After Anna Karenina, I decided to read something radically different, firstly to keep things interesting, and secondly to reward myself with something shorter that I could finish more quickly. I’m not the kind of person that can go from one long heavy book to another, no matter how much I might enjoy them. In between, there has to be some light relief. Usually, for me, this takes the form of chick-lit but in this instance I decided to try and crack another of the books on the list. A Clockwork Orange was certainly shorter, and I finished it pretty quickly, but light relief probably isn’t the best way to describe it!
I’ve never seen the Stanley Kubrick film adaption of the book, A Clockwork Orange, which won both critical acclaim and an infamous reputation in 1972, but I was aware that this novel contained high levels of both physical and sexual violence. In fact, I had been aware of the film more than the book – it was one of those movies like The Exorcist that fascinated my friends and me as teenagers; we were in awe of those who had managed to sneak a viewing of them. The only other knowledge I had was of the costumes that are used in the film – I would always see at least one person dressed up like it at every Hallowe’en party I went to at university.
So, when I came to read A Clockwork Orange, I didn’t actually have a lot of preconceptions about it, which was good. Although I’m a big advocate of watching adaptations to soften up the reading of a book, I liked that with this book I was able to form my own opinions about the characters and picture them in my own way without the influence of a director’s camera lens.
The novel is fairly short, split into three parts and is set in a dystopian universe where we follow Alex, the narrator, a juvenile delinquent and his gang of friends as they commit unspeakable acts of violence in society. Alex is then captured and undergoes psychological conditioning to ‘cure’ him of his sociopathic tendencies before he is returned to society and has to face the consequences of his previous actions. After his treatment, he is incapable of violence due to the treatment which renders him physically ill at the thought of it. On re-entering society, he struggles to find his place within it given his new identity and, depending on the edition you read, we either see him turn his back on his old ways, or fall right back into them with no regret.
The first thing to note about A Clockwork Orange, once you start reading it, is the language. Written in the words of the protagonist, Alex, it uses a fictional dialect called Nadsat – a kind of slang used by the youth in this dystopian world. I read the first page and had no idea what was going on. I didn’t have a clue before I started the book that there was an alternative language going on here. I actually stopped at the end of the page and reconsidered reading the thing in the first place – I didn’t fancy deciphering every other word to work out what the hell was actually happening. However, I was on a train at the time with no alternative reading material so I decided to plough on and just wing it, and it did get a lot better. The language is sort of Anglo-Slavic so some words are easy to have a guess at, and those that aren’t often make sense in context. Also, Burgess is pretty clever in mixing up the slang and ordinary English, so if you’re reading about someone having been hit on the ‘gulliver’, usually in a few sentences or paragraphs that character might mention that their head is hurting, leading you to surmise that gulliver = head. I do realise, however, that this decoding of language in a book is really not to everyone’s taste, and the fact that I used to do a lot of translating and guessing of words in context as part of my studies might mean that I found it a bit easier than some others. There are dictionaries available online like this one here to look up anything that you aren’t sure of, and I think some editions have a glossary in the back. Unfortunately, if you’re reading on Kindle then highlighting the word doesn’t always work (this would be useful). But, I would urge you not to let the language be the reason that you don’t read it – it doesn’t take long to get used to it and it does add an interesting dimension to the whole story. I think it serves to highlight Alex’s youth more than anything – it often sounds childlike and when it’s in the context of the horrific violence that he commits, it makes the whole thing even more disturbing.
Once you’re used to the language, you can enjoy the story, so to speak. You may not enjoy it – the reputation of the book for its ultra-violence is not unfounded. There are several extended passages describing drug-taking, beatings, rape and murder all in the name of fun. The violence isn’t just gratuitous, it serves a purpose and it isn’t to glorify the acts. Sure, it’s uncomfortable, but it should be. Burgess said that he was disappointed that this became his most famous novel, as he felt it had been misinterpreted due to its controversial content, particularly after the film was released. It seemed that many critics saw the novel as glorifying mindless violence, which misses the point. All the passages serve a purpose to highlight the degradation of this society where the youth have so much power, and to demonstrate the full depths of Alex’s delinquency. We need to see how vile his behaviour is in order to fully wrestle with the question that is at the heart of this novel: is it better for a person to choose to be bad or to be forced to be good?
Burgess evidently believes the answer to that question is yes, as Alex’s conditioning treatment is as difficult to read as the passages depicting his own violence, and I felt an unexpected and uncomfortable sympathy for him when he was released into the world and helpless to defend himself against its evils. I think the book does a good job of making you interrogate your thoughts on this question, although I also think you can easily come out on either side of the argument. A lot of this might depend on the issue you read – the ending is different depending on the edition. The final chapter is excluded from the American version, which leaves a wholly more depressing and dark finish to the book as Alex returns to his old ways without hesitation or remorse. The English version has a more optimistic view of humanity, which makes it easier to come out with Burgess’ view that free will is paramount.
In general, I think A Clockwork Orange is an interesting book, and it does make you reflect on the central question of choice and free will, but I think it definitely has gained most of its notoriety from the film’s cult status. Once I got over the language and some of the fairly horrible context, I found it quite easy to read, and it wasn’t a chore to pick up. It was definitely the right length for its story; any longer and I would have lost interest. If you’re interested in philosophy then it will probably appeal, given the exploration of good vs. evil, the effect of society upon our nature and, of course, the issue of morality and choice. I did enjoy it and I don’t regret having read it but overall I was a little bit disappointed – I think there’s more hype surrounding it than it perhaps deserves.
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥