by Anthony Burgess
"Life's only choosing when to die. Life's a big postponement because the choice is so difficult. It's a tremendous relief not to have to choose.” ― Anthony Burgess, The Wanting Seed
Last month I reread Anthony Burgess's most famous novel, A Clockwork Orange. In it I found new insights into Burgess's creative thought, encouraging me to read more of his oeuvre. I followed up on that idea with The Wanting Seed, which he wrote immediately following Clockwork. This dystopian novel demonstrates one of his persistent themes, the conflict between 'Augustinian' authoritarianism and 'neo-Pelagian' liberalism. The novel is set in a future similar to A Clockwork Orange, where Burgess projects an England in which Christianity, fertility, and heterosexuality will have been outlawed. His heroine, Beatrice-Joanna, is a dissident earth-mother who runs away to Wales to give birth in the home of her brother-in-law. Her husband, Tristram, is a history teacher who, in an early scene in the novel, explains the history and meaning of pelphase (Pelagianism) and gusphase (Augustinianism), while his brother heads the Ministry of Infertility. The brothers' relationship leads Tristram to think, “If you expect the worst from a person you can never be disappointed.” Using an almost over-the-top comic style Burgess comments on themes including: the tyranny of the state, homosexuality, perpetual war, spontaneous orgies, the persistence of religious feeling, and cannibalism. After his escape from prison Tristram hitches a ride from a sort of local militia-man who comments: "There doesn't seem to be a government at the moment, but we're trying to improvise some kind of regional law and order. . . We can't have all this, indiscriminate cannibalism and the drains out of order. We've got our wives and children to think of." (pp 171-2) Although the setting of the novel demonstrates the worst aspects of pelagian liberalism and addresses many societal issues, the primary subject is overpopulation and its relation to culture.
The novel is inventive with a comic seriousness that is humorous with periodic moments of unease; the line between the comic and the serious is sometimes blurred. The author's signature fecundity of ideas, his love of quotations and literary allusions, and his brilliant use of language carries the reader through the rough spots. However, it is not hard to understand why it was "considered too daring" by potential backers of Carlo Ponti's proposed film version. My admiration for Burgess as a novelist of ideas grows with each of his novels. This comically heretical entry, combines with its predecessor to provide a veritable one-two punch of dystopian delight.
The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess. W. W. Norton, 1996 (1962).