There are certain books you should read when you are a teenager – Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is the obvious one; I reckon Kerouac’s On The Road is another. And after finishing Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange – which I reckon has been gathering dust on my bookshelf since the late-1980s (insert embarrassed emoticon here) – I’d say it also belongs in that category.
Indeed, it is difficult, in 2013, to really comprehend the impact A Clockwork Orange must have made when it was first published in 1962 – more than 50 years ago now. Burgess’s best-known work was repeatedly banned and censored in the US for two decades after its release; the controversial 1971 film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, was also subjected to condemnation, censorship and a lengthy withdrawal in Britain.
Personally, I’d be rather interested to know what my teenage self would have thought of it; because as an adult (supposedly …) I certainly found it dated and its depictions of “ultra-violence” a little ho-hum. Which might be because I have lived through two Iraq wars and an incredibly dubious ‘war on terror’, televised to saturation point across the various modes of media; have read Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (without a shadow of a doubt the most difficult book I have ever read in terms of the near-pornographic depictions of absolute violence contained within); and encounter a steady diet of human atrocities in my daily working life. You learn to develop a reasonably thick skin and to sometimes turn a blind eye in the interests of self-preservation; you also live with the knowledge that your own first-world problems pale in the face of true turmoil and tumult.
While I wouldn’t say I necessarily enjoyed A Clockwork Orange, I am nonetheless pleased that I have finally gotten around to reading it. There is no doubt it is a period piece now, but that certainly doesn’t make it a less worthy read. Its central themes of morality and the choice between good and evil – and what compels and drives humans to make that choice – are timeless. And there is a reason it is widely considered one of the best novels of the 20th century – and that is because it is extraordinarily well written, plotted and characterised. I am not at all familiar with Burgess’s other work – turns out he’s a fairly pre-eminent British writer, turning out 30-odd novels over a 40-year career. But he did not look favourably upon this novel in his later years, dismissing it in 1985 as a “jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks” and adding that the filmed version had made it easy for readers to “misunderstand what it was about”.
This is what it’s about: classical music-loving 15-year-old Alex and his friends (or ‘droogs’ in the novel’s argot Nadsat – a mixture of Slav and Cockney rhyming slang that is surprisingly easy to follow and also eases the emotional impact and toil of the heinous events unfolding) Georgie, Dim and Pete spend their evenings engaged in orgiastic sprees of inebriated “ultra-violence” – mindless thuggery and theft; random, unprovoked beatings; and brutal rapes. In one night alone the well-dressed (“in the heighth of fashion”) quartet – who’ve already secured their alibis by buying the elderly women in a local pub several rounds of drinks and their eternal gratitude – bash and strip a middle-aged man walking home, deliberately destroying the books he is toting; rob a corner store and beat up the husband-and-wife storeowners; batter a defenceless homeless man; trade blows with another gang, whose members come off the worse for wear; steal a car to go joyriding; and break into a couple’s home, beating up the husband, gang-raping his wife and then trashing the house.
But there are frictions in Alex’s gang – particularly from Georgie, who challenges the leadership, and Dim, who chafes against his maltreatment – and these push Alex, against his better judgment, to burgle a wealthy elderly woman’s home. The farcical but ultimately fatal consequences land Alex in jail. Then, two years into his sentence, Alex is blamed for the death of a cellmate, which leads to a decision – partly politically motivated – to try out a controversial aversion therapy known as Ludovico’s Technique on the teenager in an attempt to “cure” him of his violent tendencies. The intensive fortnight of unorthodox – to say the least – treatment achieves its aim, before Alex is released back into society and into pivotal meetings with both his old friends and victims, all of whom have long memories and relish the opportunity to even the karmic ledger.
But the “removal” of Alex’s desire for violence paradoxically sets in motion a chain of events that conspires to thrust him back into an incarnation of his former existence, for which he soon discovers, ironically enough, that he no longer has much appetite. In the final chapter – which was initially removed from the American imprint, and which as a result plays no role in Kubrick’s film – Alex muses that in outgrowing his previous excesses he might have finally grown up, leading him to look forward to a much different future.
Burgess was in his mid-40s, with seven novels already under his belt and having spent much of the previous decade in first Malaysia, then Brunei, when A Clockwork Orange was first published. He had returned to a Britain where teenage delinquency was on the rise and considered an increasing social problem; in that context it is not hard to see the novel as a comment on the times. And, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same – more or less.
Coincidentally, Andy – who did not know I was reading A Clockwork Orange as my April book – toddled off to the theatre this month to see Action To The Word’s stage production, the author’s own adaptation. Probably should have gone myself, all things considering. Instead, I will have to content myself with Kubrick’s film which, characteristically, I am still yet to see, but I’m sure I will viddy with my glazzies all horrorshow. Right, Alex?