Another Burgess defects: book review / Tremor of Intent by Anthony Burgess


This is the second time that I’ve posted this review of Anthony Burgess’s 1966 spy novel.  The first time, it was immediately bombarded with hundreds of spam messages, most of them emanating from – rather appropriately – Russia.  Such was the intensity of the spam that I took the post down after a couple of days.  I am now reposting it, under a slightly different title.  Let’s see what happens this time…


(c) Penguin Books


For someone considered a major figure in late-twentieth-century British letters, Anthony Burgess always seemed like an outsider to me.  Unlike many of his literary peers, who were from privileged backgrounds and were Oxbridge-educated, Burgess had a lower middle-class upbringing in Manchester – his dad was a bookkeeper and pub-pianist who later acquired a few tobacconist and off-licence shops – and he attended university in the same city.  By the time he’d become a full-time writer, which wasn’t until he was in his forties, he’d held a number of proper jobs, in the army, in teaching and in the colonial service.


An enthusiastic composer and an accomplished linguist as well as an author, Burgess saw himself as a renaissance man and didn’t shrink from showing off his multifarious talents.  I suspect this led to him being frowned upon in some corners of the literary establishment for committing that most British of crimes, of ‘being too clever for his own good’.  He was also an incorrigible self-publicist in an era when it was still considered good form for British writers to be read and not heard.  Rarely did he seem to be absent from the newspapers and television.  A disdainful Graham Greene was known to have marvelled of him: “He talks about his books.”  Of course, were he alive today, when writers are encouraged to be visible and vocal and to miss no opportunity to sell themselves, Burgess would be in his element.  He’d be blogging, tweeting and Facebook-posting like mad.


One thing that Burgess was not, however, was a book snob.  Unlike the Gore Vidals, Howard Jacobsons and James Kelmans of this world, he didn’t regard genre writing as being unworthy of literary consideration.  Indeed, in Ninety-Nine Novels, his round-up of the best English-language novels written between 1939 and 1984, he championed works by several writers usually associated with the crime, espionage, science fiction and fantasy genres, including Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Raymond Chandler, Len Deighton, Mervyn Peake, Keith Roberts, T.H. White and (pertinently for this review) Ian Fleming.  And he tried his hand at a number of genres himself.  Though his Dickensian love for eccentric characters meant that all his books contained humour, a few were out-and-out comedies, most notably the Enderby novels.  Meanwhile, his best-remembered work, A Clockwork Orange, could be classed as science fiction, as could the lesser-known The Wanting Seed and 1985.  And then there’s his 1966 novel Tremor of Intent, where he tackled a genre enjoying immense popularity at the time: the spy thriller.


Though Tremor of Intent, if it’s remembered at all these days, is probably thought of as ‘the one where the Clockwork Orange man did a Bond pastiche’, Burgess actually drew on two sources for his inspiration.  One source was indeed Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, which had less to do with the genuine espionage world of the 1950s and 1960s and had more to do with the adventure stories of earlier decades — real-life adventure stories from World War II (when Fleming had worked in naval intelligence and known various military types who’d done heroic things behind enemy lines) and fictional adventure stories from the 1920s and 1930s, like John Buchan’s books about Richard Hannay and Herman Cyril McNeile’s ones about Bulldog Drummond.


Accordingly, Tremor of Intent, like the Bond novels and their predecessors, abounds with exotic locations, beautiful ladies, and larger-than-life villains.  Villains don’t come much larger than the book’s Mr Theodorescu, a man “of a noble fatness; the fat of his face was part of its essential structure, not a mean gross accretion, and the vast shapely nose needed those cheek-pads and firm jowls for a proper balance.”


The other inspiration for Tremor of Intent was the less sensational, more ‘realistic’ spy novel dealing with moles and double-agents, with betrayal and defection – themes that inform such classics of the genre as John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Len Deighton’s Berlin Game and Graham Greene’s The Human Factor.  These works take their cue from real events – the defections to Moscow of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951 and of Kim Philby in 1963.  Educated at expensive boarding schools and at Cambridge University, Philby, Burgess and Maclean belonged to the upper strata of the class system that was supposed to give Britain its continuity and stability.  Yet, once they’d strolled into jobs in British Intelligence and the British Foreign Office, they started feeding secret information to the Soviets.  The people who were selling Britain out to the communist enemy weren’t working-class militants and revolutionaries at the bottom of the pile – the real traitors were snobs and elitists at the top.


(It must’ve been galling for Anthony Burgess in the early 1980s when a survey was conducted to find out how familiar the British public were with their major authors.  When they heard his name, most people identified him as the guy, or Guy, who’d fled across the Iron Curtain in the 1950s.)


Tremor of Intent deals with a British traitor, a scientist called Roper, who in the manner of Philby, Burgess and Maclean has defected to the Soviet Union; and a British agent called Hilliard who is assigned the task of abducting Roper back home again while he attends a conference in the Balkans. The twist is that Roper and Hilliard are old friends.  Their relationship dates back to a boyhood spent in a strict Catholic school, staffed by fanatical priests with a predilection for ranting and raving about the sins of the flesh: “This damnable sex, boys – ah, you do well to writhe in your beds at the very mention of the word.  All the evil of our modern times springs from unholy lust, the act of the dog and the bitch on the bouncing bed, limbs going like traction engines, the divine gift of articulate speech diminished to squeals and groans and pantings.”


If Burgess’s evocation of Hilliard and Roper’s schooldays brings to mind James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and its passages describing the terrors of Stephen Dedalus’s Catholic education, it’s unsurprising.  Burgess was a big Joyce fan.  He once wrote an introduction to the language-bending Irishman called Here Comes Everybody and Joyce was obviously an influence on his writing style.


The young Roper stands up to the priests by bamboozling them with his scientific knowledge, but that’s about the last noble thing he does in the book.  Thereafter, he becomes increasingly wretched.  By the end of World War II he’s spouting pro-Nazi sympathies and soon his loyalties shift further eastwards.  He finally falls into a communist honey-trap involving an attractive but duplicitous East German woman, which seals his fate as a traitor and defector.


Hilliard, whom we first meet on a cruise ship heading towards the site of the now-defected Roper’s conference, is a more admirable character.  However, he’s noticeably inept as an undercover spy.  For his mission, he’s assumed the identity of a typewriter technician – a typical flourish from Burgess, who once published a book of essays called Homage to QWERTYUIOP – but he’s soon rumbled by a precocious schoolboy on board the ship called Alan Walters, who knows more about typewriters than Hilliard does.  Alan, in fact, knows a great deal about many subjects and I suspect he resembles the know-all brat that Burgess probably was himself at the same age.  At least, as the novel develops, Alan’s allowed some character development and he ends up as a definite good guy.


Inevitably, considering the fact that it uses elements from both the unpretentious Bond stories and from the more cerebral spy novels of le Carre and company, and considering all the additional baggage that Burgess brings along, such as Catholicism, humour and Joycean prose, Tremor of Intent is erratic.  Parts of it work well but other parts of it misfire.  The most effective scenes are those set on board the cruise ship, which is populated in the best Agatha Christie tradition by passengers with dishonourable motives and by crew-members who know more than they’re letting on.  Foremost among the passengers are Theodorescu, a man who makes his money by trading secrets between East and West, and his beautiful but lethal sidekick, Miss Devi.  Among his many bad points, Theodorescu happens to be a paedophile, which is a telling sign of the book’s vintage.  In the 1960s, paedophilia was just another character-trait that added colour to the bad guy in a spy story.  In our ultra-sensitive world today, it would be the defining, be-all-and-end-all trait that damns the character to evilness.


Possibly the novel’s best scene is the one where Hilliard and Theodorescu square up to each other for the first time, eager to test one another’s mettle but before hostilities have been openly declared.  In a Bond book or movie, this would usually happen in a casino, over a game of poker.  In Tremor of Intent, it takes place in the ship’s restaurant, when Theodorescu declares, “I will make a bargain with you.  Whoever eats the less shall pay for the wine.  Are you agreeable?”  There follows an epic contest of gluttony, as Hilliard and Theodorescu eat their way through the menu, verbally sparring whilst subjecting their digestive systems to increasing strain and pain.


Burgess has a field day describing the gastronomic duel and the dishes are served up relentlessly: “red mullet and artichoke hearts… fillets of sole Queen Elizabeth, with sauce blonde… soufflé au foie gras… avocado halves with caviar and a cold chiffon sauce… some lamb persillee and onions and gruyere casserole with green beans and celery julienne… pheasant with pecan stuffing… broccoli blossoms… some spinach and minced mushrooms… harlequin sherbert… peach mousse with sirop framboise… poires Helene with cold chocolate sauce… nectarine flan… frothing Blanquette… chocolate rum dessert, garnished with whipped cream and Kahlua… orange marmalade crème bavaroise, loud with Cointreau…”  The first Bond novels appeared immediately after World War II, when Britain’s economy had been wrecked and food-rationing was a fact of life, and it’s likely that the books’ initial readers lapped them up for their opulent escapism.  A few hours in the company of Commander Bond would transport you to a world of hedonistic consumerism, a world where the food, liquor, cigars, clothes and cars were lavishly expensive and never-ending.  Hilliard’s gluttonous and costly joust with Theodorescu in the restaurant seems to be Burgess’s sly acknowledgement of this.


In other places, however, Tremor of Intent goes astray.  Often this is because of Burgess’s writing style, with its Joycean pretensions, which just seems inappropriate for this particular genre.  Never one to shirk the charge of showing off, he pens flamboyant passages of fragmented sentences and disappearing punctuation, of word-puns and alliteration — when, for example, describing the effects of the drug, ‘B-type vellocet’, that Theodorescu uses to winkle information out of his victims.


There is also some torturous writing when Hilliard, inevitably, gets to do the dirty with Miss Devi: “With athletic swiftness he turned her to the primal position and then, whinnying like a whole herd of wild horses, shivering as if transformed to protoplasm save for that plunging sword, he released lava like a mountain in a single thrust of destruction, so that she screamed like a burning city.”  Yes, Burgess is taking the piss here, but that sentence would still make a worthy winner of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Writing Award.


Graham Greene once remarked that, in an adventure story, the action scenes can only be described in the plainest and most economical of prose – because violence happens simply and it happens fast.  Burgess, whose prose obviously isn’t plain or economical, or simple or fast, deals with this potential problem in Tremor of Intent by not having any traditional adventure-story action scenes.  Even the final showdown between Hilliard and Theodorescu, which involves an elevator, a syringe of B-type vellocet and a chase along a waterfront, is imbued with an unexpectedly slow, languid and ruminative quality.  And to be fair to Burgess, the sequence is actually disturbing because of that.


There are issues with the overall tone of the book too.  At times – for example, when he’s describing the hapless Roper’s ethical and psychological decline – Burgess seems close to believing that he’s writing a serious book.  At other times, though, he knows that he’s writing a pastiche, an exercise in a genre that has well-defined rules and limits, and he’s keen to transmit this knowingness to his readers, who are presumably in on the joke too.  Thus, when Hilliard starts blabbing secrets to Theodorescu, we get the jargon of hackneyed spy movies and cliched spy fiction: “Operation Aegir…  A pocket television transmitter called, for some reason, Nur-al-Hihar…  The Nero Caesar cryptogram…  The air exercise known as Britomart…  An atomiser-gun provisionally named Cacodemon…  The Thermidorian tumbrils…  Miniature nuclear submarines called Fomors…”


The book’s ending deserves mention, for it sees an unexpected switch-of-location to Dublin – not a city one normally associates with espionage stories – and it sees Hilliard, remorseful for all the bad things he’s done in life, abandon the Secret Service and take on a rather different vocation.  It’s an interesting twist, though not one I found convincing, judging by what I’d already read of Hilliard’s character and motivations.  I suspect this ending, set in the landscape of Burgess’s literary hero, James Joyce, is as much for Burgess’s benefit as it is for his main character.  I know I’d defected for a time into writing spy thrillers, he seems to be signalling, perhaps unconsciously; but don’t worry, now I’ve defected back – back to the land of proper literature!


Tremor of Intent, then, is a book with some serious problems.  It’s uneven, its prose-style is often inappropriate, and it doesn’t seem to know if it’s to be taken seriously or to be taken as a joke – sometimes it tries to be taken both ways.  However, if you like Anthony Burgess and if you like Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, you should get some enjoyment out of it.  I can happily tick both those boxes but I doubt if many other readers can.  And I suppose that’s why this odd, one-off novel, from a flawed but exuberantly talented writer, is almost forgotten today.