Anthony Burgess, 1962. Cover by David Pelham, 1968
A Clockwork Orange is by some way Anthony Burgess’s best-known work. It was first published in 1962 and became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic following the release of Stanley Kubrick’s film in 1971.
The novel received a positive critical response but Burgess repeatedly tried to distance himself from it. He claimed it was an unimportant book which he had written in just three weeks. This was probably because its bestseller status overshadowed his other – and better – writing; and partly because he didn’t like Kubrick’s claim on his work. The film was rated “X” in both the UK and the US and was criticized for its graphic violence. As a result both the film and the book were boycotted in the US. Two years after its release, Kubrick took the film out of circulation in Britain following accusations that it inspired copycat rapes and other violent acts.
A Clockwork Orange is set in a future English society with a culture of extreme youth violence. Burgess claimed that his inspiration was the beating inflicted on his wife by a gang of drunken American servicemen stationed in England during World War II. The book’s 15-year-old protagonist Alex narrates his violent exploits and the authorities’ attempts to reform him.
It was originally written in three parts, each with seven chapters. However, for nearly 20 years two, quite different, versions were on sale. The final chapter was omitted from editions published in the US prior to 1986. In the introduction to the updated American text – which included the missing 21st chapter – Burgess explains why. When he first took the book to an American publisher he was told that readers would never go for the final chapter in which Alex recognizes the error of his ways and resolves to turn his life around. Burgess reluctantly agreed but considered this version of his novel to be “badly flawed”. Kubrick’s film adaptation is based on the early American edition of the book, without the final chapter.
Alex’s narrative is delivered in a language created by Burgess. Nadsat is a mix of modified Russian and other Slavic terms, British rhyming slang and words which Burgess made up. He had a lot of fun with Nadsat. My favourite is horrowshow; Nadsat for “excellent”. It looks like an English word but comes from the Russian word for “good”, khorosho.
Burgess was often asked to explain the novel’s title. He usually answered that it was based on a common cockney expression, “as queer as a clockwork orange”. However, there is no record of this phrase being used before 1962. On the other hand, nadsat does have a meaning; it is the suffix for Russian numerals from 11 to 19, an almost exact linguistic parallel to the English teen. Clever, eh?
The wide-eyed image of Alex on David Pelham’s cover design reflects the teenager’s appetite for amphetamines – and the aversion therapy which he receives in prison.