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February Books 5) A Clockwork Orange

5) A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

I was complaining a few days ago about authors who make you work hard to read their fiction, and how I expect to be adequately rewarded. With A Clockwork Orange I do feel adequately rewarded. It's a very short novel about the violence of youth, based a little I guess on the famous battles between mods and rockers of the 1960s. But Burgess manages to lift it into the realm of the universal by two straightforward but brilliantly executed gimmicks.

The first of these, of course, is the nadsat used by Alex and his friends. Rather than use contemporary teenage slang, Burgess invented his own. My Russian is pretty vestigial but sufficient to get through most of the book without worrying too much - in particular I think he's managed to catch a few genuine Russian nuances and insert them subversively into English, like chelloveck, which basically means "chap", from человек. Another good bit of wordcrafting is tolchock, which is originally толчок, the Russian noun for "shove", but in Burgess becomes either a sustained push or a sudden blow, as when Alex and friends are disposing of a stolen car in the canal: "we got out and, the brakes off, all four tolchocked it to the edge of the filthy water that was like treacle mixed with human hole products, then one good horrorshow tolchock and in she went." I've heard people in Ireland used the word "feck" as a verb with similar meaning. And horrorshow (ie хорошо) for "good" is a lovely riff on "wicked". (There were a lot of other nice touches; I'll just mention oddy-knocky for одинокий, "lonesome".)

The second is his choice of classical music as Alex's personal fixation. Actually I rather get the impression that Alex is unusual even among his peers in his preference. The two girls he lures home are much more into "pathetic pop-discs", and he doesn't listen to music with his friends. (No mention of going to actual live musical performances at all - though there are "worldcasts" where everyone gets to watch the same entertainment around the world, closer to Edward Bellamy than Bob Geldof I think.) However, the fact that the music Alex listens to is (mostly) already known by the general reader helps us to get through the barrier created by the language, and his description of why he likes Beethoven's Ninth is something anyone else who likes it can relate to.

After all that, the book itself? Plot is easy to summarise: Alex is a very nasty and violent boy; he is imprisoned and subjected to mind control which removes his ability to do evil; after public protest the process is reversed; but he finds that he is growing up anyway. The use of nadsat slang actually makes the descriptions of violence in the early part of the book more bearable than it would be if graphically expressed in standard English. The violence of youth is, of course, universal. Just this morning I read this, via yhlee:
I finally realized that the giant puddles of water in the sand court were actually covered with giant sheets of ice that were starting to break up. I lifted a five foot piece of it up by one edge and said, "Wow, cool." I continued on walking around, and when I came back by this area later, there were two ten-year-old boys looking at the same big sheet of ice and saying, "Whoa, cool! It's a big'un!" Then they took rocks and hurled it at the big piece to break it up, and stomped on it, and other such things that boys like to do. I know it's what I would have done if I were 25 years younger and were with a buddy.
Libertarians may jump with glee on the sinister role of the State in all this, the brutal millicents/милиции, but I think the involvement of the State is almost incidental; Burgess' point is about redemption, and that it must come from within, cannot be imposed from outside. In the last chapter Alex realises this for himself, bumping into his old friend Pete who is now married, and reflecting that "I am not young, not no longer, oh no. Alex like groweth up, yes." According to Blake Morrison in the introduction of my Penguin edition, the last chapter was actually deleted from the first American version of the book as the publishers felt it was too upbeat (!). Bizarre.

Anyway, a fascinating, horrible and well-constructed book.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 11th, 2006 08:39 am (UTC)
This was actually the very first book I ever read in English...
I remember there was a nadsat-glossary in the back, to help get through the first few pages.
(Yes, I didn't exactly start out with the easiest one, but it was good exercise for the following books.)
Feb. 11th, 2006 10:50 am (UTC)
According to Blake Morrison in the introduction of my Penguin edition, the last chapter was actually deleted from the first American version of the book as the publishers felt it was too upbeat (!).

Did it also mention that this apparently resulted in Stanley Kubrick being completely unaware that there even was this last chapter when he made the film?
Feb. 11th, 2006 03:34 pm (UTC)
According to Blake Morrison in the introduction of my Penguin edition, the last chapter was actually deleted from the first American version of the book as the publishers felt it was too upbeat (!).

...and as stated above, chances are Kubrick was completely unaware of the final chapter of the original, hence the way the film ended. Needless to say, Burgess was bloody livid about the whole affair, and much of it is documented in part three of his series of Enderby romans-a-clef.
Feb. 11th, 2006 04:01 pm (UTC)
I read A Clockwork Testament about twenty years ago, and really didn't have a clue what was going on - I enjoyed the comedic aspects of it, but I don't know Hopkins' poetry, and in any case it just didn't occur to me that the reference might be to the Kubrick film (which I also have not seen). I was very young...
Feb. 12th, 2006 04:05 pm (UTC)
The best part about the nadsats is that even though I'd heard many of the words were based on Russian, I don't know any Russian so I couldn't make the connections you did, but due to the nature of the words they always seemed fitting for the English words they were meant to replace. 'Tolchock' and 'horrorshow' really make sense.
Jan. 18th, 2009 01:01 pm (UTC)
It's a while since I read the book, but my impression has long been that the style of it - the language etc. - is brilliant, essentially carrying what is a not particularly interesting narrative offering somewhat facile insights into the human condition.

I read another book by Burgess once, called 1985. Part of it was a short novel set in a Britain taken over by the Trade Unions (a riff on how Orwell's book amplified his fears about how things were going in 1948), the rest a series of essays on freedom and stuff.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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