This article originally appeared in the July-August 2009 edition of the End of the World Newsletter, published by the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. The issue is still available online in PDF format but buried within the Foundation’s website, so I’m reprinting it here with additional photographs.
In the early pages of Earthly Powers (1980) Kenneth Toomey, seated at the bar of his Maltese home, imagines a wide-ranging travel memoir structured aleatorically, by a luckydip of souvenir matchbooks from a huge bowl. It is probable that Toomey’s creator had his own collection of international matchbooks [see here]. Anthony Burgess was not only a chain-smoker of Schimmelpennincks; he was also a serious peripatetic. I was on his trail.
Anthony Burgess is a daunting challenge for the literary pilgrim. A comprehensive tour would require stops in Manchester, London, Malaya, Brunei, Malta, Rome, Bracciano, Monaco and Lugano. In early 2008 I made do with visits to two former residences that have something more than biographical interest. Burgess often lent his homes wholesale to his fictional characters. In this case I would find the Maltese house given to Kenneth Toomey and the Roman apartment inhabited by characters in both Beard’s Roman Women (1976) and ABBA ABBA (1977).
Burgess’s first wife Lynne, with whom he lived and drank in Malaya and Borneo in the fifties, died of cirrhosis in London in March 1968. In August Burgess was in Malta to prospect with his fiancé Liana, daughter of an Italian contessa. “We were impressed with several things in Malta,” he recalled in his 1990 memoir or confession You’ve Had Your Time. “The Caravaggios, the baroque architecture, the blue clean waters, and the language.” Malta was in the sterling zone but had an attractive tax rate of sixpence in the pound. The sunlight was ideal for a writer. The Mediterranean, he decided, was “where the great work will be done and has been done.”
Essentially going into tax exile, Burgess typically couched the move in theological terms. Although a lapsed Catholic, he retained an obsessive Augustinian belief in free will and deplored the British welfare state for its supposed demand for conformity. It was particularly difficult for the non-subsidised Grub Street writer. “If you are a maverick,” he told The New York Times, “then one is outlawed, one is not wanted, one is in effect feared. The state fears writers.”
After a registry marriage in Hounslow the Burgesses, who already had a four-year-old son named Paolo-Andrea, departed England in their now famous Bedford Dormobile. It was “equipped for driving, cooking, eating, sleeping, living,” he recalled in 1988. “By an ingenious adjustment of stout screens, the whole could be turned into two bedrooms which collapsed to form a dining room with a bar at one end.” They faced bureaucratic difficulties, border scuffles and anti-gipsy prejudice. The Dormobile was injured or sabotaged. But none of that prevented hard work. “Jolting through Italy,” he wrote, “I would type at the rear table, having made myself a pint of strong tea on the stove fed by nether gas tubes.” Novels would be written in the Dormobile for years to come: Man of Nazareth (1979) while “parked in an Alpine valley” and Beard’s Roman Women on a 1975 journey through Montalbuccio, Monte Carlo, Eze and Callian. Finally the vehicle was abandoned in a garage whose location Burgess decided to forget. This irritated the Monaco Department of Motor Vehicles, who wanted the licence plates.
I approached Malta from the east. A Burgessian debacle with Alitalia stranded me in a complimentary suite at the Athens Sofitel where I watched Sharapova play Ivanovic in the final of the Australian Open. At dawn I flew to Rome and then to tiny Luqa airport. I lugged my suitcase onto the first bus for Valletta. The buses in Malta are yellow and orange, usually ancient, and personalised by the drivers with tacked-up postcards, dangling rosaries, and loud music. The passenger door was tied open so hot wind could gust inside. Malta was arid, dusty, and bright under the winter sun.
I got out at the Valletta city gates and walked into Freedom Square amid rehearsals for a Chinese Spring Festival. Children were dancing. Teenagers stood outside the Burger King and McDonald’s. Adults read newspapers at the outdoor cafés. But beyond the Square and away from the Via Republica, which runs down the length of the peninsula, Valletta seemed almost a ghost town on the sabbath. There were few indications I was in the twenty-first century. The bolted shopfronts of the numerous jewellers and tailors (all seemingly named Camilleri or Borg) displayed cracked plastic or dead neon signs at least fifty years old. One of the few establishments open to the public was a grubby porn cinema in a damp side street descending to Marsamxett Harbour.
Forty years earlier the Burgesses had first come to Valletta and done their own bit of literary pilgrimage. Liana had translated Thomas Pynchon’s V for Italian readers and wanted to see one of its settings, Strait Street, known to sailors as The Gut. This was Valletta’s red light district. Sadly, I guess, The Gut has been abandoned and left to decay. It is a narrow street of closed-up watering holes with evocative names like the Tico-Tico bar (with a matador and toro emblem), the New Life Music Hall, and the Malata Bar & Lounge. A mangy tomcat was pawing at a rotten fish on the pavement.
I found a guesthouse on Triq Sant’ Ursula looking across the Grand Harbour. A couple of soup-slurping nonagenarians lived in one room. In the common room I was introduced to Armando, a pious elderly Maltese man who took to calling me Secondo Matteo (i.e. “According to” as in “The Gospel…”). On the guesthouse television we had Berlusconivision beaming down from Sicily: a variety show with long-legged dancers heaping sexual ridicule on Prime Minister Romano Prodi. It would not be long before Berlusconi once again ruled Italian parliament.
Burgess bought his Maltese home in 1968 for seventeen thousand pounds, and remembered it as:
…a rather fine house built in 1798, the year of Napoleon’s invasion. It was floored in marble, had an impressive piano nobile, three bathrooms and four toilets, and a garden with its own artesian well and many lemon and orange trees. It had a bad reputation, so we heard in a local bar, because its former owner had hurled himself from the roof in a fit of depression.
I boarded another yellow and orange bus for Lija, six or seven kilometres outside Valletta. After leaving the bus in the village, I walked along Triq il-Kbira (Street The Big, Burgess insistently translated, but known locally and sensibly as Main Street). The passage became very narrow. I’m astonished buses once scraped through. At the street’s narrowest point was Number 168, a palatial and well-preserved two-storey house with dark blue louvres and a gated front door. There was no plaque reading ANTHONY BURGESS, BRITISH NOVELIST, LIVED HERE UNTIL EVICTED BY THE GOVERNMENT OF MALTA IN APRIL 1974. Nevertheless, here Burgess had lived. And here Toomey had lived. This was and is the setting of one of literature’s most famous opening lines: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”
Eighty-one-year-old Kenneth Toomey described the view from the upper salon:
To the right were the housetops and gaudy washing of Lija, a passing bus, quarreling children; to the left, beyond crystal and statuary and the upper terrace, the hiss and pump hum came up of the irrigation of my orange and lemon trees. In other words, I heard life going on, and it was a comfort.
Nobody was home and there was no way to discover if the orange and lemon trees in the garden still bore fruit. But I spied the Three Villages Bar at the end of the street and, on a hunch, strolled over. The tiny shop was a combination of bar and corner grocery. The cloudy display windows were packed with bags of coffee and biscuits and bottles of wine. A few aged men drank at tables in the shadows. Had anything much changed since 1968? I doubt it.
The shopkeeper Connie was a dark-haired old woman with a limp. With an eager smile she remembered Mr Burgess, who drank often in her bar. I promptly ordered a glass of whisky. What’s good enough for Mr Burgess is good enough for me.
Connie seemed to mainly associate Burgess the writer with his later success as scenarist for the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. She stood in the doorway of the bar and told me of the old days. The Lija police station used to be directly opposite number 168. (“I foresaw that they were not there for my protection,” Burgess remembered, “but for that of the staider British retired.”) The police station now seems to be a private residence.
I thanked Connie for the drink and left the bar. The chemist serving in the St Joseph Pharmacy, although not a resident of the area in the Burgess days, was aware of the neighbourhood’s depiction in the opening chapters of Earthly Powers. She said the late Paolo-Andrea or Andrew, as he became known, sometimes returned to the area as an adult.
On the other hand the clerk in the post office down the street in Balzan (with Lija and Attard collectively The Three Villages) was at first confused by my query; then he nodded impatiently and said, “Yes, yes. Burgess Garage. That is the family. Ask there.” I wandered back outside to find a car hire service named not Burgess but Percius – a word confusion Burgess may himself have enjoyed. And here it is in Earthly Powers: “Geoffrey and I escorted His Grace to his Daimler, which was parked by Percius’s Garage, the Triq Il-Kbira being narrow and my house possessing no forecourt, many visitors came running to kiss his ring [including] the two Borg sisters from the corner grocery…”
Burgess did not spend many years in Lija. Government censorship inhibited literary journalism. “Certain books were not allowed in,” he wrote. “At Luqa airport a team scrutinised the British newspapers and cut out or inked over underwear advertisements or bathing beauties which might inflame Maltese youth. One could sometimes buy a Daily Mirror that collapsed into scissored tatters.” There was little consistency in the censorship; Legman’s Rationale of the Dirty Joke made it through as did the erotic poems of Thomas Campion, who was mistaken for the Catholic martyr Edmund. But on one occasion Burgess had to barge into the Valletta Censorship Office to demand his confiscated copy of Doris Lessing’s Landlocked and, according to his memoir, sweep “their pile of putative dirt to the floor.”
Soon after Burgess gave a lecture to the Maltese Library Association (MLA) on ‘Obscenity and the Arts.’ He recalled the event was attended by “not one layman or laywoman: there were nuns, monks, priests and bishops, though neither of the two archbishops (one for Malta, the other for Gozo). I threw my lecture, as I had thrown my books, into a large silence.” At the conclusion “there were no questions, but a fat Franciscan made a throat-cutting gesture.” This sounds like a moment of typical Burgessian comic hyperbole. A recent letter to the Times of Malta from Paul Xuereb, a member of the MLA committee, gives us a more likely version: “Mr Burgess’s lecture was heard by the vast majority to the end and was applauded. In fact, Mr Burgess was in good humour, and afterwards joined members of the MLA committee for drinks in a Sliema hotel.”
It wasn’t long before the Burgesses moved on to Italy despite potential legal problems: Liana’s divorce was not recognised in her native land. In April 1974 Burgess’s house on Triq il-Kbira was confiscated by the Maltese government. Burgess to The New York Times: “The Maltese claim I’ve abandoned the property and have ordered me to surrender possession and the keys. This is a totally vindictive act – a naked confrontation between the state and the individual.” According to Burgess in You’ve Had Your Time, due to the publicity his house was “speedily deconfiscated, but neither its sale nor its lease was permitted.” Kenneth Toomey suffered the same confiscation but without reprieve at the conclusion of Earthly Powers.
I spent my remaining days in Malta seeing Caravaggio’s Beheading of Saint John the Baptist at St. John’s Co Cathedral, visiting the Knight’s Armoury in the Palace of the Grand Masters, and hiking along the sea-pounded and over-developed coasts of Sliema and St Julians. It was time to leave. At his age Armando slept little and promised to bang on my door at 4:30am so I would make my departing flight (“Don’t you worry the alarm clock, Secondo Matteo, battery dead anyway.”) I landed in Catania in Sicily, clobbered around the snowy peaks of Mt Etna, and then took an overnight train across the Straits of Messina and up to Rome.
My backpacker hostel on Via Urbana was run by beautiful young nuns. I walked to Keats’s house by the Spanish Steps. While I was in the Villa Borghese the clouds started to rumble.
Heavy rain soon swept across the city, although it was not enough to stop the English tourists skating around an ice rink beside the Tiber. My socks were soaked inside my boots. It was as if I had wandered into David Robinson’s photographs that accompanied the first edition of Beard’s Roman Women (aka Rome in the Rain).
The sky was clear the day I went to the Trastevere. Just across the Ponte Garibaldi is a statue of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791-1863), the Roman dialect poet whose blasphemous Petrarchan sonnets appeared translated by Burgess in ABBA ABBA (1977). An example:
God, then, assumed the office of a cook
And baked the Sodomites like salmon trout.
Only the family of Lot got out,
Though his wife suffered for that backward look.
They camped near Zoar, in a stony nook.
Lot’s daughters, starved of love, began to pout,
Seeing no sign of penises about,
And, driven by a fleshy need, forsook
Propriety. Here at least was their father.
They gave him wine with a well-salted pasty,
When he was drunk they fucked him to a lather,
Not finding this unnatural or nasty.
No fire rained down. It seems that God is rather
Inclined to incest but hates pederasty.
In 1971, while retaining their house in Bracciano, the Burgesses acquired a lease in the Trastevere’s Piazza Santa Cecilia:
The apartment was at Number 16A, on the third floor, and it had a salon, two bedrooms, a workroom, a bathroom, and a cold water kitchen…The untidy life of the piazza and of the narrow abutting lanes, car-honks, song, the labour of the makers of fake antiques, was answered by the baroque beauty of the basilica of Santa Cecilia, where the bones of the patroness of music were said to lie. We looked out on the flaking golden putti who guarded her church, some of whom made minute obscene gestures at such rulers of Rome as would pass or enter.
The novelist Michael Mewshaw visited the apartment in the autumn of 1971 and encountered Milton Hebald’s clay bust of Burgess (depicted on the UK dustjackets of the Confessions) as well as a viciously disobedient Paola-Andrea. Here Burgess seems to have written Moses, a television mini-series (broadcast 1974) and epic poem (published 1976), as well as the novels Napoleon Symphony (1974) and The Clockwork Testament (1974).
In the comic novel Beard’s Roman Women the apartment is inhabited by Paolo Belli (“a version of my wife,” Burgess admitted, transformed into a descendent of the poet). It is the setting of, as blurbed presumably by Burgess himself, “one of the most extraordinary rape scenes in modern fiction” (Ronald Beard is the victim of four female assailants, though it is not so much extraordinary as extraordinarily silly). In ABBA ABBA, set in Keats’s Rome of 1821, the apartment is the property of Giovanni Gulielmi, doctor of letters of the University of Bologna. Gulielmi’s study is “very bare, with rugs on the marble, a massive English mahogany table that had been his maternal grandfather’s.” The piazza is full of “song and the noise of fish and vegetable vendors.”
Today the ground floor of the building houses a chic art gallery/bookshop/café called ‘b>gallery’. The B does not stand for Burgess. Nobody working there had heard of him. Nor had the elegant proprietress of an elegant bookshop down the lane.
If we are to believe Burgess’s account, the area was rampant with crime in the early 1970s. He was robbed by motorcycling scippatori of the only copy of his manuscript Joysprick and had to write it again from scratch (Ronald Beard fared better in the same situation and retrieved his manuscript). Liana’s passport and keys were stolen several times, but that may have owed more to her chronic bad luck than to Rome. The apartment at 16A was burgled of a Stellavox tape recorder and jewellery, while “the tenants of a lower floor had been not merely burgled but shot.” In Earthly Powers Toomey is beaten by Clockwork Orange-style droogs and laid up in the Ospedale Fatebenefratelli on the Isola Tiberina.
The Trastevere did not seem so rampant with crime in 2008. The neighbourhood is completely gentrified. But if it has lost its traditional population of poor artists and violent criminals, it retains cobblestone lanes, warm trattorie, busking bass-saxophone duos, American students drinking coffee in the Piazza Santa Maria, and some of the most beautiful churches in Rome.
“I lived for a long time on the same busy square, and I would probably still be living there if the landlord had not thrown me out,” Burgess wrote in 1979. I did not have time to follow his trail to Piazza Padella (‘Frying-Pan Square’) in nearby Bracciano, nor to Monaco, where the Burgesses moved in 1975 after hearing rumours that Paolo-Andrea was to be kidnapped by mafiosi. I left Rome unthreatened, with a few matchbooks to add to my bowl.
© 2009 Matthew Asprey