The Literary Significance of Anthony Burgess's Fiction

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

Anthony Burgess’s best remembered work of fiction is without doubt his controversial Dystopia, A Clockwork Orange (1962), which has become a classic of mid-twentieth-century literature as well as of science fiction. It was turned into a movie by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. Burgess, however, was a prolific writer of fiction and non-fictional works. While steeped in disillusionment and violence, his novels are frequently informed by a wry humour and peppered by comic interludes.

While working as an education officer in Malaya and Brunei, Burgess started writing fiction that dealt with the collapse of the British Empire and the last days of British colonial influence in Malaya in the 1950s. Following the career of Victor Crabbe, a teacher, headmaster, and educational officer in different parts of Malaya, Time for a Tiger (1956), The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), and Beds in the East (1959) have come to be known as his Malayan Trilogy. It was published as one volume under the title The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy. Anticipating Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet and Christopher New’s more recent China Coast Trilogy, it is in this stark, but at times comic account of the white man’s demise that Burgess’s unappreciated significance for postcolonial literature lies. The Malayan Trilogy is saturated with literary allusions, but most strikingly feeds on colonial literature such as Somerset Maugham’s Malayan short stories. More than twenty years after the publication of the last volume of his trilogy, Burgess returned to his appreciatively parodying engagement with Maugham in The Earthly Powers (1980). Its first person narrator, Kenneth Toomey, is loosely based on Maugham and literary jokes permeate the novel.

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Last Modified: 21 October 2002