The Malta Independent 22 January 2021, Friday

OLIVER

Charles Flores Sunday, 29 November 2020, 10:36 Last update: about 3 months ago

Oliver Friggieri last wrote to me a mere three weeks prior to his sad demise. Not to complain about his lingering health issues. Nor to refer me, as he often did, to some new publication of his that was about to hit the market, always eagerly anticipated by most of us lovers of Maltese literature. Nor to make his usual kind comments on something I had written somewhere, in which case he was always insisting I kept up my contributions to the English language media where, he felt, upholders of the Maltese language were far too few.

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No, Oliver wrote in to ask for my help in assisting a fellow writer and poet realise a genuine, personal wish. Afflicted by ill health and still heavily committed to his literary and academic work, he still found time to tackle something that may seem trivial to the rest of us, but for him it was important to acknowledge an old friendship by actually taking things in hand and, in so doing, make that wish come true.

This was the Oliver I had known since way back in the mid-1960s when we got to know each other within a thriving, small group of innocent, moneyless, literary wannabes who randomly met in Valletta’s more popular cafes to discuss books, social and political issues of the period and exchange hand-written works for mutual criticism. The Saturday morning rendezvous eventually led to the creation of the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju (at the time presented in English as a Movement for the Promotion of Literature) which, as history was later to record, gradually became a literary milestone, today’s students are often encouraged to research.

As MQL, we first started meeting inside a subterranean apartment in what was then Brittania Street (Melita Street today, thank goodness, a change no doubt made in the spirit of those days) – the space being provided to us by the Atlanta Sports Club. And we never looked back. The names spring back instantly into one’s mind... Joe A. Grima, Charles Coleiro, Mario Azzopardi, Oliver Friggieri, Albert Marshall, Frans Sammut, Salv Sammut, Anthony S. Azzopardi, Achille Mizzi, Raymond Mahoney, with yours truly peddling as PRO.

We need not go into details for there are, today, the books that tell the story of how a temporary squabble with the “old school” of Maltese literature, brave and learned pre-WWII vanguards who had firmly secured the very foundations of Maltese literature, soon melted into reality. This spelled the need of continuation, the bridging of generations and the dumping of futile piques, particularly over topics and themes which, inevitably, always reflect the times, such as the end of a literature based on traditional love, religion and patriotism via traditional structures of writing, to one that focussed on the social challenges, the new liberties and the exciting new literary modules of the 60s and 70s.

There was indeed an instance when the change was resisted by some of the old guard who took to the print media to vent their displeasure at reading the modern stuff being churned out almost every single day of the week. There were also those among us who sniggered back at them, but the generational conflict fizzled out as quickly as it has started. Even then, as a late teenager just out of his Seminary days, Oliver Friggieri was the prime defuser. He grew into this role all along his eventual illustrious career, often taking to task the two-tribe mentality that sadly still permeates Maltese society.

My everlasting image of Oliver, will actually always be of that young, thoughtful man who, when he spoke across the table-tennis table we sat around for our meetings, everybody was listening. It stayed like that through the decades during which he shone above all with his monumental works, his dedication to different generations of  adoring students and his refined outlook on political realities and the use and abuse of power.

The gentle giant of Maltese literature now rests. His gigantic legacy, however, will last, probably – and realistically – a lot more, alas, than the language he so loved and embellished throughout his life.

 

Burgess

 

During the same period Oliver Friggieri and his MQL bandwagon were striding onwards as the end of the 60s decade approached, Malta was hostess to another veritable literary giant – Anthony Burgess, who in 1968 came to live here with his wife Liana at No. 168, Main Street, Ħal Lija, to be precise.

This year happens to be the 50th anniversary of Anthony Burgess' famous lecture on Obscenity, delivered at the University of Malta, and which controversially led to the confiscation of his house. It is not an event that should be overlooked for it was, alas, the pinnacle of a time when censorship and imposition were still the order of the day on an island desperately seeking better times. Credit where due, however. Between 1968 and 1970 Burgess was closely involved with the Censorship Reform Group of the Malta Library Association, his main associates there being Marie Said (later Marie Benoit, my TMIS colleague) and Paul Xuereb, who invited him to deliver his famous lecture in June 1970.

I have written in the past of other writers living among us who, at some time during their stay here, had to face the wrath of our censors. The episode involving my late friend and acclaimed author, Frederic Mullally, who was incredibly denied receiving the publisher’s complimentary copies of his own mammoth book Clancy (later serialised by the BBC), will always be a point of hilarious, albeit painful, reference.

While the Burgess obscenity affair takes archival pride of place, Burgess himself as the great writer we all knew and his Malta connections are still happily remembered. Professor Ivan Callus at the University of Malta has written what has been described as an excellent paper about the Maltese chapters in Burgess’ 1980 novel Earthly Powers; three years ago Giuseppe Schembri-Bonaci organised in Valletta a concert of Burgess' piano music, another artistic facade to the great man and Arts Council Malta has produced a most informative video.

Burgess himself writes about Malta in three books: his novel M/F (1971) is set on an island called Castita, which includes recognisable elements of Malta, including Strait Street. Among the literary projects Burgess completed in Malta was an epic Hollywood musical about Shakespeare, with the working titles of Will and The Bawdy Bard. The film, unfortunately, was never realised. A new volume of Burgess’ Collected Poems, which includes some work written during his Malta sojourn, is to be published on 10 December.

Next year, it will then be the 50th anniversary of the film A Clockwork Orange (1971), based on his 1962 novel, which was, of course, banned in Malta for many years. That needs remembering too, albeit ruefully.

 

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