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Anthony Burgess and Banned Books

  • By Graham Foster
  • 29th September 2016
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As part of Banned Books Week 2016, writer, editor and academic Graham Foster explores the work of Anthony Burgess, 'a fierce defender of banned books', and his ideas about artistic and literary censorship.

Anthony Burgess was a fierce defender of banned books throughout his life. His preoccupation with controversial literature arguably began when he read a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which he claims was smuggled from Paris by one of his teachers in the late 1930s. From there, he defended William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Burgess believed that literary art needed to extend its view beyond the aesthetic, the romantic and the beautiful, and that a vital part of literary expression was to artistically depict all aspects of the world and of human experience. Of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, he writes:

‘As in any important piece of literature (and The Naked Lunch is very important) one ends by admiring the art which is able to transmute such terrible subject matter into the pretext for a kind of joy (compare “King Lear”). It is the mystery of art which enables us to read [Jonathan] Swift again and again and emerge not harrowed but elated’.

Obscenity and the Arts by Anthony Burgess
Obscenity and the Arts by Anthony Burgess

Burgess’s most personal experience of the banning of books came when he moved to Malta in 1968. He found himself in a very restrictive society, where many of the books in his collection were confiscated and impounded by the authorities. There is a list of the books that Burgess lost to the zealous Postmaster General in the archive at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. Among more obviously contentious titles such as Technique of Sex and Keep it Kinky, are literary books such as Kingsley Amis’s The Anti-Death League and DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Burgess retaliated against this censorship by giving a lecture entitled Obscenity and the Arts to a room full of Catholic priests and nuns. In the lecture, he defends the freedom of literary expression by using Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a play full of rape, murder, blood and guts, to illuminate the arbitrary nature of the Maltese government’s censorship. He soon found himself unwelcome in Malta, his house confiscated. The full text of this notorious lecture will be republished with new introductions and other material in 2017.

The following extract from Earthly Powers is a fictional rendering of Burgess’s experience of defending banned books. Kenneth Toomey, the homosexual writer-protagonist of the novel, is conversing with his sister about the trial of the 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness. This was a real trial in which defending lawyer, Morris Ernst, recruited authors such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis to testify. Earthly Powers supposes Toomey to be one of those authors called.

From Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess (Hutchinson: London, 1980):

Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

As Hortense and I sat in the livingroom of our suite, sipping dry martinis and looking out on the Dutch façades of Brook Street, a former time was recalled to us, wartime London, my early stage success, bedtime cocoa, an artificial limb, a radiant schoolgirl innocently fascinated by the great banned book of sex. And, talking of banned books, here it all was in the Evening Standard – Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness on trial. Hortense read aloud the words of the presiding magistrate:

‘“The book’s greatest offence is its failure to suggest that anyone with the horrible tendencies described is in the least degree blameworthy. All the characters are presented as attractive people and put for-ward with admiration.”‘ She looked up. ‘It says that there are forty witnesses, and that he refuses to listen to any of them. Why aren’t you one of the witnesses, Ken?’

‘There wouldn’t be much point, would there, if he refuses to listen.’ She frowned. ‘Sorry. I was asked. A lot of writers were asked. But I couldn’t read the damned thing. It’s so badly written. Have you read it?’

‘There was a copy lying around in the studio. I didn’t know what it was about or else I would have.’

‘It’s about lesbianism.’

‘I know that now, stupid. What do they do?’

I couldn’t help smiling. She’d asked that identical question all those years ago in a London livingroom not unlike this, though then about the brothers, not sisters, of deviancy. ‘They don’t seem to do very much except be in love with each other. No torrid descriptions of cunnilingus and the thrust of dildoes, if that’s what you expect.’

‘Why do you make everything sound so cold and horrid?’ And then: ‘There’s a woman here called Rebecca West. Do you know her?’

‘A very fine writer. She used to be H.G. Wells’s mistress. That isn’t her real name. It’s the name of a character in Ibsen. She used to be an actress, you see. What does she say?’

Radclyffe Hall
Radclyffe Hall

‘“Everyone who knows Miss Radclyffe Hall wants to stand by her. But they are finding it far from easy to stand by The Well of Loneliness, for the simple reason that it is, in a way that is particularly inconvenient in the present circumstances, not a very good book.”‘

‘That’s precisely what I would have said. But I thought it best to say nothing.’

‘And if some man had written a bad book about men doing it would you have thought it best to say nothing?’

‘The only defence you can raise in law is literary value, which they take, wrongly of course, to mean the same as moral value. You know, like Paradise Lost. It strikes me as wrong to pretend a book’s good when it isn’t.’

‘But that’s not the point, is it? The point is surely that people should write what they want to write. Just as people should sculpt what they want to sculpt. Suppose I want to sculpt what you in your nasty cold way would call the male sexual organs – ‘

‘Nothing to stop you so long as you don’t exhibit it publicly. But I should have thought there were more comely things to sculpt. Look, I don’t see why bad artists – I mean artists who are obviously incompetent, as Radclyffe Hall is – why they should be presented hypocritically as good artists just because they’re supposed to be advancing the frontiers of freedom of expression or, you know what I mean, demonstrating that there should be no limit on subject matter. I didn’t want to put myself in a false position, nor did Rebecca West.’

‘I think you were being a bloody coward.’

‘Hortense, you really must not speak to me like that.’

‘Because in court they might have said: Are you homosexual, Mr Toomey, like the author of this book?’

‘They daren’t ask that sort of question. A question like that would be struck from the record. A man’s sexuality is his own business.’

‘Not according to the law it isn’t, as you know perfectly well. What would you do if somebody wrote a great blazing masterpiece about being a male homosexual and the law got on to it and said it was abominable and horrible and so on?’

‘I’d raise hell about the right to publish. And a lot of others would too, regardless of their sexual position. And then there’d be such an outcry in the press and in parliament that there’d be changes in the law of obscenity.’

Free Word is delighted to partner for the first time with the 2016-17 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism which focuses on the best new arts writing.

This blog post is part of Banned Books WeekIslington Library and Heritage Services, along with the British Library and Free Word, are celebrating Banned Books Week in the UK and drawing attention to censorship and free speech working alongside the ALA.

Click here to view our book list for Banned Books Week.


Graham Foster is a writer, editor and academic based in Manchester and London. He has lectured in English and Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and undertook a post-doctoral research project at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester.

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