Thoughts on Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (by Bethany – the Numbers Challenge, Month #2)

a clockwork orange image

Jill and I have a long history with Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange – a story that involves King Lear and Fr. Murphy and those long, dull days at the very end of one’s high school career when even the teachers have given up. You can read about that story here. I won’t retell it – I promise.

Oh, but you’ll indulge me just this once, right? That movie! That terrible movie!

OK, I think it’s officially out of my system now.

I can summarize the plot very quickly: Fifteen year-old Alex is the leader of a gang of hooligans (What? No, AutoCorrect, NOT holograms. Hooligans. Some people!) that likes to go marauding in the middle of the night. They consume some kind of drug at a place called a “milkbar,” and then they wreak havoc on their unnamed English city. They specifically target the elderly – they even murder a crazy cat lady – although they also curry favor with other elderly people, whom they then use to establish alibis if they are questioned. Alex is caught and sent to prison after the crazy cat lady dies, and in prison he is identified as a prime candidate for a new form of treatment. Essentially this treatment is what psychologists call operant conditioning. Every day, Alex is injected with a drug that causes terrible nausea and headaches, and then he is strapped to a chair and his eyelids are forced open, and he is required to watch several hours of horrific violence on a video screen. Over time, he so powerfully associates violence with feeling sick that he cannot associate with violence at all. Released back into society, Alex is brutally beaten by the police, who know his reputation, and used as a political tool by a group of men who want to publicize the cruelty of the current government. Next he attempts suicide. He survives, but the head injury he receives when he jumps out of a window negates the effects of the operant conditioning. He is able to return to his life of violence, and he does so for a while, but then he turns eighteen and almost magically starts wanting a wife and babies.

Oh, and Alex loves classical music – Beethoven in particular. Music stirs him into an especially violent mood, although he also describes it as beautiful. Music is played during Alex’s operant conditioning sessions, and what tortures him most afterwards is that he can’t enjoy music anymore without feeling violently ill.

The first thing one notices when one starts to read Burgess’ novel is that it is only sort of written in English. Its grammar and syntax are English, though there are moments when the syntax gets a little on the weird side. Its vocabulary consists of a mixture of standard English and the invented slang of Burgess’ fictional world. Published in 1962, this novel seems to be set in approximately the year 2000 (I’m basing this guess on a reference to “a newish Durango 95” on page 22), and the England it depicts seems to be sliding into a dystopia of some kind. The slang – called “nadsat talk” by the boys – is described as a combination of Cockney rhyming slang, a variety of Slavic (i.e. Russian) word roots, and the conflation of longer words (e.g. “nadsat”). Here’s a representative passage: “Where do you want it taken from, you cally vonning animals? From my last corrective? Horrorshow, horrorshow, here it is, then. So I gave it to them, and I had this shorthand millicent, a very quiet and scared type chelloveck, no real rozz at all, covering page after page after page after page. I gave them the ultra-violence, the crasting, the dratsing, the old in-out in-out, the lot, right up to this night’s veshch with the bugatty starry ptitsa with the mewing kots and koshkas” (78).

In case you’re wondering, “the bugatty starry ptitsa with the mewing kots an koshkas” is nadsat talk for “crazy cat lady.”

Of course I spent some time thinking about how I would describe the experience of reading all this nonsense – and also about why Burgess chose to give Alex a slang language that his readers would not understand. The obvious starting point is that this slang serves to isolate the young hooligans from older people, who do not use nadsat talk. Even when Alex discovers late in the novel that some of his former partners in crime have changed sides and become policemen, he notes that they no longer use nadsat talk: they have taken on (or resumed) the linguistic patterns of their elders. There is a deep division between young and old in this novel (which at times feels like a darker, bloodier version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) – an exaggerated depiction of the generation gap that would come to define the 1960’s and which Burgess seems in some ways to have forcasted.

The other reason Burgess uses this slang is to drop a few hints as to the political situation in his dystopian vision of the future. Clearly we are meant to see Alex and his pals as a threat to law and order, and the brutal methods of the police and the prison guards align with the methods used by real-world totalitarian regimes in their formative stages: they promise to keep ordinary people safe from one another (at the expense, of course, of putting people IN danger from the government itself). The Nazis and the Taliban come to mind as two well-known regimes that came into power this way. By inventing slang that sounds vaguely Russian, Burgess suggests that there is some kind of underground movement afoot among teenagers interested in aligning themselves with the USSR and/or with Communism. I don’t know exactly how all the pieces fit together here, as Burgess gives us almost nothing about how English society got to be this way in his fictional world.

Finally, for me the most interesting effect of the slang in this novel is how easily I adapted to it. At the beginning I was underlining words all over the place and writing guesses in the margin about what they meant and going back and crossing out earlier guesses – and really it was just chaos. After a while, though, I knew the basics. The basic nouns and verbs, the parts of the body, the adjectives connoting good things and the adjectives connoting bad things – my mind gave itself a little first-year language course in nadsat talk – and, not to brag, I kind of got an A. An A+, even. Soon I was reading and understanding the slang without much effort at all. This experience made me aware of how easily we humans can adapt to a new reality, which is not necessarily the central theme of this novel, but it’s certainly part of what Burgess is saying with this novel.

I had to remind myself often as I read that I was not reading 1984. Burgess was certainly aware of Orwell’s novel, which was twelve years old when A Clockwork Orange was published, but nowhere does he refer directly to it (as he does to Yeats and Eliot and perhaps to others I didn’t catch). In 1984, Winston has only vague memories of the years between the Second World War and the establishment of Big Brother’s government, but I couldn’t shake the suspicion that this novel was taking place somewhere in the midst of those dark years, when people disappeared and others were displaced and a series of shortages kept people miserable and hungry enough to appreciate the pittance they were given and not risk drawing attention to themselves by asking for more. I know – this theory doesn’t add up alongside my estimate that this novel is set in the year 2000, but I think Burgess is (rightly) avoiding easy answers here. A Clockwork Orange whispers ‘1984,’ but it doesn’t shout it out.

I think the main reason Burgess gave Alex a deep love for Beethoven and other classical composers is that Beethoven is German. Alex mentions ‘the 1939-45 War’ and recognizes the Nazis when he sees them in the operant conditioning films, but in most other ways he’s a creature of the present, not one to mull over the events of the past. But we know, as readers, that one of the great take-aways of the twentieth century is the understanding of how easy it is for totalitarianism to emerge out of cultures that were once committed to humanism and to beauty. Two of the most destructive political movements in world history grew out of the same soil that – only a few generations earlier – nourished Beethoven and Mozart and Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. Burgess placed beautiful music and brutality side by side in this novel because this is how the world works. Beauty and brutality have always been yoked together.


A Related P.S.: When I watched Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange in my A.P. Psychology class in high school, I swear I remember Malcolm McDowell, who plays Alex, dancing around with a giant dildo. No such event happened in the novel, however. So I’m left to wonder if this moment was Kubrick’s invention or if, somehow, I managed to hallucinate Malcolm McDowell dancing around with a giant dildo. And – well, crap – now I’ve just talked about it on the internet. How embarrassing.

An Unrelated P.P.S.: I bought a book today. You’re shocked, I know. But this is the first book I bought since my no-book-buying challenge started on July 15, and I am very pleased with my adherence to the spirit of the challenge, and I want to share the details with you. Shortly after I announced my no-book-buying challenge, Jill and I were chatting on Facebook and I proposed a rule in which I was allowed to buy books at Green Apple (our favorite new/used bookstore in San Francisco) on the condition that I walk to and from the store and carry the books I purchase home in a backpack. In other words, I was tying the privilege of book-buying to the unrelated (but valuable) goal of fitness and exercise. But THEN, just a few days later, I learned that Green Apple is opening a NEW LOCATION in my neighborhood! It’s still about three quarters of a mile or so away from my home, but it’s an area that I walk to often, and I don’t think of the walk as a ‘workout’ (though maybe that would change if I had a pack full of books on my back). So anyway – today was the new store’s grand opening. I went and bought one book: Chocolates for Breakfast by Pamela Moore. It’s a new book (as opposed to used – it’s not recent) but was on the bargain rack for $5.98. So as far as I’m concerned, everyone wins: I got a new book (and will be reading it ASAP, as per another one of my rules) and got to enjoy a gorgeous new bookstore in my neighborhood, and Green Apple got the support of a longtime customer.

A Follow-Up P.P.P.S: As happy as I am about the new Green Apple location, there is one thing that bothers me. There is already a great used bookstore, called The Great Overland Book Company, just two blocks from the new one. This store is great, but it’s smaller and less well-known than Green Apple. I want Green Apple to thrive in its new 9th and Lincoln location, but I don’t want The Great Overland Book Company to suffer or have to close. So if you live in San Francisco or are in town visiting, by all means visit Green Apple’s new location – but please visit the Great Overland Book Company as well, on Judah between 8th and 9th. I think I may have to make a visit there sometime soon, just to show my support for another great local business. Sigh. The things I do for my favorite bookstores.

This entry was posted in Anthony Burgess, Authors, Favorite bookstores, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany, The Numbers Challenge and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Thoughts on Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (by Bethany – the Numbers Challenge, Month #2)

  1. Malcolm McGannon says:

    Close– It’s not a dildo, but a very (and deliberately) phallic piece of Modern sculpture. You aren’t crazy!

  2. bedstrom says:

    Somehow I knew you would come through for me on this one, Malcolm – thanks!

  3. badkitty1016 says:

    So have you finished your July book too?

    • bedstrom says:

      A Clockwork Orange is my July book. I have not yet finished Robinson Crusoe, which was my June book. But I am getting there.

      • badkitty1016 says:

        I meant to ask if you had finished your June book. Since yesterday was August 1st I think I got confused. Would you like your next number now?

  4. Maria says:

    I think I like reading book reviews more than reading the books themselves. Or, perhaps I should say, because of my aversion to reading about senseless violence, I would never have read A Clockwork Orange, but your review was terribly interesting! I think I gagged my way through some of the movie, but I hated the conflation of Beethoven and violence. Your point on that is so right on, though. Phil and I were talking about that regarding the Nazis just yesterday.

    • bedstrom says:

      Thanks! The violence in this novel definitely qualifies as senseless. I have no interest in seeing the movie again – the book is enough for me (and the book is definitely well written and worth reading).

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