K.S. 'Kaz' Augustin is a writer of science-fiction, fantasy, erotic romance and permutations thereof. Malaysian-born, she doesn't consider any one country her home and, with her husband, children and assorted pets, has happily changed countries four times in the past 10 years, a tradition she hopes will continue (albeit at a slower pace) into the future. Unfortunately, she also blogs. Here Kaz writes about Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.
K.S. Augustin on A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
If there is one book which consumes me with inconsolable envy, it's Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. It appeals to me on so many levels: on an intellectual level, with its perfectly balanced three acts of seven chapters each; on a social level, with its peek into a future Britain, enslaved by a Russian vocabulary and yet divorced from the culture; on a cryptographic level, with a narrative that needs to be deciphered as much as absorbed. And there is a childish glee when one 'clicks' into the prose, as if discovering membership of a secret club.
A Clockwork Orange was published in 1962 and presumably written immediately preceding this. (Burgess started writing full-time in 1959 and produced at least one novel a year until his death in 1993.) To understand where Burgess was coming from, one has to remember the context of those years. The height of the Cold War. The burgeoning of civil rights movements. Liberalization of music, fashion and mores. Sputnik 1 had been launched in 1957 and the Soviets had already successfully sent animals into space culminating in Yuri Gargarin's flight in early 1961, presumably cementing their technological supremacy. There was, and continues to be, a strange fascination Britain had for Russia, almost a love/hate relationship that, to an outsider such as myself, defies reason. Anthony Burgess seems to have gambled that the future of Britain would contain a significant Russian component of some sort and he wove that into the vocabulary of his novel.
A Clockwork Orange follows roughly three years in the life of Alex, a ringleader of thugs in a lawless future where the only happiness for a large segment of youth seems to come from the humiliation of others. Even more than the money (cutter), which is appreciated, the joy of such youth is encapsulated in sex, drugs and violence. The government, it seems, is powerless to stop the wave of crime, although the ruling party comes up with a strategy that Alex is subjected to, later on in the novel. After being betrayed by his fellow gang members (droogs), Alex is incarcerated. He hates life in jail, is betrayed again by his fellow inmates and, when presented with an opportunity to undergo a sentence-shortening treatment called Ludovico's Technique, jumps at the chance, betting that his smart, sly nature will be able to short-circuit whatever the government has in store for him.
He is wrong. Anyone familiar with Kubrick's film, based on the novel, will know the scenes of state-sanctioned violence, where Alex is drugged, strapped down, his beloved classical music blaring in the background, while scenes of gore are played out in front of him. This use of operant conditioning results in Alex feeling ill whenever he even thinks of anything approaching violence. Declared a success, Alex is released from prison but his ills are not at an end. He is then used by the opposition party as an exemplar of government brutality. He attempts suicide and, while in hospital, a group from the opposition successfully reverses the effects of Ludovico's Technique.
So, Alex is back where he started. Except he now harbours strange ideas in his head. Of a warm and happy home, a girlfriend, children. And Burgess makes it clear that the only difference between the old Alex we met at the beginning of the novel and this one is time.
Perhaps I was getting too old for the sort of jeezny I had been leading, brothers. I was eighteen now, just gone. Eighteen was not a young age... But youth is only being in a way like it might be... like one of these malenky toys ... made of tin and with a spring inside.... When I had my son I would explain all that to him... [but] I knew he would not understand or would not want to understand at all and would do all the veshches I had done, yes perhaps even killing some poor starry forella... and I would not be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers. And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round, like some bolshy gigantic like chelloveck, like old Bog Himself (by courtesy of Korova Milk-bar) turning and turning and turning a vonny grahzny orange in his gigantic rookers.
I excerpt a part of the novel to show the challenges of the prose style, but it is well worth the exploration. Although, having said that, I did have, ahem, four issues with the book.
The title. Thanks to the excellent introduction by Blake Morrison to the Penguin edition of A Clockwork Orange, I found out what exactly the title meant. (It's a Cockney expression that means something outside current comprehension.) But if it wasn't for Morrison, I doubt I would have properly understood it and there's nothing so sad as not being able to understand the title of a book.
The insertion of Burgess himself into the narrative. This, to my mind, was the weakest part of the novel. At one point, Alex and his droogs break into a house where they discover a writer living with his wife. The name of the writer's current manuscript, sitting as a pile of loose paper next to the typewriter, is A Clockwork Orange. There is rape and violence, the writer's wife eventually dies, and the writer meets up with Alex much later in the novel as a member of the group opposed to the government's use of Ludovico's Technique. This is all powerful stuff, except the portrayal of the author within his own novel is stiff and two-dimensional. Maybe, because of a parallel experience suffered by Burgess's wife in London (she was robbed, beaten and kicked by four American military deserters), he has internalized too much. What seeps out is mundane and, in my opinion, could have been better channelled through a separate character, aloof from Burgess himself and therefore more independent.
The moral of the book. To quote the prison chaplain: 'It may be horrible to be good. And when I say that to you I realize how self-contradictory that sounds. I know I shall have many sleepless nights about this. What does God want? 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 upon him?' Burgess's answer is yes, a life of violence chosen of free will is better than a life of goodness achieved through lack of choice. I am more a follower of Immanuel Kant with his Formula of Universal Law (roughly, act as if your actions constitute law; a meta-application of 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you'). So, considering Burgess's contrary position, I was extremely interested in his reasoning.
Wherever one stands on the philosophical continuum, the question of morality and free will is bitingly provocative, especially relevant in modern times. What are the implications of this for the philosophy of incarceration versus rehabilitation? How can we raise children with firm moral sense? Can we impose democracy on countries culturally not open to it? From the personal to the global, the question is relevant and brilliant. Yet, after that statement, delivered two-thirds into the book, it fizzles away. When Alex's treatment is reversed, he is not caught in any deep rumination on the chaplain's words. He doesn't compare the Ludovico-treated Alex with the now-reversed-again Alex. In fact, after delivering what - in any other work - would be the lynchpin of thought, the only thing that changes Alex, the only thing that makes him rethink his old life of violence and crime, is time. Two years. It's as if Burgess was happy enough to just throw the question out there, a bit of chum stirring the waters, with no further thought on an exploration into human morality that he himself brought up in the first place. It's the move of a dilettante rather than an intellectual and my greatest disappointment with the book.
The language. According to Morrison's introduction, Burgess carefully chose around two hundred words of what he thought would be future teen (nadsat) vocabulary, but it doesn't quite ring true. Not the use of words. The insertion of nadsat words into the novel is nothing short of brilliant, and their onomatopoeic quality is mesmerizing, evocative and wry. I only question the fact that those words were based on the Russian language. After living in several countries for the past couple of decades, it occurs to me that the slang of the region depends very much on what has been assimilated by the dominant youth culture after rubbing shoulders with minority youth groups eager to distinguish themselves in some way. That is, I doubt there would be such wholesale adoption of Russian words in lieu of actual Russians. The twisting of some aspect of foreign words to fit the local patois, yes. The complete substitution of foreign words in an otherwise cultural vacuum, I don't think so. From a slightly different perspective, we can examine this in reality from the previous Warsaw Pact countries. With overwhelming Russian influence, did Russian words somehow take over the vernacular language in Poland? Czechoslovakia? East Germany? They did not.
Going back to Britain, I warrant that more words of Indian origin have wormed their way into the British language rather than Russian. Burgess bet and lost on the vocabulary, although I shall be reading him more widely, now that I know he was also a member of the British Colonial Service for a number of years, serving in Borneo and Malaya. Did the British feeling of superiority over their colonies somehow blinker his understanding of slang adoption? I don't know, but the question is a useful springboard to other works by Burgess and an avenue I will be pursuing in future.
You might think by now that I detested the book, but you'd be wrong. For me, the greatness of a novel can be measured by how much discussion it generates and A Clockwork Orange is a great novel, not only in this regard but in how it uses language, how it is structured and how it portrays a drug-addicted, violent rapist with such humanity that you end up sympathizing with Alex rather than despising him. On so many levels, the novel is a tour de force and I highly recommend it to serious readers of speculative fiction and literature.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]