First published in 1962, A Clockwork Orange, like Dracula, is a novel that most people know of without necessarily having read it. Alex, the stylish dressed adolescent thug with a taste for ultraviolence has become an iconic figure, in part due to Stanley Kubrick’s hugely controversial – including with the author – movie adaption staring Malcolm McDowell. By the 90’s, The Simpsons even had Bart sporting McDowell’s Alex costume in one of their Halloween specials.
But what of the book? The most immediately striking thing about it is the language. Burgess created his own slang; ‘nadsat’, based in part on Russian. With Alex as the narrator, the whole novel is written in a mash up of English and nadsat which initially makes it hard to understand what is being said. This is a smart move as the reader is uncomfortable from the start. It also emphasises the separateness of Alex and his droogs (friends) from the adult world and their lack of interest in being understood by it.
The use of language throughout the book is profoundly ugly. This is inevitable as Alex is a truly repulsive kid. A mugger, rapist, paedophile and murderer, he is devoid of any form of conscience or empathy. Burgess plays with cultural assumptions by making him a lover of classical music, challenging commonly held beliefs about the improving effect of high art. As the Nazi atrocities are referenced at times, this may be Burgess response to the Third Reich’s use of beautiful and triumphant imagery to justify terrible acts. While the book could be read as a response to youth culture – a source of sometimes hysterical concern in the 60’s – it works just as well as a reaction to the worst events perpetuated during the Second World War.
As Alex is imprisoned and then subjected to the brainwashing Ludovico Technique to strip away his violent tendencies, the book poses its central question: is the price of free will the evil that people will inevitably do? Alex has committed such appalling crimes by this time that it’s difficult to care much about his suffering (he is as far from Winston Smith as could be) but through him, Burgess critiques those would try to improve the world through intervention without consent. Most of them are shown as interested only in furthering their own careers.
While the book’s violence and language caused outrage, the ending, excised in some editions, also caused debate. Burgess has Alex, his free will restored, simply grow out of his old ways. Some called this a cop-out but in fact it feels perfectly authentic, even melancholy, in its description of the inevitability of growing up. In an ironic twist, the older Alex finds that nadsat is becoming obsolete and he can no longer make himself understood by those younger than him.
A Clockwork Orange is an easier book to admire than to love. Much like its narrator, it raises important and challenging questions but is a far from easy companion. Which was perhaps the intention.
My next book: Captive Universe by Harry Harrison