Monday, June 13, 2011

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess

 'O, my brothers'.

'What's it going to be then, eh?'

'Your humble narrator'.

'....I would like to give them the old in-out in-out real savage with lots of ultra-violence'.


 Anthony Burgess' dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange has been on my 'to read' list for some time now. I read it last night as it is only 200 pages long and once I started I couldn't stop. I'm sure...or should it be, I hope, you have all heard of this famous of novels and its equally famous film adaptation. If not then for your own sake get a copy of both ASAP!!

 I was fortunate enough to see Stanley Kubrick's adaptation on the big screen 20 years and have been mesmerized by it ever since. I'm not usually one for dystopia/utopia type genres of film or literature but A Clockwork Orange is an exception to the rule. The film follows the novel extremely well in it's moral premise, but it can't replicate Burgess' masterful use of slang. And here I will leave off from film/novel comparisons out of necessity, because the novel is an incredible tour de force of literature...but not in a classical sense.

 Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange has written a novel that is both searing in its philosophy and use of language. Burgess had a interest as a linguist and in the novel anti-hero Alex, a very unreliable narrator, speaks to the reader in a first person perspective. But it is how he does it that lifts this novel above anything you can possibly imagine or have ever read. Burgess wrote Orange as an experiment in the use language, especially the use of slang. Alex speaks to us in a form of 'Argot', a secretive way of speaking commonly used among criminals so as outsiders cannot understand what is being said. But Burgess takes it further by inventing 'Nardot', a fusing of Russian and Cockney rhyming slang. The result is a remarkable piece of Anglo-Russian slang literature.

 I knew nothing about this when I started the novel and from page one wondered what it was all about!! But surprisingly I found that I instinctively knew what each slang word meant as Burgess shows immense structural skills with his sentences. Each word is perfectly crafted so the reader can instantly understand it as they encounter it in its respective sentence. It is a beautifully done and I was quite in awe in of Burgess skill and delivery. Here is a sample of his words:

sinny - cinema, tick-tocker - heart, rook - arm, viddy - see, gulliver -head, glazzies - eyes, krovvy - blood, rot - mouth, pischa - food, govoreet - talk, minoota's - minutes, smecking - laughing, tolchok - punch, veck - person, toofles - slippers, zoobies - teeth, gorlo - throat, nogas  - feet, itied - walked, yahzick - tongue , horrowshow - good/great, biblio - library, a cancer - cigarette, pletcho - shoulder, and so and so forth.

 In prison or 'statja' ( state prison ), as Alex calls it his slang is called 'The dialect of the tribe', by the doctors who examine him. Like I previously stated all these slang words are quickly and easily understood.  It becomes easier still as they are repeated often enough that they become very familiar in their respective usage. It may appear daunting but believe me it is so skillfully written you will surprised how quickly you pick it up and enjoy it.

 Behind the slang though is a serious philosophical dystopian novel. It was written in 1963 about a futuristic England where the criminal classes have taken over the nights and people stay in-doors. Alex is a vicious 15 year old who loves 'savage in-out in-out' ( rape ), and lots of the 'ultra-violence', no explanation needed really is there?..he likes beating people up.  The novel is about detrimental societal characteristics and the fundamental importance of moral choice. In essence it is a look at how, and whether the morality and choice of the individual over-rides that of the state.

 In prison for murder Alex decides to undergo the Ludovic treatment to get out quicker. The prison pastor distances himself from the treatment and warns Alex of his choice and asks him, ' Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed on him?' Powerful stuff, and this is where the novel gets serious in earnest as Alex has his personal power of choice taken from him. Of course it leads to him being 'cured', ( 'He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He also ceases to be a creature of moral choice' ). Here we see the crux of the novel's moral, is it right to take away a person's freedom of speech and action in the interests of the state? I think we know the answer, no it isn't, as that is the step towards totalitarianism.

 Alex leaves prison with these words ringing in his ears, ' You have no power of choice any longer. You are committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable of only good'. The treatment doesn't control Alex's urges towards violence but makes him incapable of carrying them out. Of course we know he ends up trying to kill himself and the state having to reverse the treatment. Which then sees Alex returning to his old ways stating, 'Yes, I was cured alright!' ( Who of you that have seen the film can ever forget the closing scene as Alex says those words??! ).

 In the original American release of the novel the final chapter was omitted as it was thought American audiences wouldn't accept it. In the chapter Alex renounces his ways and wants to have a family etc. He suddenly realises that violence is wrong and that he has 'grown up'. He is only 18!! The chapter is controversial and has divided opinions, but I like it and think it belongs in the final novel. Burgess wrote it so it should be there. Some say it isn't in the spirit of Alex but I say it is in the spirit of the moral Burgess is purporting. It is about freedom of choice and how it can't be imposed, and to attempt it is morally wrong. Alex in the final chapter realises this and yet makes a moral choice to change from bad to good. It is is his choice alone and not one that is enforced on him.

 A Clockwork orange is a quite brilliant work. Not only has it a powerful morality it asks some very searching questions, and is a very fine piece of literature in the process. The slang usage is easily understood. It adds to the over whelming feeling of disgust and repugnance the reader feels for Alex as he refuses to conform and act decently towards society when giving the clear choice to. His first hand perspective is wonderful and I think any reader will hang off his every word.

 A quite unique piece of genuine literature, which, like its famous film adaptation, is unmissable and quite frankly compulsory reading/viewing.
A better known cover of the novel taken from the film poster.


  1. I remember watching the film ages ago and loving it but I forgot all about the book.

    Must hunt it out the next time I am book shopping

    Great write up!

  2. A Lurker..this is a must read!! Its one of the few book/film adaptations that really works.

    Karina!! If you like the fim you'll like the novel. The slang is amazing and there was only several words I couldn't latch onto. But a brilliant novel and read. I got my copy from the library.

  3. its Nadsat, not 'Nardot'. Its literal translation from Russian is the suffix '-teen' from thirteen or seventeen. Insightful read though, helped with an assignment of mine.