THE MADCAP MONSTER
A Clockwork Orange: The Restored Text
AS Anthony Burgess neared the end of his life, this is how he felt about A Clockwork Orange: ‘‘ The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate.’’ After all, he’d written more than 50 other books, some of which were clearly more substantial. He also resented the notoriety of the film: he didn’t like being thought of as the mere supplier of Stanley Kubrick’s raw material. And he worried that the novel was too preachy: its moral lesson, he admitted, stuck out ‘‘ like a sore thumb’’.
But almost 20 years after its author’s death, Burgess’s rogue child still has an irrepressible life of its own. Having just turned 50, it has been reissued in a sumptuous, radiantly orange anniversary edition. The restored text doesn’t differ radically from the familiar Penguin version, but it has been generously bulked out with essays, interviews and other birthday goodies, including a new foreword by Martin Amis.
Burgess wrote the novel in 1961, when violent gangs, composed of now quaintseeming ruffians such as the mods and rockers, were raising hell in Britain’s streets. The book imagines a future in which the nights are wholly ruled by marauding thugs. Our narrator is a 15-year-old hooligan named Alex, who spends the first third of the book indulging in abominable acts of mayhem. He orchestrates the gang-rape of a woman in the presence of her husband, then leaves both of them ‘‘ bloody and torn and making noises’’. He drugs and rapes a pair of 10-year-old girls. Finally he beats an old woman to death, at which point the law catches up with him.
All this hasn’t lost the power to appal, and let’s hope it never does. But Burgess needs to stress the depth of Alex’s evil, because he wants to compare it with the morality of the state’s response. After two years in prison — the ‘‘ barry place’’ — Alex volunteers to be the guinea pig for a radical government program: the now-famous aversion therapy, during which he is forced to watch atrocity films with his eyes clipped open, while chemical injections render him sick to the stomach. After two weeks of this, the very thought of inflicting violence makes him nauseous. Pronouncing him cured, the government puts him back on the streets.
The suggestion is that Alex’s cure is even worse than his misdeeds. Burgess was no lover of violence: during the war his pregnant wife had been brutally attacked by a gang of G.I. deserters and had suffered a miscarriage. But Burgess was equally alarmed by talk that behavioural conditioning might soon be used to pacify Britain’s ultra-violent young. An oldschool Catholic, Burgess believed in original sin. People, he thought, had a tendency to do evil. But they also had the God-given gift of free will, which let them choose good over bad. ‘‘ When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man,’’ says Alex’s chaplain, speaking for Burgess himself.
When Alex is stripped of his free will and forced to be good, he becomes something less than human. He is a machine masquerading as an organism: a clockwork orange, in fact. By Anthony Burgess Edited with an introduction and notes by Andrew Biswell William Heinemann, 352pp, $39.95
But the book doesn’t endure because of its theological arguments. What keeps it alive is its weirdly timeless language. Burgess wanted Alex to narrate the book in teenage slang, but knew the argot of the early 1960s would sound dated in a futuristic novel. So he boldly invented a new dialect. He happened to be relearning Russian, so he threw a heavy dose of Russian loan-words into the mix, along with dollops of boisterous rhyming slang and heightened English. Instead of saying ‘‘ good’’ Alex says ‘‘ horrorshow’’ — a conversion of the Russian khorosho. Instead of ‘‘ head’’ he says ‘‘ gulliver,’’ as in: ‘‘ I cracked her a fine fair tolchock on the gulliver and that shut her up real horrorshow and lovely.’’ A novel full of sentences like that was a brazen gamble. Either people would chuck the book across the room, or they would surrender to the charm of its sound.
For 50 years, enough readers have been doing the second thing. Hauled forward by the verve of Alex’s lingo, you pick up most of his meanings as you go. In case you don’t, this new edition has a glossary at the back. Burgess hated the idea of providing one: he wanted his story about brainwashing to brainwash its readers ‘‘ into learning minimal Russian’’. Kooky as that idea sounds, Burgess had the linguistic talent to make it work. Alex’s language is contagious: you find yourself thinking in his words. Burgess’s madcap experiment yielded one of fiction’s great firstperson narrators. Alex’s voice is as distinctive as Huckleberry Finn’s, Holden Caulfield’s, Alexander Portnoy’s.
Alex’s supercharged style places what Burgess called ‘‘ a kind of mist’’ between the reader and the book’s horrors. But Burgess never lets us forget that Alex, beneath all that seductive word-music, is a monster.
When Kubrick made his movie, he muffled its violence with filmic substitutes for Alex’s prose-mist: sped-up and slowed-down pictures, outrageous lenses and angles. But in places the film goes a troubling step further. It stylises the violence itself, thereby sanitising it. Kubrick’s Singin’ in the Rain rape scene looks more choreographed, and less nasty, than a rape scene should.
Some critics, including Burgess himself, thought the film should really have been more violent, not less.
Alex’s misty language hides other things too. Important plot turns sneak past us in the haze, and Burgess is suspiciously frugal regarding the details of his imagined future. Why do Alex and his droogs speak all that Russian? Somebody mentions the influence of ‘‘ propaganda’’, but that’s all the information we get. And why does the government, having brainwashed Alex, decide to unbrainwash him? The novel’s explanation seems incom-