Burgess of the Bilabial Fricative

The Doctor is SickAnthony Burgess, 1960

“‘You’ve got this obsession, haven’t you?’ said Dr. Railton. ‘With words, I mean.’”

Dr. Edwin Spindrift does. He’s a philologist, a linguist with an obsession with the bilabial fricative, “sound, etymology and lexical definition.” While teaching in Moulmein he collapses and is shipped back to London for medical treatment, where he inhabits a ward that he wants to leave, and has his head shaved for a surgery he’d rather avoid. His wife Sheila is sleeping around, bouncing around the pubs, and not visiting him enough. Part of the reason for his collapse is linked to his impotence, and his impotence is linked to part of why Shelia’s sleeping around.

Rather than continue visiting him she starts sending over as proxies characters from the pub she frequents, the Anchor.

They include a man called Les, who works in the opera house building and striking sets, and a painter called Nigel with a beard who she also shacks up with:

“‘Nothing’s easy to paint,’ said the painter. He had a gobbly kind of voice. ‘Take my word for it, painting is absolute hell. That’s why I keep on with it.’”

He escapes from the hospital and embarks on a oneiric tour of shabby characters and shady locales. There’s the Stone twins, who own a dilapidated club and run a thousand hustles. One of these becomes the throughline of the book, which is getting Edwin to a bald man competition where they augur him winning a hundred pounds and a movie star screen test. Edwin bumbles along throughout all this madness, his head jammed with linguistic pun and observation that not exactly everyone else appreciates.

“He was pleased with his pun, but nobody seemed edified or amused.”

He’s also set out to find his wife, along with the two months pay that she has and he needs at least some of to buy even a simple hat (he’s stuck wearing pajamas under his jacket). But when she’s gone from the hotel she was supposed to be at, he’s plunged into cockeyed venture one after the other, renting stolen hats for a nicker or two, careening throughout the streets of a wild nutty London. Eventually, “Edwin felt the defeat and self-pity of the lost traveller who feels night not as a cloak but as hands waiting to strangle.”

Those from the pub come through for him on all different occasions and in all different ways though. Les the opera set dresser gets him in on a part in a crowd scene at the opera, and there he steals wigs and hats and clothing to pawn quick as he can. An observation on the newer operas from the lady who helps fit him out with a wig is quintessential Burgess high/low culture doggerel:

“‘Mark my words,’ said the old woman, ‘the rot set in with them Germans — Andel and Waggoner and such. Sweet old airs there was before, as none of them nowadays could go nowhere near.’”

Slipping out of the theater loaded with vestments to sell, another figure from the Stone nightclub takes him on another turn, old Bob Courage, of the constant remarks on how kinky he is. He fair well abducts Spindrift (“Weak as kittens and water Edwin let himself be led to the car”), and brings him to his filthy degenerate apartment to involve him in his perversities.

“Edwin chose a whip with a stout short stump and a long lash. He cracked it in the air and then on Bob’s back. An angry photograph of the lash appeared across the tortured puckered skin. ‘Harder, harder,’ moaned Bob. Edwin felt the joy of the sadist arising in his loins. This would not do at all.”

Part of the fun of the book is Burgess’ frequent turn to linguistic fireworks and doggerel, which require frequent reference to a dictionary and a search engine to decipher the slabs of jargon and technical description. One such display comes when Spindrift makes the crucial realization about his lot (“Words, he realized, words, words, words. He had lived too much with words and not what the words stood for”). And then immediately:

“Apart from its accidents of sound, etymology and lexical definition, did he really know the meaning of any one word? Love, for instance. Interesting, that collocation of sounds: the clear allophone of the voiced divided phoneme gliding to that newest of all English vowels which Shakespeare, for instance, did not know, ending with the soft bite of the voiced labiodental. And its origin? Edwin saw the word tumble back to Anglo-Saxon and beyond, and its cognate Teutonic forms tumbling back too, so that all forms ultimately melted in the prehistoric primitive Germanic mother. Fascinating.”

The book does get muddled. Spindrift bounces through so many wild turns that you feel at times like he does upon waking up once after another wild sort of night: “He called in the dispersed fragments of the night and roughly pieced them together, like a torn document.” And the book often invokes another observation of the Doctor’s, but about itself: “Edwin was now convinced that everybody except himself was mad, but it afforded him little comfort.”

Eventually he does make it to the bald man contest that the Stones so want him to win, and it’s another nutty display of high madness, with teenage screams and orgasmic cries at the teen idols crooning, and raucous laughter at an adenoidal emcee, such that “the audience micturated in mirth.” He does win, but finds himself unloading into the microphone that goes out to millions of television viewers a condemnation of the vulgarity of the contest, and a profanity. Dr. Railton, the specialist from whose hospital he’s escaped, is the trumpet player at the show, and Edwin is committed against his will to another ward.

He escapes again, and ends up observing his wife and a lover in the sexual act, whereupon he passes out and, after another entirely nutty dream, (“‘We turn now,’ said Edwin, ‘from matters of homophones to the whole collection of love, love being the hardest collocation of phonemes ever bored by questing squirrel’”) wakes determined to leave his wife. Too many questions asked to other members of the ward has him sedated and unable to see his wife the first evening though, and when he wakes again he’s determined to forgive her.

But when his wife comes to see him, she tells him that it’s she who will leave him. So that’s that. Edwin won’t lay about waiting to recover. Instead, “he crept out of bed so softly and slowly — smoothly as the tongue gliding from one phonemic area to another — that the keen-eared sister could not possibly hear,” steals himself a well fitted out suit of clothes, and heads out into the London night to find an old school friend of his that he encountered on his travels, and who might be able to offer him a job.

The book isn’t incredible. It’s at times tedious in its whackball inanity, and filled with the dated racial outlook that Burgess often displays as a Tony British writer, despite how he feels about not being British but European. The linguistic fireworks make up for it though, and despite wading through some atrocious rendering of Jewish patois, some of his dialect is very good and in tune. And enough of the book is in tune too to make it worth the trip.

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