When it came to religion, the dazzling novelist was achingly dull

What with all the seminars and symposiums, it has been a busy year for Burgess scholars. This week the carnival continued in Manchester, where the International Anthony Burgess Foundation hosted a centenary conference. Delegates had some of the great man’s musical compositions inflicted upon them, but the literary discussions sounded suitably wide-ranging and exotic: papers covered such intriguing topics as “The Spin and Drift of Linguistic Picaresque”, “Boredom in Burgess’s Malayan Novels” and “Anthony Burgess and Orson Welles: Hackwork and Bricolage.”

By December, I dare say that even the most resilient Burgess devotee will be exhausted, but a final treat will be provided by the University of Angers. In western France, the great talking point will be “Anthony Burgess, Religion and the Sacred.” This sounds like an excellent idea because, as we’re always being told, Burgess’s curious relationship with Catholicism was crucially important in shaping his life’s work.

Given the cast of Catholic characters, themes and obsessions that permeate Burgess’s writing, this is not an unreasonable proposition. But the utility of this interpretative prism is limited, or at least complicated, by the fact that Burgess’s attitude towards faith was, for my money, one of the dullest things about him.

Burgess was one of those countless bright young sparks who, in his teens, read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and decided that the God he was being exposed to by his Catholic teachers was a “vindictive invisibility”. Like so many who decide to ditch the Church, he was unable to jettison the cultural and intellectual deposit of his upbringing. Catholicism, as he put it, was a “kind of nationality one is stuck with forever”.

So far, so ordinary. Of course, Burgess had a specific understanding of what constituted authentic Catholicism. He was a Manchester boy, a “cradle Catholic with Irish blood”, and while this made him, in his romanticised phrase, a “renegade”, it also fuelled a sense of superiority. Converts couldn’t really lay claim to the history of Reformation, recusancy and persecution and, bemused by the “glamour” of their new Church, they used it for their petty purposes. For Evelyn Waugh, this meant “dreaming of an old English Catholic aristocracy”, while for Graham Greene it was just an excuse to be “fascinated by sin in a very cold-blooded way”.

Burgess could express such sentiments with flare, but this made them no less banal. Similarly, his sideline grumbles about the direction of the post-Vatican II Church were entirely unremarkable. In the late 1960s, Burgess declared that “I find that I have no quarrel with the whole corpus of Catholic doctrine”, but he styled himself a purist, however lapsed, with no patience for slackness or “ecumenical dilutions”. When his cousin, George Patrick Dwyer, became Archbishop of Birmingham, Burgess attended Mass for the first time in ages and was “horrified by the turning of the altar around… it was like a butcher’s shop.”

It would be cheering to discover that Burgess moved far beyond such stale sniping in his fiction, but I have always struggled to locate a theological stance of any great sophistication. Critics will tell you that his fixation with sin, good and evil, and the perils of moral decision-making, led to a profound and sustained ethical meditation. Burgess is the Augustinian shouting down the Pelagians and realising that, as a character in The Wanting Seed muses, it was important to take “a sort of gloomy pleasure in observing the depths to which human behaviour can sink”. That’s precisely what Burgess did and his biographer Andrew Biswell explains that this “gave him a set of home-made theological spectacles with which to view history and politics”. The trouble is, Burgess’s take on mighty ethical binaries frequently veered towards the cartoonesque, which may suggest that theological spectacles are better made by the professionals.

This might seem like an exercise in Burgess-bashing, so I should stress that I’ve always been a fan of his estimable literary gifts. My only plea here is that we should be wary of taking his views on religion too seriously. In a winningly frank account of the benefits of reviewing books, Burgess explained that the process “did no harm” and “paid the bills”. He added that it was “good for a writer to review books he is not supposed to know anything about or be interested in”. Writing for Country Life, which “smells more of horses than of calfskin bindings”, had obliged him to tackle volumes about everything from stable management to car engines. This, he insisted, was “very useful, solid stuff; the very stuff of novels”.

One sometimes has the feeling that Burgess treated the Catholicism of his youth, and the faith he could never entirely shrug off, in much the same functionalist way.

Jonathan Wright is honorary fellow in the department of theology and religion at Durham University

This article first appeared in the July 7 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here