Feb. 25, 2013

Trombone Lesson

by Paul Hostovsky

The twenty minutes from half past nine
to ten of ten is actually slightly longer
than the twenty minutes from ten of ten
to ten past ten, which is half downhill
as anyone who's ever stared at the hillocky
face of a clock in the 5th grade will tell you.
My trombone lesson with Mr. Leister
was out the classroom door and down
the tessellating hallway to the band room
which was full of empty chairs and music stands
from ten past ten to ten-forty, which is half
an hour and was actually slightly shorter
than the twenty minutes that came before or after
which as anyone who's ever played trombone
will tell you, had to do with the length of the slide
and the smell of the brass and also the mechanism
of the spit-valve and the way that Mr. Leister
accompanied me on his silver trumpet making
the music sound so elegantly and eminently
better than when I practiced it at home
for hours and hours which were all much shorter
than an hour actually, as anyone who's ever
practiced the art of deception with a musical
instrument will tell you, if he's honest and has any
inkling of the spluttering, sliding, flaring,
slippery nature of time, youth and trombones.

"Trombone Lesson" by Paul Hostovsky, from Bending the Notes. © Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist who said, "Every grain of experience is food for the greedy growing soul of the artist." That's Anthony Burgess (books by this author), best known as the author of the dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange(1962). He was born in Manchester, England, on this day in 1917.

He grew up a Catholic in England, and majored in English literature. Then he joined the army. He resented authority, was not very well liked by his peers, and did things that got him in trouble. Once, he did not report back from leave on time, and the British military police hunted him down, treating him as a deserter. Still, he did well in the army and rose through the ranks. He was good at languages, and he held important positions in military intelligence and as an instructor. It was an incident that occurred during his unhappy army days of World War II that would inspire him to write A Clockwork Orange two decades later.

After the army, he got a job with the British colonial service, and was posted to Malaysia. He taught in a boys' school, became fluent in Malaysian, published some books of literary criticism, and wrote novels for pleasure on the side. From Malaysia, he went to a teaching post in Borneo. He started to get headaches, and then one day he collapsed in front of the classroom while giving a history lecture. The Colonial Service flew him back to London, checked him into a neurological ward, and doctors proclaimed that he had a brain tumor — an inoperable one — and that he had one year to live. He also no longer had a job.

He might have spent his "terminal year" traveling, but he didn't have any money. In fact, he was determined to make money for his future widow; he decided that he would do this by writing at a furious pace. He wrote five novels in the year following his diagnosis. It turns out that he did not have a brain tumor, and he did not die. He kept writing at a furious pace, though, outliving his wife by many years and eventually dying of lung cancer (he was a heavy smoker) in 1993, more than 30 years and 30 books later.

His wrote his most famous book, A Clockwork Orange, in just three weeks. He wrote it in 1962, but it was based on something that happened a couple of decades before, when he was in the army. He was newly married, and his wife was pregnant. One night, while he was at the army base, his wife was mugged by four young U.S. Army deserters in London. After the attack, his wife miscarried their child.

A Clockwork Orange is set in futuristic England and features a teenage anti-hero named Alex who leads his gang of friends on acts of random violence. Originally, the book had 21 chapters. He chose the number carefully, he said, for "21 is the symbol of human maturity, or used to be, since at 21 you got to vote and assumed adult responsibility." But the American publisher didn't like the last chapter, the one where the anti-hero Alex — as Anthony Burgess himself describes it — "grows up and realizes that ultraviolence is a bit of a bore, and it's time he had a wife and a malenky googoogooing malchickiwick to call him dadada. This was meant to be a mature conclusion, but nobody in America has ever liked the idea."

Burgess was desperate for money, and he didn't really think his book was all that good. He actually thought the American publisher was "being charitable in accepting the work at all." So he accepted the cutting of the final chapter for the U.S. edition.

And then Stanley Kubrick bought the film rights, and it was the American version of A Clockwork Orange that he used as a basis for the movie — the one without the final chapter of Alex's maturation and redemption. Kubrick's movie made Burgess' book a big best-seller.

Burgess was grateful that Kubrick made him rich, but was sorry that his book "became known as the raw material for a film that seemed to glorify sex and violence. ... The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die." He said, "The implied view of juvenile violence as something to go through and then grow out of is missing ... and this reduces the book to a mere parable, whereas it was intended to be a novel."

Burgess was also a prolific literary critic. He wrote a couple of books that aimed to make James Joyce more accessible, including Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader (1965) and Joysprick: An Introduction to the Language of James Joyce (1973). He made selections for and published in 1969 an abridged version of Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

He spent long hours writing. Unlike many writers who swear by morning or late-night writing sessions, he preferred the afternoon best of all. He said: "It's a quiet time. It's a time when one's body is not at its sharpest, not at its most receptive — the body is quiescent, somnolent; but the brain can be quite sharp. I think, also, at the same time, that the unconscious mind has a habit of asserting itself in the afternoon. The morning is the conscious time, but the afternoon is a time in which we should deal much more with the hinterland of the consciousness."

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