Alan Burns - The narrative is enveloped in ambiguity--the setting is vague though universal, the characters are unnamed, the motives underlying behavior are often opaque, and the temporal period could be anytime. The reader travels with the narrator-protagonist on an initially undefined journey through a warravaged landscape

Alan Burns, Babel. Marion Boyars, 1967.

Babel is a completely original treatment of our contemporary confusion of tongues, characterised by extreme contrasts of mood and style with startling, often shocking surrealist juxtapositions of images and ideas. World events are constantly fragmented and reset into patterns which reveal the Babel myth as the tragedy of all attempts to construct a stellar utopia.

Mr. Burns, the author of two well-received novels in England, protests against the multiplying 'verbiage that fragments more than it structures contemporary realities. His present work is a collage of aural assaults capsizing metaphors, slogans, argot, allegory and catch-all naming into thoughts of one or two lines to a paragraph. The author hammers away at his point in the construction of sounds that substitute for meaning and evolve into their own absurd and self-sufficient existence: ""Unnatural wealth is a green fog, the heart seems interior, cathedrals on cliffs like brave omelettes blast the town to bits."" One of the more comprehensible capsules quotes a theme-conscious filmmaker, starring God in his ""power-movie"" and hoping to ""purchase reality"": ""We're in a competitive situation and people have an idea one way, sexing up the scenes, mixing up the races, going too fast and claiming to play the game with the story of what is happening."" The confusion of tongues (200) includes Minnie Mouse, Mrs. Kennedy, Billy Graham and Noel Coward, not to mention the less than silent majority of waitresses, drunks, madmen, models, sailors, soldiers, burglars and baby minders. A limited cerebral audiovisual exercise. - Kirkus Reviews


Alan Burns, Europe After the Rain, Marion Boyars, 1967.

Europe After The Rain is a disturbing book, a creation and, no doubt for many people, a re-creation of the nightmare of utter devastation, of hope, of complete disillusionment and of re-affirmation. The author has taken his title from a painting by Max Ernst but the connection between the two works is far more complex. The painting prophetically depicts a vision of rampant destruction close to that which has become a terrifying reality in modern times. Alan Burns, taking the theme to its logical conclusion, shows man not merely trying to come to terms with desolation but combating human cruelty with that resilience of spirit without which survival, both physical and moral, would be impossible.
The narrator is engaged in an arduous search for a girl. The 'Europe' through which he travels is a devastated world, twisted and misshapen both geographically and morally. Life and death are curiously intermingled with fear the motive force of men and women expressed through a cupidity and violence which takes on much more than a physical significance. The narrator brings an interested apathy to the horrific events he is forced to witness but never succumbs to complete despair or an easy cynicism. The book ends with a profound experience in love but the initial vision, original and deeply personal, is never marred by sentimentality.
Alan Burns has succeeded in presenting a picture of his age, has captured with disturbing realism what well may be the 'collective unconscious' of the twentieth century. And he has done this in a language that can have few rivals for economy, beauty and rhythm. His austere sentences glow with intelligence, colour and force. 

"... a writer of real originality and horrifying imaginative power, a writer to be watched, a writer to be read ... the whole effect being bare, clipped, stripped, staccato, superbly abrupt. 1 got the impression of a colossal book, another "War and Peace", boiled down and boiled down until only the bones, the essence, the heart remain ... This is a nerve-wracking book, ghoulishly successful in touching the reader where it hurts." The Scotsman 

"Everyone interested in literary experiment should read Europe After the Rain. It is unique." Financial Times
"... a remarkable achievement." Queen 

". . . the unforgettable immediacy of a nightmare ... His experiment works and out of his brazen chaos emerges a still small human voice." Irish Times

Alan Burns, Day Daddy Died, Allison & Busby, 1981.

Alan Burns, Dreamerika!, Marion Boyars, 1972.

Review of Contemporary Fiction issue

A Conversation with Alan Burns By David W. Madden

I first came to Alan Burns's fiction accidentally. Professor Jay Halio, who was editing a section of the Dictionary of Literary Biography on contemporary British novelists, invited me to contribute an article. Searching through a list of thirty-five or so names, I came across Burns and began reading Europe after the Rain. I had recently been reading such American writers as John Hawkes, John Barth, Jerzy Kosinski, and Donald Barthleme; Burns struck me as a British writer working from a similar aesthetic sensibility, and I was immediately drawn to the world of this novel. I quickly read his other works and established a correspondence that has now lasted fifteen years.
In the introduction to The Imagination on Trial Charles Sugnet remarks on a prevailing American attitude about modern British fiction: "that it remains traditional, nostalgic, even stodgy. If you are an American undergraduate interested in `serious' or `experimental' fiction, your instructors will direct you to French works ... and certain North Americans ... and the Latin Americans. . . ."(1) Burns has never been one of these so-called "stodgy," predictable, traditional British novelists. In fact, when asked if he saw himself as an English novelist in the tradition of the English novel, Burns responded, "I'm more interested certainly in the European novel and in the Russian novel, insofar as those terms have any meaning ...."(2) In fact in a letter to me he cited as important influences Tolstoy, Neruda, Brecht, Pasternak, Woolf, Ionesco, Shaw, and Arthur Miller.
Since the publication of his first novel, Burns has been regarded as among British fiction's most avant-garde writers with the likes of B. S. Johnson, Eva Figes, Ann Quin, Wilson Harris, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Michael Moorcock. However, Burns did not burst on the London literary scene immediately after emerging from the university, nor did his education suggest a later career as a writer. By his own account his education was "average middle class.... I was quite bright but also eccentric, called by some `Batty Burns.' I went to a middle-range public school, Merchant Taylors' School," where he first studied science and then at "15 switched to Classics, not Greek, but Latin, plus History and English."(3) At this time he made a few contributions to student magazines but wrote little, slowly, with difficulty. From 1949 to 1951 he served in the Royal Army Education Corps. After, working as a clerk and traveling through Europe, his father persuaded him to study law, and he became a barrister in 1956. He did courtroom work for a while but gave this up in favor of acting as a libel lawyer for Reynolds News. In 1959 he spent a year as a researcher at the London School of Economics and then became a libel lawyer at Beaverbrook newspapers.
A signal incident in his development as a writer occurred one day when Burns was walking down Carey Street on a lunch break and he saw a silver frame for sale [in a jeweler's window] and in the frame a photograph of a youngish couple kissing, embracing. It was a sweet photo, rather old-fashioned, probably from the `thirties, and it rang a bell because I'd seen a similar photo in the family album, of my father and mother kissing on their honeymoon in Monte Carlo, with orange trees in the background. I had long wanted to write about my parents and the love between them and the not-love between them but I didn't know where to start. At that moment I realized I needn't tackle their psychology or their histories, I could start with a picture. I discovered the power of the image.... And that became a starting point for my first book, Buster. (Imagination on Trial 161, 163)
The incident was significant for providing not only a subject and theme (the dynamics of familial relations) but a personal approach for the creation of fiction. Although later novels would not evolve so clearly from a single event or image, the power of an image does figure in all of his works, and the element of serendipitous discovery becomes increasingly important.

When compared with his later novels, Buster (1961) seems rather straightforward. The narrative advances through a series of incidents in the life of protagonist Dan Graveson who loses his mother and beloved older brother at a young age (as had Burns as well). Although a bright young man full of promise, Graveson cannot find his way in the world and fails at each new undertaking until he is homeless and penniless. The novel has all the attributes of the Angry Young Man literature of its era; however, it also acts as a precursor to later Burns novels. Besides the domestic theme, the novel is constructed around an episodic plot that is propelled by a mad rush of incidents that capture, with often minute precision, the fine details of situation, scene, or emotion. One curious incident involves an eccentric essay the protagonist composes about Samuel Johnson which provokes the ire of his teachers. The piece is a foreshadowing of the surreal effects Burns would develop more fully later; however, the Johnson essay actually springs from an unexpectedly early incident. "`Johnson in the Modern Eye,' the essay on p. 90 of Buster (in the US edition) was originally written by me aged 16 and published in the school magazine! You can see how early I was playing about with words and styles."(4)
At this point there was little to suggest the startling direction that his fiction would take with the publication of Europe after the Rain, a novel that may remind one of Hawkes's The Cannibal though there was no line of influence between the two. Taking its title from a Max Ernst painting, the novel attempts to take fiction in the direction of a surrealist painting. The narrative is enveloped in ambiguity--the setting is vague though universal, the characters are unnamed, the motives underlying behavior are often opaque, and the temporal period could be anytime. The reader travels with the narrator-protagonist on an initially undefined journey through a warravaged landscape as he tries to penetrate behind the lines of combat to the camp of the insurgents. The reasons for the conflict remain obscure as is his mission, though he represents the conscience of the narrative and is the one character who appears above the fray, until he decides that the aging commander must be assassinated.
An air of illogic pervades all actions and much of the dialogue. Ardent patriots are double agents, macho commanders are actually feeble old men, and police control revolutionaries--in short, the usual expectations do not pertain, and the reader is constantly forced to redefine characters and the fictional universe until all frames of reference have been dissolved. The narrator warns the reader that he has discovered "the new human mind,"(5) a vicious sensibility given to endless suspicion and ruthless vengeance.
Europe after the Rain is furthermore important for the way it continues Burns's fascination with history as a source for fiction. In an interview years ago he remarked that he had made the novel "out of the concentration camps"(6); however, when I asked where the camps were in the novel, he corrected himself:
I did not read (don't think I could have found it possible to read) books on Polish concentration camps. The "Polish" source was a journalist's book on post-war Poland. The nearest I got to the "truth" was the Nuremburg transcript [I had found] ... I was going for--or was drawn into--another form of ambiguity. I did not want, was not capable of, journalistic accuracy, I was interested in something a lot hazier, yet composed of razor sharp details, splinters of fact. I've talked elsewhere of the landscape painter not staring but wrinkling his eyes and squinting at the landscape. "Hazy" is probably not quite right, because I was going for the precise imagery of Kafka which produces a floating sensation and suggests a kind of universality along with its specificity. It is of course that precious "quality of dream."(7)
The effect is a landscape of the imagination that has all the appearance and texture of nearly any war-ravaged place the audience may have witnessed. The "razor sharp details" give the otherwise elliptical situation a staggering palpability, and the reader is forced to balance the haziness of a hallucination with the hard particularities of a lived experience.
Celebrations (1967), on the surface, appears to be a return to the subject matter of Buster. Burns turns away from an exploration of history to examine a family that has slipped its moorings. One is introduced to a group of men who all work at the family business, a factory. Williams, the father, is employer and supervisor of his sons' lives--professional, emotional, and psychic--son Phillip dies early in the plot, and the other son, the more crafty and capable Michael, pursues Phillip's none-too-bereaved wife, Jacqueline. Family solidarity and support give way to predatory competition. Michael may have arranged Phillip's accident, and Williams quickly regards Michael as an annoying obstacle in his own pursuit of Jacqueline.
For all its surface similarities to Buster, the novel is actually a perfect bridge between the subject matter of the first work and the style of the second. The narrative progresses in a consistent fashion from the death of Phillip, to the competitive courtship of Jacqueline, Michael's marriage to her, her infidelity with Williams, Michael's rise in influence at the factory, Williams's decline in stature and death, and Michael's sudden death on a street. However, the steady progression of family chronicle is punctuated by surreal interruptions of the placid or predictable. "Whatever he was made of fell to pieces. He felt cold. The end of the life was the sound of yellow, rattling across the floor." "The judges retired to consider their verdict. The two drank the thin white wine, the green and tasty stomachs stood on the polished table, their wigs and hats on the convenient shelf, each day a brandy in a balloon."(8) Passages like these, of course, startle the reader, but they also convey emphatically a mood or atmosphere that is precise and supportive of the plot and characterizations.
The novel is significant as well for presaging the risks Burns would take with his "cut-up" method of composition. He has evolved his own form of Burroughs's technique in that he will gather odd fragments of material, cut and divide these, and then reassemble them into new and original verbal arrangements. Celebrations reveals the oscillations between Burns's desire to tell a story and to disrupt and undermine those traditional methods to accentuate the hidden relationships and unrealized possibilities in the narrative. As he commented, the novel "grew from a mosaic of fragments written with no concern for the ultimate plot connections. . . . In a succession of rewrites I pulled the pieces together."(9)
Emboldened by the critical success of Celebrations and wishing to push his cut-up method further, Burns published Babel in 1969, a novel that is his most experimental and, not surprisingly, least popular. In a letter Burns described his mosaic method as similar to Baudelaire's "Ragpicker" and to Schwitters's tram tickets and explained that "`any old junk' can form the raw material, in which I find the words, phrases and images that build into the novel."(10) He included in that letter a section from a nonfictional work in progress, "Art by Accident," which analyzes the methods and effects of aleatoric art; in that study he quotes at length the techniques of Baudelaire and Schwitters:
Baudelaire's "Ragpicker": "Everything that the big city threw away, everything it lost, everything it despised, everything it crushed underfoot, he catalogues and collects. . . . He sorts things out and makes a wise choice; he collects, like a miser guarding a treasure, the refuse which will assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess of Industry." And Schwitters who declared: I don't see why one shouldn't use in a picture, just as one uses colours made by paint merchants, things like old tram tickets, scraps of driftwood, cloak-room tickets, ends of string, bicycle wheel spokes--in a word, all the old rubbish you find in dustbins or refuse dumps."(11)
The notion of a free-ranging assemblage of all manner of materials is certainly obvious in the mosaic of subjects treated in Burns's narrative.
However, Burns was also searching to discover new stylistic possibilities for his fiction. Sentences no longer merely contain surreal images that convey a spirit of illogic or add a sense of texture to an incident. Babel abounds with sentences that not only challenge perception but that disrupt the expectations of syntax. "After a time he knifed her in the kitchen, between the counter and the machine, as the fork water turned dreadful, the noise from the machine as from eight women, trays of dregs of purplish colour full of the whirring fan continually in fever."(12) He has explained that "the quality I wanted was that not only the narrative but also the sentences were fragmented. I used the cut-up method to join the subject from one sentence to the object from another, with the verb hovering uncertainly between" ("Essay" 66).
As the title suggests, the novel is a panoply of voices and characters, all demanding their place in the narrative, struggling to enunciate their uniqueness, yet together overwhelming the reader and leading to a sense of cacophony and confusion. The Duke of Windsor, bolsheviks, the Queen, a Scottish sexologist, Billy Graham, General Westmoreland, Dylan Thomas, and a host of others crowd one another and fulfill Andy Warhol's dictum that each will have his or her fifteen minutes of significance. Yet in spite of the confusion and conflicting demands on the reader's attention, the novel does have a thematic center, and once again the concern with the coercive abuses of power is foremost: "it was about the power of the State. How in every street, every room, every shop, every workplace, every school, every institution, and particularly in every family, the essential pattern of power relations is dictated by the underlying rules, assumptions and moral principles of the State" ("Essay" 66).
In the same year Burns wrote his play, Palach (1974), as a result of a challenge by producer Charles Marowitz, and it can be seen as a perfect complement to Babel in subject and technique. It concerns the self-immolation of a Czech university student, Jan Palach, who protested the Soviet invasion of his country in 1969. Once again the theme of authority destroying freedom and individuality is foremost in the play, though in this case Palach has some limited choice in his own destruction. He and fellow students decide to draw straws to determine who among them will make their protest, and Palach, of course, loses. The idea of a young person being sacrificed for the sins of adults is furthermore consistent with incidents in Burns's other works.
Perhaps because he was not an experienced dramatist, Burns felt free to invent his method of exposition as he saw fit. To that end the play used a unique setting, with four separate stages on which actions took place simultaneously. The four stages, which surrounded the audience, were connected by planks that emptied into a central platform, and actors wandered among these areas throughout the performance. At the same time large speakers were placed throughout the theater to project voices, sounds, sometimes blaring noises that engulfed the audience and the performance. Once again the idea of a cacophony of sounds that compete with one another dominated the production.
The cut-up method continues in Burns's fifth novel, Dreamerika! (1972). Stung by the harsh critical reactions to Babel and seeking a new narrative technique, Burns sought to write a different kind of novel. "Babel had gone to unrepeatable extremes in the fragmentation of narrative, now I latched on to the story of the Kennedys whose characters and activities gave the reader easy reference points to help him through a sea of disparate images. I played hell with the documented facts, made crazy distortions of the alleged truth, in order to get some humour out of it, and also to raise questions about the nature of documentary realism" ("Essay" 67).
Once again the theme of power, corruption, and the tensions of family life are foregrounded. The Kennedys are presented as paradigmatic examples of modern coercion and corruption, as the narrative traces their rise to prominence from Joseph P.'s financial manipulations to JFK's presidency and assassination, the 1967 march on the Pentagon, RFK's rise and fall, Ted's collapse, Jackie's marriage to Onassis, and finally the children who inherit a destructive legacy. As he charts the varying fortunes of the family, Burns surveys the topography of postwar America to find a landscape as battered and tom as that in Europe after the Rain.
Arranged in chapters, which Babel was not, the narrative still relies on abrupt transitions and odd shifts in subject. To announce more dramatically the cut-up technique, the novel employs offset litho printing that highlights the wild assemblage of clippings that comprise the chapter and section headings--"Do you Hunt? ... .. The Day a Judge Was Duped," "Odd farrago of ritual and allegory." Arranged in different fonts and typesets, these cuttings have the look and feel of the British tabloids that scream their headlines and titillate the reader with hints of sensational stories.
However, on the sentence level, the narrative is far more straightforward than Babel. The effect is much closer to that of Celebrations, whereby the patriarch, for instance, is referred to as a man who "grew richer than himself.... He bought Boston for his children. He spread his name all over... He offered to buy America for seventeen billion dollars and received assurances that the government would move out as their leases expired .... In adding to his millions Joe started selling members of his family . . . . He discovered that blood was cheap: he sold the heart and the head."(13) The subtitle--"A Surrealist Fantasy"--is as much a preemptive protection against a possible libel suit as it is a terse explanation of the novel's sensibility. The reaction of reviewers, as had been the case with Babel, was impatient and dismissive, with complaints of heavy-handedness, bitter satire, and cruelty.
With his next novel, The Angry Brigade (1973), Burns returned to history for his subject, but the work otherwise bears little resemblance to its predecessors. Responding to the reactions to his last efforts, Burns "gave up writing from the subconscious, making a mosaic of found pieces. I had written four books that way and the fun had gone out of it" ("Essay" 67). Instead of cuttings and combing through newspapers and magazines for fragments, Burns turned to a tape recorder to gather the raw material for this novel.
Like Babel it is a collection of voices, not a random and compendious assemblage but a collection of six narrators who alternate in the telling of their individual and collective tales. The six are imagined members of an actual small-scale guerilla movement responsible for some bombings which was labeled the Angry Brigade by Scotland Yard. Burns did interview some far-left radicals and a number of his friends, but he did not contact the members of the so-called Angry Brigade. While he had experimented with a subjective narrator in Europe after the Rain, this is the first of his novels to explore the possibilities of multiple narrators. The six are depicted as profoundly different people, with varying ethnic, educational, political, and emotional backgrounds. Their political motives are likewise often personal and highly individual, some acting for craven and others quite pure and noble motives. Reviewers and critics either criticized the novel or praised it for revealing the limitations of these political neophytes; however, Burns has admitted to a far different objective: "I had a natural sympathy with the group's aims, and even, though to a lesser extent, with their methods. They were, inevitably, portrayed in the press as psychopaths and hoodlums. I wanted to correct this version of red-baiting, by showing the true process of radicalization, or, to put it more punchily, what drove them to it."(14)
The collage effect is maintained by the frequent shifts between voices; however, the method of those reflections is the most syntactically traditional since Buster. Burns does a masterful job of creating a sense of immediacy between the reader and the individual speakers who offer their reflections in a conversational manner. In an interview conducted a short time after the publication of Babel Burns commented on his extreme technique at that time: "With cut-up techniques, it is possible to achieve an immediacy which was not possible under the tyranny of syntax.... This is a way of achieving simultaneity--to have one sentence implying many things, pointing in all sorts of directions."(15) With The Angry Brigade and the multiple narrators, however, he managed to maintain the sense of immediacy and simultaneity while moving away from the kinds of grammatical experiments he now found unworkable.
Up to this point Burns had been living in London and existing on the proceeds from books and a succession of Arts Council grants and fellowships at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, and the Woodberry Down School in London. In 1975 he left England to become a senior tutor in creative writing at the Western Australia Institute of Technology in South Bentley, Australia. There he taught fiction writing and oversaw a production of Palach, and he intended to remain, until he was lured back to London the next year with an Arts Council Fellowship at the City Literary Institute. In 1977 he accepted a professorship at the University of Minnesota, where he met and married his second wife, and they had a daughter, his third child. He remained there until 1990, when he returned to England and became head of the Department of Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster. Asked why he left the States after remaining so long, he responded:
my connection with the States was never solid and uninterrupted. I also had very strong reservations about the US political setup. Great country to have a good job in, hell if not. On the buses I saw Dickensian poverty, faces and bodies mutilated by bad diet and living conditions.... I was appalled by the desecration of that beautiful land. (Air-conditioned nightmare.) And so on. Your questions also make me ponder what are the things that make an environment, that distinguish one country from another ... voices come first, I think, those unfamiliar accents got on my nerves ... more the timbre than the accent maybe. Finally just to say that it was those years of kinda exile that made me discover how English I felt, my delight at being here, the greens, the way folks are with each other--not to idealise, the same lousy Tory lot in power, think the English upper classes are even more obnoxious than your rotten gang, but there it is, stop there.(16)
With The Day Daddy Died (1981) Burns returned to the domestic theme, this time in the figure of Norah, an indomitable working-class woman whose life is one long fight against forces that would exploit or just as soon annihilate her. She is orphaned early in her life and in adulthood seeks a surrogate father in a succession of men. In spite of her poverty she manages to raise five children in the first of Burns's fictional families to achieve some sense of cohesiveness and mutual affection. The story evolves in a fairly linear fashion, moving from Norah's childhood to adulthood; however, Burns returns to his surrealist practices in a pair of ways. Whenever Norah is overwhelmed by especially traumatic events in her life, the narrative shifts to the type of surrealist imagery found in Celebrations. "His daughter in his room was slender, miniature, soft, long skin, marked neck, her little cat-show smile. Her thick lashes were in the room and could not get out. Her poor father was ready for the archives now. He finished hot when she looked at him, he glanced as the kitten showed her claw."(17) Just as quickly as the narrative moves into these surrealistic passages, it shifts back to a realist mode of sharp details and carefully delineated characters.
The collage method reappears in a series of highly evocative photo montages by Ian Breakwell. The first of these, which introduces chapter 1, is the picture of a man in a suit whose face has been replaced by a large fist. A group of three others are fragments of a single photo of a little girl with a man standing behind her, his large, muscular hands resting on her shoulders. First the reader sees the left shoulder and hand, next the right shoulder and other hand, and finally the full shot with the child's face obscured by a third hand superimposed over her features. The effect is a perfect complement to the feelings of enclosure and suffocation Norah experiences over her absent father. The fifteen other collages further provide an emotional context for the action or startling counterpoints to events.
Although the novel is related in the terse, truncated style of earlier fictions, the experiment with multiple narrators surfaces again in a series of brief letters of those closest to Norah, which awkwardly grope their way toward communication, though their evasions and half-truths speak more tellingly than their declarations. This use of the epistolary allows the narrator to fill in gaps created by the highly selective presentation of details and thus to join often disparate elements into a cohesive pattern of exposition.
The same year, Burns also published The Imagination on Trial (1982), co-authored with University of Minnesota colleague Charles Sugnet. The work is a collection of interviews with eight British (J. G. Ballard, Eva Figes, Wilson Harris, B. S. Johnson, Tom Mallin, Michael Moorcock, Alan Sillitoe, and Burns himself) and four American novelists (John Gardner, John Hawkes, Grace Paley, and Ishmael Reed). The discussions, conducted between 1973 and 1979, center on the fictional methods and concerns of the writers, with special attention given to defining the ways in which ideas are implanted and then germinate in the artist's mind. The collection offers the rare opportunity to read interviews with writers conducted by a writer himself, and Burns reveals himself to be keenly aware of the variety of impulses, influences, and techniques that lead to a finished work. He has the ability often to ask exactly the right question of each person. He is by turns encouraging with cooperative subjects and persistent with reluctant ones, with the results being insightful and often quite forthright. Each interview is preceded by a photograph and a brief bio-bibliographical sketch, and despite occasional evasions and bits of humbug, nearly all the figures offer many cogent remarks about their own work and the state of contemporary fiction in general. Discussions range over a host of subjects--working methods, inspirations for individual books, attitudes about audience and reviewers, and individual methods of composition--however, a repeated inquiry involves the role of dreams and dreaming in fictional creation. In Sugnet's interview with Burns, he admits that the unconscious and dreams play major roles in his work, but the exact importance these have in his fiction he explains in a manual he distributes to students in his creative writing classes.
The major part of the writer's raw material comes not from the conscious but from the unconscious mind. That's the treasure-trove. There we find our deepest feelings, and images of particular originality and power. Writers in touch with their unconscious minds are onto a good thing. But how to do that? There are many ways, but Freud's "royal road to the unconscious" is through dreams. . . . In considering dreams, we are getting close to that movement in the arts called "surrealism." I have always thought that the key bit of that word is "realism." The content of dreams illustrates this nicely. They are generally made up of everyday objects: tables, chairs, boats, trees, rivers, recognizable people ... solid, real, made of flesh or wood. Yet there is a deep contradiction between their apparent solidity, and the sense of precariousness, of uncertainty, that pervades them.... And that is a marvelous effect for the fiction writer to aim at. We must deal with the real life around us. But we should also share our awareness that the ordinary always carries with it the potential for the extraordinary.... There does appear to be a common language in dreams. If we can tap into that language, evoke it, speak it, we should be able to touch our readers at a deep, unconscious level--the more intriguing and powerful because it is only half understood by them and by us.(18)
The possibilities for the unconscious, dreams, and surrealism are clearly manifested in his next novel, Revolutions of the Night, another novel that takes its title from an Ernst painting. In fact the last chapter, which is highly surreal and confusing, is actually a tribute to Ernst.
The ruined town was like a continent after the flood. Masses of masonry and metal towered over rivers of bones and boulders, the trunks of trees, broken pipes and pylons, drains, poles, pillars, ladders, scaffolding, monumental gravestones, rusted machinery, worn-out engines, the rotting skins of animals and shreds of cloth, the skull of a buffalo, the skull of a horse, a siege of herons, a clamour of rooks, statues of princes mounted or on foot, an abandoned gantry, skeletal remains of old canoes, antlers, bedsteads, rafters, flowering heaps of rotten fruit, collections of corsets, an avalanche of carcasses, burning docks, a fairground, a forest, a quarry, an open-cast mine, an ocean bed, a lone pinnacle of bone.... A man in skins, with the head of an emu, turned towards an armless girl, wisps of hair beneath her hat.(19)
A close look at Ernst's Europe after the Rain reveals that this is a rather specific, detailed description of that painting, and throughout the novel Burns provides verbal renderings of other Ernst paintings. Thus his most recent novel comes full circle with one of his earliest and asserts a renewed commitment to the vision that has informed his entire career.
Once again the theme of family is prominent as another mother dies and is replaced by her husband's paramour. The children, Hazel and Harry, are emotionally cast adrift, first into an incestuous relationship, then Hazel off to an older capitalist named Bob, whom she throws from a hot air balloon, and Harry to a cocktail waitress named Louise. Eventually the siblings light out for the territory and enjoy a brief pastoral idyll in a cabin on the edges of civilization. However, pastoral calm is ultimately disrupted when invaders murder Hazel and threaten Harry's life.
In his closing description of Ernst's Europe after the Rain Burns notes that "caught between two pillars was a youth, blindfolded and gagged" (Revolutions 163). This image of a young person caught between implacable forces is a perfect leitmotif for all of Burns's fictions. In each of his works the young are sacrificed for the idiocy and obsessions of their elders, yet they yearn, even battle for, a freedom that is rarely achieved. The connection among dreams, surrealism, and the yearning for freedom Burns explains in this way: "we are free in our dreams. Not only free, but we are expressing those deep impulses that, if unleashed, are upsetting to the social order. And anything that expresses the essence of our free selves is itself subversive and dangerous to the hierarchy and the settled order. That's what my books are about. I hope to share that, to push it."(20)
Currently Burns is at work on four separate nonfictional projects. "Art by Accident" is nearly completed and ready for publication. This is a study of aleatoric art, where the creator, by design or chance, has allowed the forces of hazard to determine the end of the artistic process. The book is amazing for its wide range of references and for its multidisciplinary approach; novelists, poets, painters, composers, etc., are all represented and together the work shows a spirit of mutual dependence and influence among these media.
A second work, a fragment of which appears in this issue, is a biography of close friend and colleague, novelist B. S. Johnson, who committed suicide in 1973. In "Human Like the Rest of Us" Burns tries to capture the diversity of Johnson's personality, moods, and effects on others through a host of sources, assembled in a fashion that reminds one of Burns's fictional dependance on fragments, a method that is always deeply personal for him. "The fragmentation in my work seems absolutely grounded in my own experience of the world. One sees fragmentation duplicated and reduplicated: for example, in the fragmentation of the modern family.... the fragmentation of the personality, schizophrenia being the fashionable disease; the blessed fragmentation of empires; and, beneath, around, and above it all the fragmentation of the atom which is the basis of our physical world" (Gillen 11).
A second biography, provisionally entitled "Gangster," examines the experiences of a convict named Frank Cook who has spent most of his adult life in prison. At age thirty-eight Cook began sculpting in prison and showed such promise that two of his works have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Gallery in New York. Burns's approach is not an attempt at an apologia for Cook's offenses; both convict and biographer are quick to reveal the scope of his vicious past, but Cook is nevertheless humanized by the close inspection of his life and motives.
The fourth work, "Imaginary Dictionary," a portion of which is also presented in this issue, Burns sent me with the explanation that it "is my real voice, the one I have fun with ... it creates a truer picture of the kind of writer I am."(21) As the extract printed here reveals, Burns devised a dictionary of whimsy, wherein words come alive, take on characteristics of their own, unhinged from the uses and expectations of readers. Definitions appear as verse, suggesting perhaps that poetry is the natural medium of words, and many of these poems are concrete presentations, such as the evocative "Ocean." This method underscores his stated objective that "it's poetry I'm after, and the vision that is a poet's rather than the extremely interesting and intelligent ideas of intelligent men, as Orwell and Huxley were. But neither of them was a poet. And neither of them had the real vision" (Firchow 53). Burns is also at work on a novel tentatively entitled "Brothers," which involves the brothers Wright, Grimm, Karamazov, Kennedy, and Marx and which is born in part from his being one of three brothers.
All the emphasis on fragmentation, the cut-up method, surreal disruptions, and wild juxtapositions may suggest rather inhospitable reading for many audiences. After all, Burns has admitted that he wants "to shock readers into a new awareness" (Gillen 12) and that he wants "to work more like a painter than a writer; place images side by side and let them say something uncertain and fluctuating. This work will not be literary and will not lead to discussion or redefinition, but simply exist--like a Magritte painting" (Kitchen 21). Remarks such as these may give the impression of a chaotic, undisciplined art, but nothing could be further from the truth. Burns has long resisted traditional notions of the novel and certainly rejects any idea of the genre as being a rigid genre with fixed conventions. "The great attraction of the novel," he has said, "lies in its search for form. The secret may lie in the word novel itself. If it's new, then it's novel" (Firchow 61). In other words, he sees the genre as an infinitely adaptable medium, one that can change and accommodate the changing nature of a writer and the audience's perception. Burns has even nodded enthusiastically at John Hawkes's now famous dictum that plot, characterization, and the usual tools of the novelist's trade are pass6; however, his long-standing insistence that fiction catch up with painting suggests a common area of concern. Burns has admitted that he strives for "a picture in every line--I want to get a physical picture" (Firchow 59). Thus in his novels sentences often achieve a separate, independent existence one might expect of an individual scene or whole chapters, and nowhere is this more evident than in the highly concentrated method of Babel.

Burns is also a writer of strong ideological convictions who has remarked that he favors a "libertarian or anarchist state with a small 'a.' . . . [I]f you ask me what kind of society would I write for, then I could only envisage the kind of stateless society that the anarchists envisage, but, quite frankly, I don't see that as a practical possibility in my lifetime" (Firchow 56). While these convictions are deeply held and extend back into his adolescence, Burns has never been didactic or hortatory. In fact, his political beliefs and aesthetic predilections inform a deeply humanist perspective found in each of his works. "It sounds pathetic--this avant-garde novelist wanting to change the world--but I do, I simply want to leave it a little bit better."(22) Burns insists that readers look unflinchingly at the ways that individuals are destroyed to satisfy greed, competition, and authoritarian control. When he asks i4s to view the humanity of the Angry Brigade, the senseless violence of Europe after the Rain, the megalomania of the Kennedys, or the hysteria of a society lost in a welter of the conflicting voices in Babel, Burns is not simply immersing the reader in gratuitous horrors but raising a voice of caution and pleading for an implicit alternative. As he explained over twenty-five years ago, "art has a certain function in befriending man, showing him that it is possible to venture into the empty spaces, as Beckett ventures, to chart one's journey to the most terrifying, imaginative limits, and after going to these ultimate places, to retain, still, one's essential humanity" (Hall 10).  - David W. Madden

Alan Burns
My brother, the author Alan Burns, who has died aged 83, was known to the literary world for his novels, described variously as experimental, surreal and avant garde. He was influenced by James Joyce and his contemporaries in years and style included Eva Figes, Michael Moorcock and BS Johnson.
The author Angus Wilson once called Alan "one of the two or three most interesting new novelists working in England". More recently, a character in Ian McEwan's 2012 spy thriller Sweet Tooth remarks, on seeing Alan's 1967 novel Celebrations on a bookshelf, that he was "by far the best experimentalist in the country".
Alan was born in London, the second of three sons of Harold and Annie, into a middle-class Jewish family. He told an American interviewer that he gave up religion when Annie died in 1944. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' school and from 1949 to 1951 did national service in the Royal Army Education Corps.
Alan was persuaded by our father to study law and he became a barrister in 1956. A socialist, he joined a leftwing chambers, did weekend work for Reynolds News and research for Professor WA Robson at the London School of Economics, and checked Beaverbrook Newspapers for libel. Responding to his true calling, he finally left the law for literature.
Alan's early novels, including Europe After the Rain in 1965, were published by John Calder, and later ones by Allison & Busby. However, it became clear that literature on the edge was too insecure. This led Alan to teach creative writing at the University of East Anglia and then overseas. By now divorced from his first wife, Carol, on his way to teach at the university in Perth, Australia, he met Jean Illien. They married when they moved to the US, where Alan taught at the University of Minnesota, and a daughter, Kathy, was born there in 1978. When the three returned to England, Alan taught at Lancaster University.
Jean died in 1998. After a spell living near me and my wife in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, Alan returned to London and moved in with Carol in Belsize Park, where he lived until his death.
She survives him, along with their son Danny and daughter Alshamsha, Kathy and six grandchildren. - Peter Burns http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/13/alan-burns-obituary


Buster, in New Writers One. London: John Calder, 1961; New York: Red Dust, 1972.
Europe after the Rain. London: John Calder, 1965; New York: John Day, 1970. Celebrations. London: Calder and Boyars, 1967.
Babel. London: Calder and Boyars, 1969; New York: John Day, 1970.
Dreamerika! London: Calder and Boyars, 1972.
The Angry Brigade. London: Allison and Busby, 1973.
The Day Daddy Died. London: Allison and Busby, 1981; New York: Allison and
Busby, 1981.
Revolutions of the Night. London: Allison and Busby, 1986; New York: Allison and Busby, 1986.

Palach. London: Penguin, 1974.

To Deprave and Corrupt. London: Davis Poynter, 1972.
With Charles Sugnet. The Imagination on Trial. London: Allison and Busby, 1982; New York: Allison and Busby, 1982.  

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