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Alan Burns Biography

Nationality: British. Born: London, 1929. Education: The Merchant Taylors' School, London; Middle Temple, London: called to the bar, 1956. Military Service: Served in the Royal Army Education Corps, 1949-51. Career: Barrister in London, 1956-59; research assistant, London School of Economics, 1959; assistant legal manager, Beaverbrook Newspapers, London, 1959-62; Henfield fellow, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1971; senior tutor in creative writing, Western Australian Institute of Technology, South Bentley, 1975; Arts Council writing fellow, City Literary Institute, London, 1976; associate professor and professor of English, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1977-91. Since 1992, lecturer, Creative Writing Department, Lancaster University, England. Awards: Arts Council grant, 1967, 1969, and bursary, 1969, 1973; C. Day Lewis fellowship, 1973; Bush Foundation Arts fellowship, 1984. Agent: Diana Tyler, MBA Literary Agents Ltd., 45 Fitzroy St., London W1P 5HR, England.



Buster, in New Writers One. London, Calder, 1961; published separately, New York, Red Dust, 1972.

Europe after the Rain. London, Calder, 1965; New York, Day, 1970.

Celebrations. London, Calder and Boyars, 1967.

Babel. London, Calder and Boyars, 1969; New York, Day, 1970.

Dreamerika! A Surrealist Fantasy. London, Calder and Boyars, 1972.

The Angry Brigade: A Documentary Novel. London, Allison andBusby, 1973.

The Day Daddy Died. London, Allison and Busby, 1981.

Revolutions of the Night. London, Allison and Busby, 1986.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Wonderland," in Beyond the Words. London, Hutchinson, 1975.


Palach, with Charles Marowitz (produced London, 1970). Published in Open Space Plays, edited by Marowitz, London, Penguin, 1974.


To Deprave and Corrupt: Technical Reports of the United States Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. London, Davis Poynter, 1972.

The Imagination on Trial: British and American Writers Discuss Their Working Methods, with Charles Sugnet. London, Allison and Busby, 1981.


Critical Study:

Article by David W. Madden, in British Novelists since 1960 edited by Jay L. Halio, Detroit, Gale, 1983.

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Alan Burns's novels deserve the attention of serious readers. The first, Europe after the Rain, taking its title from a painting by Max Ernst, established him as a kind of infra-realist. Set in the unspecified future in a Europe devastated by internecine strife within "the party," it deals with ruined figures in a ruined landscape, purposelessly dedicated to "the work" which is the only thing the party will reward with the food necessary to keep alive. The unnamed narrator alone possesses any genuine purpose. His quest to find and take care of the daughter of the Trotskyite leader of the rebel forces is inspired by something like love, doubtfully implicit in his actions, later developed into a statement of hope which comes as the one redeeming human fact in a world blasted beyond the usual trappings of humanity, but arrived at only after much violence: a woman is flogged, a dog stabbed and its legs dislocated, people fight over corpses for the gold fillings in the teeth, a leg is wrenched off a corpse and eaten by a woman, other women pursue and stone and half-crucify and eventually beat to death the commander of the forces who are in power at the book's beginning. To this nightmarish action Burns applies a style which may be described as burnt-out. His sentences are mostly short, or built up of short phrases resting on commas where one might have expected full-stops, the total effect being slipped, stripped, and abrupt.

Celebrations is similarly uncompromising, with six characters and seven funerals. Williams, boss of a factory, has two sons, Michael and Phillip, whom he dominates. A hero to himself, Williams is a most uncertain personality, inconstant in his psychological attributes, extravagant in behavior which is nevertheless always reported in the same flat and colorless prose. Phillip's death, following an accident which necessitates the amputation of his leg, leaves an even sharper taste of doubt in the reader's mind—for while it throws his father and his brother into grim rivalry for the attention of his widow, Jacqueline, these affairs are chronicled with such irony that they hardly seem to occur. All the time, it appears, we are meant to be reminded of Kierkegaard's dictum, "The thought of death condenses and intensifies life," as Burns piles violence on violence, and funeral on funeral, abbreviating whole lives to a tapestry of gesture.

With Babel Burns seemed to have reached a dead end, though it confirms him in his role as infra-realist, anti-poet, steely perceiver of disconnections, writing as though he looks down on the rest of us from a private spaceship in unwilling orbit. Here he has assembled an ice-cold report on a world in chaos, stitching together clichés from the newspapers, fragments of misunderstood conversation, a babble of jokes and warnings. The cunningly fragmented styles owe too much to Burroughs and Ballard, and the comedy cannot quite conceal something merely self-disgusted in such furious insistence on unmeaning.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction devoted its Summer 1997 issue to Burns. Among the articles was a 1994 interview, conducted through the mail, with David Madden. The two discussed Burns's books, his influences, and his beliefs in a wide-ranging series of discussions that took in subjects ranging from James Joyce to the DDay anniversary celebrations then taking place.

—Robert Nye

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