‘Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting anymore pretty polly or tolchock some old veck in an ally and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts. But, as they say, money isn’t everything’.
This is the language of A Clockwork Orange, the infamous (thanks to the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation) 1962 novel by the English writer Anthony Burgess. The whole book is full of this language. It’s completely baffling at first, but it’s a key component of the book. The really significant word in the above quote is ‘ultra-violent’. This is a book of violence. It’s telling that it is obscured by the slang, as that is the whole point: the desensitizing of violence. Burgess would not be surprised by today’s video game culture.
To translate the above quote into modern English:
‘Our pockets were full of money, so there was no real need from the point of view of stealing anymore money or hit some old man in an ally and see him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to be violent to some shivering old grey-haired girl in a shop and go laughing off with the till’s guts. But, as they say, money isn’t everything’.
That last sentence says it all: ‘money isn’t everything’. But the violence is.
‘That was everything. I’d done the lot, now. And me still only fifteen’
Alex is the leader of a gang of teenage misfits - ‘droogs’ – who drink drug-laced milk (‘the old moloko’) before committing a range of crimes, from assault, to burglary, to rape, to eventual murder. Alex is imprisoned and subjected to an experimental behavioural modification process, the Ludovico Technique, which involves him consuming nausea-inducing drugs before being shown violent films, the idea being that he will associate the violence with feelings of nausea.
Does it work? I won’t give it away, suffice that to say there are some surprising twists.
“Odd bits of old rhyming slang” said Dr Branom, who did not look so much like a friend anymore. “A bit of gypsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration”.
There’s no denying that, initially at least, the language makes this a difficult book. It’s a mixture of Russian and Slavic slang which Burgess labelled ‘nadsat’. It baffled critics and readers alike upon its release, as the initial publications did not include the glossary of later editions. Whilst there are online glossaries, I would encourage you to try to work it out for yourself by noting the context in which the words are used. It’s a neat reminder of our ability to quickly adapt to new language via the context in which words are used. Furthermore, it prompts us to question the etymology of the words we commonly use without thinking; why shouldn’t we use the term ‘rookers’ instead of ‘eyes’?
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
Burgess works his personal experiences into the story in several ways. He got the idea for the book after returning to England in 1959 and encountering the new youth culture which had sprung up whilst he was overseas. The idea of violent youth gangs was derived from the experience of his then wife, who was assaulted by a drunken gang of U.S. soldiers in London in 1944. In one scene, Alex and his gang break into the house of a writer and hold him and his wife captive:
“It’s a book” I said. “It’s a book what you are writing.” I made the old goloss [voice] very coarse. “I have always had the strongest admiration for them as can write books.” Then I looked at its top sheet, and there was the name – A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – and I said: “That’s a fair gloopy [stupid] title. Whoever heard of a clockwork orange?” Then I read a malenky [little] bit out loud in a sort of very high type preaching goloss: “- The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, law and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen – .”
This exchange raises the theme of free will: it’s not enough that we do good things by way of imposed morals, but that we should want to be good. Or, are evil deeds somehow justified if they are an act of free will, an expression of man’s freedom?
Hence the literary device of the Ludovico Technique and the conclusions as to its efficacy.
“Am I just to be like a clock-work orange?”
A Clockwork Orange is one of the most recognised titles in modern fiction. Burgess says he overheard the phrase “as queer as a clockwork orange” in an East London pub. In the Australian vernacular it’s perhaps closest to the phrase “as silly as a two-bob watch”. Burgess, however, attaches his own interpretation to it, that being the contrast between the organic (human nature and free will) and the mechanical (the potential for controlled behaviour).
“A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man”
Burgess intended the that the book have three sections of seven chapters each, thereby equalling twenty-one: a representation of Alex’s maturation into adulthood. However, both the US edition and the film drop the last chapter, thereby having a different ending – and consequently a different moral message to that intended by the author.
What this all adds up to – the unique title, the challenging language, the disturbing inspiration for the story, the innovative structure – are the elements by which a book becomes a classic. There’s a story to the story. After all, where does the story really begin and end?
Obviously, there is Kubrick’s movie adaptation. However, note that it has a different ending to that intended by Burgess. Also, the production design tends to date the film, whereas the themes of the book are as contemporary as ever.