ABBA ABBA

Scope and Content

This series contains papers relating to Burgess's translation and adaptation of the sonnets of Giuseppe Gioachino Belli.

See also AB/ARCH/K/13: Notebook/diary, dated 1974-1977.

Administrative / Biographical History

First published in 1977, the novel ABBA ABBA describes an imaginary encounter in Rome between the dying poet, John Keats, and Giuseppe Giacchino Belli, a Vatican censor and writer of anti-authoritarian sonnets in the Roman dialect. Burgess divides the book into two parts: the first describes the fictional meeting between Keats and Belli, and the second (originally titled Belli's Blasphemous Bible / A Bible for Blasphemers) contains translations of over 70 of Belli's sonnets. The sonnets were translated and adapted by Burgess, with the help of Susan Roberts, and they are framed within the novel as being the work of an imagined translator J. J. Wilson.

Burgess was introduced to Belli possibly as early as the late 1960s, and he went on to describe the poet in his autobiography as “one of the three major revelations of my late life.” He had, it seems, originally intended to produce a stand-alone volume of Belli translations and developed ABBA ABBA as a means of making a small proportion of Belli’s output (of 2279 sonnets) accessible to a wider audience: “The seventy-odd Belli sonnets which I had translated for the second half of the book (and which cunning critics saw were the justification for the first half) had taken more man-hours than I cared to count.” The appeal of the project was, Burgess explained, largely linguistic, the challenge of rendering the Roman dialect into Lancashire English. Burgess focussed almost entirely on translating poems with a religious theme, giving “full scope to the employment of the blasphemy of the Roman gutters” and it's likely that his choice was in part informed by his use of a selection of Belli made by Pietro Gibellini in La Bibbia del Belli, published in 1974.

Access Information

Records described as being in a fair or poor condition are available to researchers in consultation with the Archivist.

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

The majority of records within this series are in a fair condition, with the exception of one item in a poor condition

Related Material

Two copies of Pietro Gibellini's La Bibbia del Belli (1974), annotated by Burgess and his wife, Liana, form part of the library collection at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, along with a number of other books relating to Belli.

For home-recordings (on audio-cassette) of Burgess, Liana, and Susan Roberts reciting Belli, please see the audio collection.