Banned Books Week was last week and it managed to take me all week to read 'A Clockwork Orange' by Anthony Burgess, it being the third time I have tried to read this book. I finished the last few pages this morning with my cup of tea and was well pissed off I can tell you. Have you read it? What the hell! I searched for some reviews and came across the information that the final 21st chapter was, under pressure from the American publishers, omitted from the original publication, and this version was the basis for the film (I have seen the film but too long ago to recall the ending.) Burgess, however, later in life, reasserted his original plan for the story and now most copies will include the final 'redemptive' chapter. It is wrong, so very very wrong. I am not sure I have disagreed with an author about his own book like this before. There is no redemption for Alex, there is no way he is going to 'grow out of' his profoundly violent, anti-social behaviour, it's just not on the cards for him.
I decided not to look up a Nadsat dictionary and just went with reading and guessing from context the meaning of the words. The creation of this new way of talking I think is probably the most interesting aspect of the book. The reader is forced to think hard about how we get meaning from language and what words are, and about the way, for some social groups, the way they talk is an important part of their identity and social cohesion (I mean in terms of accent and dialect rather than separate languages). It takes some getting used to but by the end it was totally normal. While some argue that Burgess is writing about a dysfunctional society, I thought that the society, though in some measure reflecting the violence of the gang, was really quite normal. Alex, however, was a psychopath, not merely a wayward youth, and if the book is about whether you can change someone's moral framework, the answer has to be no, if they don't have one in the first place. He utterly lacks empathy or a sense that anyone else is an autonomous human being with rights and emotions of their own. He is impulsive and uncontrolled, thinking only of his own pleasurable experiences and seeks out victims for his violent urges. They are not random events caused by anger or frustration but planned and carefully executed to cause the most extreme trauma. His contempt for women in particular is obvious. He initiates, participates and also observes and gets pleasure from all three. There is no explanation for his behaviour, another thing that makes him seem psychopathic, that there is no reason, he just does it. His reaction to prison, the Ludovico experiment and his subsequent release from prison are all based on how to minimise his own suffering and inconvenience; there is never any change in his attitude towards others, they are always just things that might or might not provide him with amusement. I wondered whether his enjoyment and admiration for classical music was supposed to be some kind of redeeming feature, and there were moments when I felt some sympathy for him, but on reflection maybe that was because he felt so so sorry for himself. This suddenly reminded me of 'Lolita', and the 'unreliable narrator' issue, because Alex is telling us this story, and although he is completely honest about the violence he commits, what you are reading is his excitement at the events, which manages to undermine your own reaction to the description. I wonder if this is why the book, and the film, have sometimes been accused of glamourising violence, because it is Alex's view we have of each incident, so it is almost as if the reader/viewer is almost forced to adopt his 'moral' code. So when I reached the end and he muses about the idea of getting married and having a son it was just completely wrong. This is a boy who has no real relationships with other human beings, not even his parents, you cannot envisage him forming a loving bond with anyone, he is incapable of it. He seems to think he is becoming bored by the ultra-violence and is growing up, but you can't see him getting a nice settled job and being a reliable member of society.
In my browsing I came across Daniel at The Gemsbok who has a brilliant analysis of why Clockwork Orange is better without the last chapter, and some interesting quotes from Burgess about the book. It is strange to think of a writer disparaging his own most well known work, though it makes me curious to read something else he has written and I may have to seek out some advice at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation where the Manchester Literature Festival holds many of its events. I am not sure what else to say about the book, something this well known does not need further description. The issue of whether someone is still 'human' if their ability to make moral decisions has been taken away seems quite a minor feature of the book, and in fact I felt more that the way the politicians use Alex as a pawn in their game was showing how politicians use people's lives to justify their policies and that they are as amoral as Alex is in their use of other people for their own purposes.
Will finish with this quote, because you need to read it to believe quite how linguistically inventive this novel is. Here is Alex, being arrested after being abandoned by his gang at the house of the old cat lady:
" 'A real pleasure this is,' I heard another millicent goloss say as I was tolchocked very rough and skorry into the auto. 'Little Alex all to our own selves.' I creeched out:
'I'm blind. Bog bust and bleed you, you grahzny bastards.'
'Language, language,' like smecked a goloss, and then I got a like backhand tolchock with some ringy rooker or other full on the rot. I said:
'Bog murder you, you vonny stinking bratchnies. Where are there others? Where are my stinking traitorous droogs? One of my cursed grahzny bratties chained me on the glazzies. Get them before they get away. It was all their idea, brothers. They like forced me to do it. I'm innocent, Bog butcher you.' By this time they were all having like a good smeck at me with the heighth of like callousness, and they'd tolchocked me into the back of the auto, but I still kept on about these so-called droogs of men and the I viddied it would be no good, because they'd all be back now in the snug of the Duke of New York forcing black and suds and double Scotchmen down the unprotesting gorloes of those stinking starry ptitsas and they saying: 'Thanks lads. God bless you, boys. Been here all the time you have, lads. Not been out of our sight you haven't.' " (p.53-4)