Lewis Burgess was a literary genius, of that there can be no doubt. It might strike you as odd, then, that his work is so little known. You may not have read it yourself. It is even possible that his name is unknown to you. How should we account for this seeming paradox, for the total failure of Burgess’s work to connect with an audience or gain so much as a glimmer of critical recognition? We might begin our investigation on the bookstand of a typical news stall. Its contents will soon inform us that popular acclaim has a tendency to accumulate in inverse proportion to literary merit. After all, few in number are those who’ve read that great work of lyrical obscurantism, Flanagans Whiskers, and yet this epic account of a dead man’s struggle to grow his beard – in the face of a force ten gale – has been declared a masterpiece by literary authorities the world over.1 But this beginning is insufficient, offering only a partial explanation at best. His work ought to be known at least in the universities or among the critics. And yet it would seem not. Where is that élite band of insiders, self-satisfied in their intimacy with a writer of whom the rest of the world remains unaware? Burgess has become the sine qua non of cult writers, almost entirely unread. His is the name to drop at the literary soiree should you wish to maximise the obscurity of your reference, to allude to a writer of whom no-one else will have heard. Why, then, is there no section of the intelligentsia stubbornly defending his reputation? We shall see. And as you’d expect from a writer of Burgess’s sophistication, we must look beyond the obvious for an answer…
The first half of his life had been a mere half-life. Allow me to explain. George ‘Lewis Burgess’ Wilson was born to Irish parents in Buenos Aires and subsequently raised in London, Heidelberg and The Hague. As far back as he could remember, he had known that he was destined to become a great writer. And Burgess claimed to be able to retrieve memories from a much earlier point in life than his fellow mortals.2 Yet he’d spent his entire adult life working as a librarian in the archives of a maritime insurer and by his fortieth year had published nothing. How did this come to pass?
Burgess had always been dogged by poor health. As an infant he had suffered from a rare dust allergy and had been forced to wear a mask to protect him from its most debilitating effects. Although the seriousness of the condition had lessened as his childhood progressed, that early stigma left its mark. He’d become an introverted, ‘bookish’ child and had made few friends. Emotionally and intellectually then, he’d been uniquely equipped for a career in cataloguing. Physically, he had not. He passed much of his time in the archive either sneezing or wheezing, his cheeks habitually smeared with tearstains.
The library occupied an old warehouse in the courtyard behind the company’s head office. Burgess was responsible for archiving all files relating to expired policies. Some of the files referred to ships that had been lost at sea, their claims long since lodged and settled. Others belonged to vessels that had lived out uneventful lives and had ended them in the breaker’s yard. His library was a mortuary for redundant red tape. There was not a single live file among them.
Superficially then, Burgess appeared a creature of shadow and fug. But all the while, as he stalked along the half-lit corridors between the rows of shelving that held the dusty box-files, he was dreaming up ideas for novels. Every day of his working life a new tale would enter unbidden into his febrile imagination. And before the day’s work – nominally speaking – had been completed, another synopsis would have formed inside his head.
These were not just the stories a man might tell himself to whittle away the hours of the working day. Every one of his ideas carried the potential to become a novelistic masterwork in its own right. That impassive brow masked the ferment of intellectual activity taking place behind it. Within his strangely proportioned skull could be found the most remarkable oeuvre in all of world literature. Let us take a look inside…
We find vast cryptic works in the Joycean mode alongside more playful ones resembling the deconstructed folk tales of Romano Luthero. Then there are odysseys and quests to match Mallory and Cervantes, epics on the scale of Lawrence (that’s T.E. rather than D.H.). Elsewhere we encounter fantasies for children, and then Lewis Burgess becomes a compound of Lewis Carol and C.S. Lewis. We uncover sprawling picaresque tales contained within a single volume in the manner of Rabelais and Stendhal, sagas stretching across two volumes that mirror the structure of The Brothers Karamazov or War and Peace, trilogies in the style of Beckett, quartets after the fashion of Durrell, multiple volume novel sequences that read like those of Marcel Proust or Otto Salmon…3
And yet none of these great works was ever begun. They remain provisional masterpieces, magna opera of a purely speculative kind. Those tales only ever existed in imagination. The thoughts in his head somehow never managed to translate themselves into words on the page. Before he’d got around to writing anything down, another idea would occur to him, always as brilliant as the last, and then its predecessor would be forgotten. Each masterwork was ephemeral, an idea that pupated into a synopsis, inhabiting its perfect form for a few fleeting hours before being left in some forgotten chamber of his mind, the paper-like corpse of a fabulous moth lost in the perpetual twilight of the warehouse.
And so we arrive at a further contradiction. In his head, Burgess was one of the most prolific writers in the history of literature. In reality, he produced next to nothing. His entire oeuvre consisted of mere memoranda toward the outlines of ideas. His imaginative fiction was exactly that, a fiction of his imagination.
Much of the time he had little else to do. Perhaps once or twice a week a new ring binder or suspension file would be brought across from the main office. The office junior, whose job was to deliver the files, provided one of the few points of human contact in Burgess’s solitary existence.
‘Another file for you, Mr Wilson.’
‘Ah, yes, thank you,’ he would reply, avoiding the junior’s gaze. ‘Place it on the side there, would you?’
And that would be that. Then with the precision of a police surgeon performing a post-mortem, Burgess would decant the file’s store of dockets, forms and correspondence into a new black box-file. An index card would be drawn up meticulously in that scholarly handwriting and then a final resting place for the new item would be found. Much more infrequently – perhaps only once every other month – he would be asked to retrieve some long-forgotten file – the SS Mastodon or Bechuanaland – from its silent tomb on a distant shelf. And yet Lewis Burgess always knew exactly where the file was located. His index system was infallible. The junior would wait silently in the front office of the warehouse and within ten minutes Burgess would return, somewhat out of breath from his ascent of the stairs, sneezing violently, yet invariably clutching the requested file. In between times, his mind would be occupied with the real business of the day.
And every one of those files read like a novel in itself. Each told of a ship’s rise and fall, the hopes upon its launch, the dashing of those hopes upon the rocks of time. The shelves contained the summaries of the lives of thousands of ships and boats, craft both titanic and tiny. They held accounts of fishing smacks and cabin cruisers, narrow boats and oil tankers, luxury yachts and passenger ferries… And each had a different tale to tell. There were ships that had run aground off craggy coasts, paddle-steamers resting at the bottom of tropical rivers, cargo boats boarded and sunk by pirates in the South Seas, trawlers inexplicably abandoned in the harbours of remote islands… And each cardboard sarcophagus contained not only the life of the ship, but encompassed also the lives of all those who’d sailed in her. Entire personal histories could be inferred from policy renewal notices and claim forms. A file could become the life. After all, weren’t both composed of the same components?
Sometimes, at home in his bed, he dreamt that the warehouse had been consumed by fire and that his cherished box-files and index cards had perished along with it. The lives of the ships, of their crews and passengers would be wiped out. It was a genocide on a twentieth-century scale. He would be woken by the sound of his own sobbing to find the salt of tears in the corners of his mouth. Perhaps his real fear was that such an event would force him to begin the work for which he’d been placed on earth.
Lewis Burgess was a man of many parts. He wasn’t merely a potentially great writer. Burgess was a polyglot of some repute, conversant with the terms for ‘tonnage’, ‘displacement’, and the like in upward of two-dozen languages. He was perhaps the only man alive who could’ve translated Jane’s Warships into a score of tongues. It was another of those feats that fate had decreed would be confined to the sphere of the theoretical.
The same law applied to his musical career. Burgess was also a notable composer of orchestral works. As he went about his business in the warehouse a thirty-eight-piece orchestra might often be heard playing inside his head. He composed symphonic pieces of great complexity, which nevertheless carried enormous emotional charge. Their only outward manifestation was an occasional off-key whistle or a rather tuneless hum. In the world outside his own cranium, Lewis Burgess was tone deaf. Dilettante or Renaissance man? Posterity will be the judge. Or perhaps you will.4
Burgess lived alone in an apartment on the southern side of the city. It was furnished sparingly: a bed and a table, a small sofa and a writing desk. He possessed a trouser press and a typewriter (still in its cardboard packaging). The walls of the flat were lined with shelves containing obscure and difficult works. He’d read the summaries on the dust jackets of each and every one. He was intimately acquainted with the author biographies. His evenings were often spent devising new methods of categorising them – by the colour of the jacket, by the number of pages, in descending order based upon the precise date of publication, in ascending order according to the number of letters in the title (W by Georges Perec, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Web by Turin Konundra…). It was just one of the activities that kept him from producing his magnum opus.
Burgess had never slept with a woman. So reserved was he, that he’d never even been on a date. All of his grand passions, his various affairs and assignations, had taken place inside the confines of his head. They had been no less intense for all that. And his imagination was too great to be constrained by a single lover. He kept a chain of mistresses in cities across the continent. It was just one more piece of the conundrum that we know as Lewis Burgess – the legendary drinker who never consumed more than a half bottle of wine, the bon viveur without a social life, the public performer who never appeared before an audience… A man may become anything he desires, so long as he has imagination.
If the first half of Lewis Burgess’s life had been unfulfilled, then what might be expected of the second? For the radioactive isotope, only decay lies ahead. But Lewis Burgess didn’t see himself as an unstable element. Had he been playing periodic table football,5 then he’d probably have said that he most closely resembled one of the Noble gases. He was like neon, perhaps – often inert, mostly unresponsive but capable of incandescent brilliance. And now Lewis Burgess stood on the brink of greatness. He was about to undergo a transformation. He was a rare and beautiful insect emerging from the dull and dirty shell of its chrysalid. It was an image – or an imago, at least – that had obsessed the writers of Eastern Europe. Kafka, the Brothers Câpek, Ionesco – what was bugging them? A secret policeman, in all probability… Could it have been mere coincidence that his name was an anagram of wireless bugs?
It was the recurrence of that childhood allergy, returning with all its previous force that precipitated the shift in Burgess’s worldview. At first, the medical authorities had seemed to imply that his life hung in the balance. This prognosis would prove an epiphany for Burgess, a Damascene moment or what you will. It marked the beginning of the second and somewhat briefer half of his life (here was another parallel with the caddis and its relations). He reviewed the first half and found it wanting*6. He was perhaps the greatest writer of his generation but had yet to publish a single word. The archivist emerged from his rendezvous with death a driven man, determined to leave his mark on the Western canon.
Burgess had astounded his doctors, staging the most miraculous of recoveries. The critics would be next. Following his discharge from hospital he passed a couple of weeks convalescing at home in his apartment. It was then that the greatest of his ideas formed in his fevered brain. Its arrival happened to coincide with a sneeze of skull-shattering proportions. Whether the two events were in any way connected we shall never know. The idea itself was simple. Committing a story to paper didn’t have to mean producing all one thousand pages of the book. He could just jot down the outline of each tale on his return from work in the evening and very soon he’d have assembled something along the lines of The Thousand and One Nights or what-have-you, a book that would gather together the finest collection of ideas in all world literature. This breakthrough opened up a whole new universe of possibilities.
The rest of his story may be told in précis.
He returned to work the next day. He’d been wandering through his dim-lit and dusty kingdom for only a matter of minutes when an idea had come to him. Once again it was brilliant, perhaps his finest synopsis yet. Throughout the day, further details of characters and conceits revealed themselves to him. He stalked the corridors in a state of heightened consciousness, talking excitedly to himself and sneezing furiously.
Lewis Burgess left the warehouse exactly as the city hall clock was striking five. He leapt onto a tram and ten minutes later was half-running down the street on the outskirts of the city where his apartment was located. He climbed out of his work clothes, showered and pulled on a roll-neck pullover, velvet jacket and cords. Then, gathering up his keys and notepad from the kitchen table, he left the building.
Across the street from his apartment was the small café where he took breakfast and ate his evening meals, always alone. Burgess never cooked for himself. Why would a literary genius wish to waste precious time on food preparation when he could pay someone else to do it for him? The same rule applied to all other domestic duties – washing, ironing, cleaning… they were all outsourced. The owner of the café was standing behind the counter.
‘Good evening, Mr Wilson,’ he said.
‘It’s Burgess, actually, Mr Lewis Burgess.’
‘As you wish, sir.’
The proprietor was well acquainted with Burgess/Wilson’s eccentricities – he was, after all, one of his oldest customers – and he attached no especial significance to the remark.
‘We haven’t seen you for a while, sir.’
‘No. I’ve not been well.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, sir. Your usual table?’
The owner guided Burgess to his familiar lair and left him to his own devices. Lewis Burgess was not a man who sought out company, nor did he welcome conversation.
One thing was different about the café that evening. A man was sitting at a table by the door whom none of the other diners had seen before. Newcomers were an unusual sight in the café, located as it was in a residential suburb, and with a long-established and loyal clientele. The stranger was a giant of a man, dressed from head to toe in black. He wore a suede jacket with a fringe of tassels and his trousers were made from leather. His hair was tied back in a raven ponytail. He was staring across at Burgess. His eyes were like a raven’s too, as cold and blue as a November sky. Burgess paid him only the scantest regard. Indeed, he’d been only subliminally aware when the exotically beautiful waitress with the eyes of a cat and hair of burnished copper brought over his supper and half-bottle of Bull’s Blood. He was far too preoccupied with transcribing that day’s idea onto the page of his notepad. She hadn’t eluded the stranger’s gaze. The veins on the sides of his temples had begun to throb and a string of sweaty pearls materialised on his brow.
An hour or so later Burgess had finished both his meal and the synopsis. He prised a note from his wallet, placed it on the plate where his bill lay, and rose to leave. He moved quickly across the room, which was by now very nearly empty. In his haste to leave he careered into the table next to the door where the stranger was still sitting, upending the cup of coffee balanced on the table’s edge. The contents emptied themselves into the lap of the stranger.
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ said Burgess.
‘And so you will be,’ replied the stranger, attempting to mop the coffee from his leather trousers with a paper napkin.
‘There’s really no need to be like that. I’ll buy you another coffee. I’ll pay for your trousers to be dry cleaned.’
‘That you’ll pay is not in question.’
‘Look, I’ve said that I’m sorry and I’ve offered you reparation. What more do you want?’
‘Justice, nothing more.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘I ask for the opportunity to restore my dignity.’
‘And how am I supposed to give you that?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘Oh, so I’m ridiculous now, am I? Well, we’ll see about that, won’t we?’
Recognising that the stranger was irrational – and quite possibly delusional – Burgess withdrew another note from his wallet, slapped it down on the table and marched out of the café. Perhaps this was his mistake, though we cannot know for certain what would’ve happened had he stayed and attempted to reason further with the stranger. The proprietor had heard nothing of all this as he’d been in the kitchen clearing up.
‘Good night, Mr Burgess,’ he called after him. It might almost have been the title of one of his own tales. Lewis Burgess did not hear it. He was already out on the pavement. It was to be the only occasion upon which anyone addressed him so. The street was submerged in darkness and an icy wind blew in the spaces between the buildings. He pulled up his collar, thrust his hands into his trouser pockets and hurried across the street. The stranger rose from his chair, dusted himself down and followed Burgess into the empty street. The archivist was standing outside the apartment block, looking for his keys. Lost in some detail of his plot, he had already forgotten the stranger’s existence.
‘Hey, dead man!’ the stranger shouted at Burgess’s back.
His voice ricocheted between the tenement buildings. Burgess turned around to face him. The stranger had taken a tiny silver pistol out of the pocket of his tasselled jacket and was pointing it at Lewis Burgess’s head. The archivist heard him cock the trigger.
‘Tell me, dog,’ asked the stranger, ‘how does it feel to die?’
Burgess had the feeling that all of this had happened to him before. And in a sense it had. You hold in your hand the first of his sketches, the only one that he ever completed, and the work upon which his reputation must now rest. Burgess possessed one of the most productive imaginations in the history of literature, and yet scythed down by a psychopath’s gun, as though deemed surplus to the plot of some egotistical novelist, he leaves us this solitary tale. Thus concludes the brief literary career of Lewis Burgess.
1 Burgess himself posited a ruthlessly abridged version, The Shorter Flanagans Whiskers, translated into English from Gibberish, as a means of bringing its author before a wider readership. The project was never initiated. Burgess did, however, complete the following limerick: ‘There was an old man, name of Flanagan/Got embroiled in some drunken shenanigan/He fell on his head/Slept the sleep of the dead/Poor old Flanagan, begin again…’ (Taken from The Collected Works of Lewis Burgess)
2 Burgess often recited the saga of his heroic battle against – and eventual triumph over – his fellow spermatozoa, or The Great Swim as he called it. But since he worked in isolation, lived alone and never socialised, these recitals were for internal consumption only. This was fortunate, for otherwise Burgess may have gained a reputation as something of a bore, like those party guests who insist upon recounting their dreams to you in the most pedantic of detail.
3 At this point, the reader may find himself becoming discomforted. He should not concern himself. The present writer will not seek to reproduce Burgess’s brilliance, a task in which he could only fall pitifully short. The impossible will not be attempted here.
4 You may, if you so wish, attempt this essay question when you have finished reading the text (25 marks). A mark scheme and examiners’ report are available on request from the University of Torshavn.
5 A parlour game of two halves, devised by Primo Levi and Hermann Hesse on the sole occasion of their meeting. Subsequent participation in the game has been restricted to Nobel laureates and nominees (for both literature and chemistry). Oddly enough, a variant of this most cerebral of pursuits became absorbed into popular culture via a question on a TV dating game, albeit in a much-simplified form. All reference to atomic weights and numbers was excluded, as was the strict code relating to the use of metaphor and metonym.
6 At this point, the reader may do the same by returning to the start. And he may well arrive at a conclusion of a similarly critical nature. He should take note of the following warning, however. ‘By following this course of action, you may enter the literary equivalent of a Möbius Strip and your reading matter could become seriously proscribed. If this notice appears familiar, you may already have done so.’
Check-out another short story by Paul Sutton Reeves The Darts of Harkness.