A Clock­work Orange: The Re­stored Text

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - David Free

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-

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