An Interview with Dr. Geoffrey Hill
on the Irwell Edition of
Anthony Burgess’s Devil of a State
Last week, Dr. Geoffrey Hill traveled from Cambridge, Massachusetts to view the MLC’s Anthony Burgess Papers. Dr. Hill’s research focused on the original typescript for Burgess’s Devil of a State, a novel that was influenced by Burgess’s experience living in Southeast Asia. Dr. Hill theorizes that Burgess’s Southeast Asian novels—including Devil of a State and his Malayan Triology—established themes of reclamation and rehabilitation that proliferate through Burgess’s later novels, including his most notorious publication, A Clockwork Orange.
Devil of a State is also particularly significant among Burgess’s novels as the text most heavily edited and amended due to libel concerns. Through his research with the MLC, Dr. Hill is preparing the Irwell Edition of Devil of a State. This new edition of the novel will be the first to feature Burgess’s original, pre-edited materials, reflecting the text as Burgess intended it to appear. The corrected typescript and printer’s setting copy of Devil of a State in the Anthony Burgess Papers is, in Dr. Hill’s words, “the single most important document I must see to complete this first project.”
Dr. Hill is also writing the introduction to the book, slated for release in December 2017 with Manchester University Press. The Irwell Edition series seeks to republish an uncensored catalogue of Anthony Burgess’s novels.
ML: How did you decide to become a scholar of Burgess?
GH: It all started with the Burgess chapter of my dissertation. Part of what I was aiming to do was to demonstrate a connection between Burgess’s novels Devil of a State and A Clockwork Orange. The funny thing is, I did it as almost an afterthought, kind of a footnote. It wasn’t my main focus, but it ended up being the most significant thing that I said in that chapter.
In my oral defense, that’s what really struck the external examiner [Andrew Biswell, Director of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation and a past researcher at the MLC]. He said that he thought I could turn the Burgess chapter into a stand-alone book-length project, if I wanted to. Then, he asked me to edit and introduce the Irwell Edition of Devil of a State, which is the primary reason for my visit to Special Collections. So, while I wouldn’t consider myself a Burgess scholar, per se, I’m working on it, and Burgess is definitely an author on whom I plan to work for some time.
ML: Can you talk a bit about the connection between A Clockwork Orange and Devil of a State?
GH: Historically, many Burgess scholars have tried to separate the writing experience that Burgess had in Southeast Asia between 1954 and 1959 from what happened with his writing after his return to England in 1959. Devil of a State occurred in this weird in-between moment. He finished writing it before he left Southeast Asia, but the book didn’t come out until 1961. So, sometimes people look at the dates and think that this novel was written later than it really was. A Clockwork Orange appeared not too long after that (in 1962). Most scholars were of the opinion that after Burgess returned to the UK and began to focus more squarely on British and European politics, his Southeast Asia phase was done.
A Clockwork Orange describes a kind of a reclamation of the main character. I don’t think that the term rehabilitation is used, but they’re basically trying to rehabilitate the baddies. So, part of what I suggest is that the Southeast Asian novels—which are the Malayan Trilogy and Devil of A State—set the groundwork thematically, structurally, and stylistically for how Burgess wrote thereafter. Another part is that the very centerpiece of A Clockwork Orange is a function of the Southeast Asian fiction, and most especially Devil of a State. He tried some things in Devil of a State that I believe he was still working through in A Clockwork Orange.
Luckily for me, during the last few days of looking through the typescript for Devil of a State [in the Anthony Burgess Papers], I’ve found all sorts of things that definitely demonstrate a continuity within his Southeast Asian writing—that Devil of a State really isn’t different from the Malayan Trilogy, both thematically and otherwise. Because of this coherence, I can argue more powerfully for its connection to A Clockwork Orange. It’s not just this one instance. It’s a clear pattern and trajectory that allows me to stretch the timeline in both directions, to prove that his Southeast Asian experiences stuck with him throughout his whole career.
Prior to joining the Colonial Teaching Education Service, Burgess had tried to publish with William Heinemann. In letters back and forth between himself and Roland Gant—a famous editor for Heinemann —Burgess said, “I might be going to Southeast Asia,” and Gant said, “Go to Southeast Asia and write something that’s publishable.” So, he went to Southeast Asia in 1954 as twice-rejected author John Anthony Burgess Wilson and emerged from Southeast Asia in 1959 as Anthony Burgess, three-time published author with a fourth book on the way.
In short, this period was undeniably important for Burgess. I believe that you can see a definite difference between his early structural, stylistic, and thematic choices in his first two, unpublished novels, as compared to the texts he wrote in and after Southeast Asia. I haven’t definitely proven it, but my opinion is that this experience remained with him for the duration of his career. It’s been a really fun genesis because some of my findings were totally unexpected, but that’s basically what I’m trying to argue.
ML: You touched on this a bit already, but did you find anything specific in the collection that surprised you?
GH: I did. There were little things that I knew to expect. Before I came, I knew that Burgess changed a lot of the place names and race of some of the characters. He did that—not surprisingly—to avoid libel lawsuits.
So, they had to move the landscape of the novel from Brunei and Borneo to East Africa. Of course, in moving from Southeast Asia to East Africa, Burgess had to change all sorts of place names and races of characters to reflect the shift in location. While I knew to expect that, I hadn’t seen the typescript, so I didn’t know what the changes actually were.
It turns out that a number of these secondary and tertiary characters were originally Chinese, which was not surprising for that area in Southeast Asia. He switched almost all of these characters from Chinese to black, which was also not surprising considering the book’s setting was moved to East Africa. I was surprised that in this transition, some characters became Indian, while some became other races. There was a pattern of changing that I found both intriguing and telling.
I noticed all sorts of little things. For example, in the typescript we hear about a British Advisor that was then changed to a UN Advisor, which of course bears a different connotation. Uranium concessions were changed to oil concessions. The most surprising change was a whole section of a paragraph cut out because it contained a reference to some Southeast Asian material that would’ve been very problematic. It’s going to be great fun to restore that in the text!
Another seemingly little change was an original description of a secondary character as an Education Officer, which was later changed to an Immigration Officer. The education versus immigration switch is actually a huge, huge difference, not only because the Malayan Trilogy is—to a large extent—about the education system and the status of the education system in Malaya, but because that’s precisely what Burgess went there to do. He was a teacher in the colonial service. So, that’s another moment through which I’m able to establish a contingency, that he had the same concerns and was trying to think through them in different ways.
Another big change I noticed in the typescript was a scene that involved head-hunting. The typescript described a scene in which a person had basically been beheaded, but the head was still being smoked and it “wasn’t yet ready for exhibition”. That wasn’t unreasonable for the region. But then, when the decision was made to change the book’s setting to East Africa, the published version was altered to read something like, “of course they had already eaten the body, but the head wasn’t yet ready for exhibition”. So, all of a sudden, you go from head-hunting to cannibalism, and that new positioning of savagery…that was a really big difference!
That was a cool one to find. When you’re restoring all of these intended original lines, in almost every instance it just confirms the centrality of Southeast Asia. Where was cannibalism coming from? It just all of a sudden appeared! Then, I was left to disentangle why that happened at that moment, why it was important to Burgess to shift from head-hunting to cannibalism, specifically. It makes complete sense in the context of Africa – here think Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for example.
ML: You led a research talk on Burgess yesterday. What were some of the topics that came up in your conversation?
GH: The talk I gave was based on what I had found and how that changed and repositioned what I was thinking. I talked a little bit about the doctoral work that is moving toward a book project wherein Burgess is the fourth and final chapter, including the connection between the Southeast Asian fiction and what came after. Then, I tried to spend some time talking about specific things I’d found and why I thought they were important, hoping to elicit some questions about this approach.
People did ask these sorts of questions. They also asked about the specific libel concerns with this publication, why this kind of editing had to occur, much to Burgess’s chagrin. So, while it became a much different talk than I had at first envisioned, that was sort of what I was hoping for.
ML: Joel Minor [Washington University’s curator of the Modern Literature Collection] mentioned that you might have future plans to return and conduct some additional research. What is the trajectory of your study from here?
GH: I’m hoping that I’ll do a little more with Devil of a State and I very much want to work with a couple other typescripts for other novels in the collection. I haven’t yet had the chance to look through those, as they weren’t entirely germane to my objectives this visit. I’m starting to feel that there is enough material for a stand-alone book project.
So, that’s why I would come back, to try to write a monograph on Burgess. It could turn out to be a journal article. It could turn out to be something else. You never quite know at a really early stage, but it’s certainly worth putting more pressure on and seeing what happens.
ML: It’s exciting that in some ways, this feeling arose from your visit to the Modern Literature Collection.
GH: Definitely. That’s why I am so determined to make it physically to an archive that includes materials from a particular place. These days, you can very easily request copies, facsimiles of things, and have them sent. I could’ve contacted Joel and said, “could you please copy the entire typescript of Devil of a State and send it to me?” That would’ve been useful; that’s what some scholars have to do. But by coming here, I was able to have conversations with Joel. I was able to hold the research talk and have conversations with other people. Talking to you in our interview allows me to think through and formulate things in different ways. For me, the talking is as important as the materials themselves.
In one of my original emails to Joel, I said something about how my goal is always to establish relationships not only with resources but the people around resources. That’s the stuff you don’t get from a distance.
Sometimes you have no choice and you have to just take a copy, but I’ve now made it a habit of visiting archives in person. I love archival stuff. You get to touch things in a different sort of way. That’s been one of the central components of my approach for any project that I take on.
ML: It seems like you’ve really structured your research around that aspect of tangibility, keeping your work open to the conversation that evolves.
GH: Yes, and admittedly there are risks involved in that. It doesn’t always pan out to be exactly what you were hoping. But, it’s the only way I’ve really wanted to move forward in my research. That’s exactly what happened with my PhD: I began with one author, one novel, and kind of a hunch in an area that was not my zone of expertise (I was an Americanist before I went to the UK). I hadn’t really done that much even in the realm of British literature, but I convinced my supervisor to let me do it, and I found stuff! (laughs)
ML: (laughs) That’s awesome!
GH: Yes! Because it very easily could’ve turned out that I didn’t find a thing!
Luckily, it all worked out. I love that aspect of archival work, the fact that you can’t possibly know exactly what you’ll discover until you’re there.