Burgess, remembering his early battles

Little Wilson and Big God, by Anthony Burgess. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London: William Heinemann, Ltd. 460 pp. $22.50. Anthony Burgess, author of such influential novels as ``A Clockwork Orange'' and ``Earthly Powers,'' is a fighter. All his life (or that part of his life he tells about in this, the first part of his eagerly awaited autobiography), he has been battling something or other - usually whatever authority happened to be set over him, not to mention most of the commandments.

When he was a boy, a Roman Catholic boy growing up in Protestant Manchester, his chief enemies were ``the proddy dog,'' and his teachers, but John Burgess Wilson, his real name, even took on God. That, at least was the view of a Jesuit priest who considered his questioning of the sacrament a matter of ``Little Wilson and Big God.''

One of his biggest campaigns was waged during World War II. As a British soldier he fought a section of the British Army - though not of course with bullets.

In the foreword to this book he writes, ``If anyone requires an apology for ineptness or coarseness or self-indulgences before meeting these properties in my narrative, I gladly render it now.'' Thank you Mr. Burgess, but you owe no apology for ineptness. For coarseness and self-indulgences, yes.

For some reason - and no one who has watched Benny Hill on television will disagree - there is something in the British character (since I am British-born I hope I can say this without offense) that dearly loves a bathroom joke. Burgess has so many left over from his school days to offer that one begins to feel he has collected his text from the walls of a public lavatory. He progresses (though that's not the word) to sex jokes and then on to his own uninhibited behavior.

For readers who relish good writing and are willing to pick their way through his vocabulary (he loves obscure words) and his coarseness (he is not ashamed of it), there are rewards. Burgess can evoke an atmosphere so tellingly that pre-war Manchester begins to feel like the background to one's own memories. As for his description of an army training barracks, it is enough to make the palms of this ex-draftee break out in a sweat of remembered humiliations.

Besides, he sometimes treats his autobiography as if it were his personal scrapbook, giving us a discussion on the relationship between music and James Joyce or an explanation of Manchester speech. I like, too, the occasional tidbit he has to offer: Karl Marx knew ``much Shelley and Shakespeare by heart'' and used to recite ``Dante to his daughters on the way back from Soho from a picnic on Hampstead Heath''; there is a Malay tribe that believed ``you were in for trouble if you laughed at a butterfly.''

Besides, one cannot help but admire the courage of a man who has endured so many disappointments (he had expected, for instance, to write great music) as well as cruel ill-health, and survived.

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