I interviewed Anthony Burgess once when he spoke at the Princess Grace Irish Library. I recall two of his dicta quite clearly: first, Monaco was a very bad place to bring up a child – his son Andrea (aka successively André and Andrew) tried to commit suicide while living there; and second, the principality had “the most uncivilised expat community” he had ever encountered. He related how, invited to address the Monte Carlo Club, a group of mainly superannuated businessmen, on being an expat novelist, “every question was about my fiscal position”. Odd that this bugged him. His moves from Malta to Monaco and finally to Switzerland were all motivated by a desire to avoid UK taxes.
Burgess died twenty years ago and a decade after it first appeared I’ve just read Roger Lewis’ book about him. While making clear that the writer had a remarkable mind, he reveals a man who was much less attractive than I had imagined: vain, vindictive, a compulsive sexual braggart (though, it’s suggested, possibly impotent) and with a rooted dislike for children and dogs. Above all, Lewis claims, he was an intellectual fraudster. This is especially true in his claim to be a polyglot and an expert in all matters linguistic. “The fact is his knowledge of foreign languages was limited to salutations, valedictions and requests for the time.” When, for a TV programme, he tried to show off in a restaurant his “mastery” (his own word) of Malay, the few words he got out had the waitresses in fits of giggles. When he tried out his Welsh on the actress Sian Phillips she recalled, “It was scary. I thought he was having a stroke”. He also liked to claim that, although he had “no friends” in Monaco, he had been “very close” to Princess Grace. Unconfirmed, says Lewis, although according to Burgess, Earthly Powers was the last book she read. Apart from having “nasty neighbours” on rue Grimaldi, another stand- ing grievance was that he couldn’t get “decent sausages”... and HP Sauce. One thing cheered me, though: he gave an excellent eulogy at Benny Hills’s funeral.