Anthony Burgesss A Clockwork Orange,which celebrates a half-century this year,and Stanley Kubricks 1971 film adaptation were distinct creations. But it is too easy to pin down the authors dismissal of the book as peripheral and minor to the popularity the film brought it. Burgess may not have been keen on the bestseller list and the reading hordes,Anglophone or otherwise,who came to his ninth novel via Kubrick. For a man who prided himself as a defender of individual freedom to the extent of fleeing England to avoid the 90 per cent tax by which he believed the government was bent on stealing the money he had made (with some help from Kubrick) but whose Englishness was conservative and monarchist,who believed in the power of education but found the idea of curing people of their natural (and Catholic) sense of guilt and inherent flaws more criminal than the criminality born of the self-same human faultlines,his life and art may have been a pose.
Yet,now that Burgesss place has been incontestably settled as minor unlike his most famous book,which has turned 50 it is only when we accept him,unabashedly,for the dandy he was that we can begin to appreciate and preserve his import for another generation or two. There had to be something more intrinsically revolting about Malcolm McDowells Alex DeLarge simulacrum than the charges of immorality and copycat violence that the Kubrick adaptation attracted for Burgesss self-distancing. Kubricks stylisation rightfully created a new work,exploiting a different medium to demonstrate how the violence of the image can indeed alter perceptions of reality and in fact,destroy reality for the audience. But that sense of violence,being violated or wishing to perpetrate violence,doesnt strike the reader of the novel.
What readers of Burgesss Clockwork took away from Alexs shaika of droogs,their Moloko-plus drinks and their gullivers is the epitome of pop literary baroque. A grammarian and phonologist to the bones,who had set upon teaching English as a foreign language in the cause of freedom,Burgesss most sincere and original legacy is his wordplay. At a time when the emphasis is on making the novel linguistically simple again,if not quite re-indulging in the trite Hemingway-esque terseness,returning to Burgesss invented Anglo-Russian slang,Nadsat,would stretch the possibilities of language.
I lay all nagoy to the ceiling,my gulliver on my rookers on the pillow,glazzies closed,rot open in bliss,slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh,it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh…: Alex listening to Beethoven. Burgess the musician,firmly believing in all art attempting to attain the state of music,or pure form,didnt merely impose rigid structures on his works as in Clockworks 21 chapters in the British edition to show Alexs coming of age. He was asking the reader to use her head and understand how language works through context,how it is understood,and realise how it is the thing in itself. There was a reason why he refused to provide a glossary for Nadsat which Andrew Biswells 50th anniversary edition has of course expanded because a dictionary for idiolect and an explanation of register ruins the ears sharpness and delight in the authors inventiveness. The effect could,of course,also be ridiculous,as in the Bards ghosts gliding as on a buttered pavement in Nothing Like the Sun (1964),Burgesss novel about Shakespeare.
The dystopia of Clockwork can claim the pedigree of 1984,Brave New World and certainly Sinclair Lewis It Cant Happen Here (1935). But it remains a very Cold War/postwar work,not least for the obsession with Russian,when the state could still be seen to be playing god with the individuals free will. States still do so,but a purely Burgessian counter is unthinkable in an age when language is undersold. Of far more pop interest would perhaps be the fact that Mick Jagger had wanted to play Alex DeLarge and the Beatles,the 50th anniversary of whose first single fell this week,had wanted to write the score for the film before Kubrick took over. Burgess hated the Beatles,but would that film have laid claim to his creation the way Kubricks did?