June 21, 2017
“A fat Franciscan made a throat-cutting gesture”: Anthony Burgess in Malta
by Ryan Harrington
The first new work by Anthony Burgess in twenty years is upon us. It’s not a lost novel, as fans of A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers might hope, but rather the text of a lecture on pornography that Burgess delivered in 1970 at the University of Malta.
As Bertrand Borg writes for the Times of Malta, when Maltese censors seized books from the iconic author’s library (which he was moving to the conservative Mediterranean island as part of his relocation from his native England), Burgess felt inspired to speak out on obscenity and censorship. He did so first in an interview with the Sunday Times of Malta, in which he asked the provocative question, “Is Malta in greater need of protection than Rome? Or are Malta’s faith and morality so shaky that they cannot resist the onslaught of new ideas?”
A few days later he delivered the speech—which has been published by the independent Pariah Press, based in Burgess’s native Manchester, to celebrate the author’s centenary (which fell last February)—to about 1,000 audience members, mostly Catholic clergy. As he advocated for the artistic merit of books he felt were wrongly classified as obscene (citing famous free speech texts like John Milton’s Aereopagitica), he looked into the audience to see that “a fat Franciscan made a throat-cutting gesture.” And the threat wasn’t entirely empty: when Burgess was on vacation in Italy, the Maltese government seized his home. He would never return to the island.
Burgess, a lifelong defender of banned books, died in 1993. Only in 2016 did the island’s censorship laws get a complete overhaul.
The Pariah edition of the lecture includes an introduction from notable second-wave feminist Germaine Greer, which serves as a counterpoint to Burgess’s point.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.