking problem, married the landlady at a local pub, the responsibility of his care was taken over by his new stepmother. By his own account, Burgess had a working-class childhood largely separated from the influence of his father and began tinkering with his first poems and short stories in secondary school. He was the product of Catholic instruction throughout his formative years, renouncing religion as a teenager but drawing on the experience—particularly in regard to the concept of original sin and the uniquely human struggle with questions of moral ambiguity and spiritual consequence—in much of his later work.
After graduating from the University of Manchester in 1940, Burgess became a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, traveling through Europe with the Entertainments Section of the 54th Division as a pianist and arranger. He married Llewela (Lynne) Jones while on leave in 1942 and then transferred to the Education Corps in Gibraltar, where part of his responsibilities included delivering lectures to new recruits concerning “The British Way and Purpose.” This period, along with his time spent teaching at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar after being discharged from the military, had a profound impact on him, providing crucial inspiration and source material for his first novel. Following some false starts for Burgess with the Heinemann publishing house, including one rejected manuscript (A Vision of Battlements, eventually issued by a different publisher in 1965) and another book (The Worm and the Ring) that was pulled from shelves amid charges of libelous content, Time for a Tiger was released in early 1956.
The debut was the first installment in a series that was officially dubbed The Long Day Wanes and unofficially known as The Malayan Trilogy, Burgess’s extended statement on the subject of colonial decay told through an examination of the decline of the British Empire and its withdrawal from Southeast Asia. By the time his teaching contract expired in 1957 and he returned to England with Lynne, Burgess had done most of the work for the book’s two sequels—Heinemann published The Enemy in the Blanket in 1958 and Beds in the East a year later. It was not long after in September of 1959 that Burgess, back in Asia on another teaching stint, collapsed to the floor during a class and was flown to London for testing. He was dealt a diagnosis of having a possible brain tumor and told that he had a year to live.
This now-famous death sentence—the veracity of which has since been disputed by some historians in what was not the first or last instance that the finer details of Burgess’s biography were called into question—galvanized the emerging author, who instituted a vigorous daily writing regimen in an effort to leave his widow with a suitable endowment. Determined to make the most of the time he had left, he churned out the drafts for five new novels during the months allotted to him by his doctors and kept up that pace for the final thirty-three years of his life. Though he was also an established and prolific composer before he was done, Burgess found a way to survive as a writer for hire, ultimately leaving behind more than fifty books along with volumes more of verse, reportage, adaptation, and analysis from his surrogate occupation.