Non-stop press

Urgent Copy

To review reviews might be said to be compounding the mistakes that someone else made perfectly well for themselves. But Urgent Copy is worth reading, and arguably worth writing about. Burgess wrote for many reasons. He wrote for fun; he wrote for profit. He wrote to settle scores, and he wrote with the urgency of a man condemned by doctors to die. Most importantly and proverbially, though, he wrote and wrote and wrote. It must have been easy to skim off the cream and package it as this volume.

Burgess proceeds from his fields of expertise and deep interest (Nabokov, Beckett) through standard literary-rag fare (Shakespeare, Milton) arriving quite happily and breezily in landscapes he himself is clearly only just discovering (the brothers Grimm and Walter Bagehot---there: a review of a review of reviews). Not to worry, though: like Bertrand Russell, Burgess will happily cover acres of ground that we could never cover for ourselves; as with Russell, we must inevitably discover the hidden snares for ourselves.

What stands out are his reviews of stinkers. As he says in his preface, he is always willing to give his fellow trench-diggers the benefit of the doubt. So when Williams' Modern Tragedy "makes tragedy a very tragic business", the understatement (which elsewhere seems a little overindulgent) is as damning as a personal slur. But above all Burgess' writing shines with a rhetorical and intellectual clarity, that some mistake for a pretence to rigid, studious integrity. Despite the huge body of work he has left behind in the field of criticism and analysis---only a slice of it exhumed in Urgent Copy---he was above all a complicated mix of author and journalist. At his worst, he is eminently readable. At his best, he's a joy.