Fat Books & Thin Women

A Clockwork Orange, Nadsat, & Creating a World Through Slang
January 10, 2012, 2:23 pm
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Reading Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange a second time, with two years of Macedonian under my belt, was an odd experience. My first reading was characterized mostly by my impatience with the nadsat, the slang that Alex and other teenagers use, and inability to stay awake for more than a few pages of what seemed to me the incomprehensible speech of Burgess’s characters.

One of the other volunteers in Macedonia mentioned that he had reread the book after learning Macedonian and that knowing the language had fundamentally changed his reading of the book. That’s why I finally reread Clockwork, after having had it on my shelf for well over a year. I was curious, and nothing more, about whether knowing a Slavic language would demystify the nadsat and change my reading experience.

Short answer, it did. The nadsat spoken by Alex has a lot in common with the MakeNglish spoken by Peace Corps Volunteers in the country, when we say things like “I’m odying to the prodav” (should be “Одам на продавница”/“Odam na prodavnitsa”, “I’m going to the store”). Burgess’s nadsat turns out to be little more than baby-level Russian, sometimes rejiggered slightly to fit better in the mouths of his characters, but easily understood by anyone with some experience with a Slavic language. Hell, Macedonian and Russian are not even that similar and I was able to come up with a list of words that are almost straight out of the Macedonian dictionary: starry (стари, old), nozh (нож, knife), mesto (место, place), droogs (друг, friend, companion), viddy (види, look, see), devotchka (девојка, girl), malenky (мал, little, small), gloopy (глуп, stupid), zoobies (заби, teeth), slooshy (слуши, listen), zheena (жена, woman), nochy (ноќ, night).*

My rereading of A Clockwork Orange suffered in some ways for its sudden comprehensibility. Nadsat still reads to me like an extraordinary language, one formed by an attentive and creative ear, but it’s also one that now reveals itself to be not much more than a selection of basic words from Russian. As Megan McCafferty’s Bumped proved, an unbelievable language can swiftly bring down a story, rendering an entire world false. Burgess’s use of language is far more skilled than is McCafferty’s, the slang of his teenagers utterly believable and never ringing false or ridiculous as McCafferty’s slang did.** Burgess may not form his world through his slang, as McCafferty attempted to, but he is able to use the slang to reveal that world and to mark it as a singular place in the reader’s life. Take the opening:

‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. (1)

Burgess does so much right here. Foreign as the slang may be, he uses it sparsely and the reader can “translate” the slang with the aid of context. Something about Alex’s time is revealed in this passage, too, with Alex so casually providing these details to demonstrate how much the world has changed, but at the same time showing that in some ways – regardless of language or whether teenagers are meeting up for coffees (or illicit beers) or milk-plus – it has, essentially, remained the same.

Alex’s voice is unforgettable; and the quality of that voice owes itself to the slang and little else. Because for most of the novel Alex is either a thuggish teen with few notable observations or someone being acted on by other people, little more than a body for their debates, there is little to his character apart from his way of speaking. Burgess did such a perfect job with that speech, though, that A Clockwork Orange should be a study guide for authors hoping to provide their characters with a believable slang.

How much has my reading of this book changed, though, from when I first picked it up four or five years ago? Part of the reason the slang now reads so naturally to me is that it is natural; I use a lot of the words Alex uses, every day. In some ways it feels as though the novel has collapsed a bit for me because of this – it’s no longer such a foreign world as it used to be – and in some ways it feels like a fuller and richer reading experience because I am able to join in the nadsat.

What has your experience been of reading A Clockwork Orange? Does the nadsat add to or complete the world for you, or make it harder to decipher what is happening in that world? Do you think the nadsat works because it is pulled from a real language and thus reads as more “real” and consistent than could a language cobbled together by anyone other than J.R.R. Tolkien, or is that just me and the two years of Macedonian?***

* This list would have been a lot longer, but I figured: I’m tired, and I’ve made my point. If you are wondering how you pronounce the Macedonian, most of the pronunciations are similar to the nadsat. That’s why I didn’t type the Macedonian in Latinski script…also, again, because I’m lazy.

** If you are rolling your eyes over me comparing A Clockwork Orange and Bumped…I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I just can’t resist taking a few more jabs at McCafferty’s novel.

*** One more: someone, please, explain how Norton let this book be printed up with back cover copy that starts, “A vicious fifteen-year-old droog is the central character…” when “droog” means “friend” and can’t really be used to describe someone except in relation to someone else.


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America, bookstores, crying
July 8, 2011, 3:26 pm
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I’ve been in America over a week now, I’ve been in one library and three bookstores, so it seems time to make the promised “what it’s like going into a bookstore for the first time in two years” post.

It’s really confusing.

Actually, as far as culture shock goes, the grocery store is a better indicator than the bookstore. In the months leading up to my flight home I had countless dreams about visiting an American grocery store, about half ending with me weeping in an aisle while waiting for my mother to find me. My first trip to a store, made the same night I landed, ended with my mother pulling me around while I pointed down aisle after aisle, shouting variations on, “An aisle of SOUP! Who needs a whole AISLE of soup?! Half an aisle of TISSUES?!” and laughing so hard I started to cry. The second trip, to a WholeFoods, saw me picking up item after item, saying its name, saying its price, and replacing it on the shelf. The third visit, my mother told me to pick out a salad dressing and I started to cry because there were too many and I didn’t know which type would be best.

Now that I’ve been here a week, though, I’ve recovered enough that I can walk down the aisles exclaiming over all the new types of M&Ms and Keebler cookies without giving in to tears. I’m trying to get you ready for the experience of going into a bookstore, though, which isn’t shocking in the same way a visit to a grocery store is – somehow, I don’t get weepy when I see how many books there are – but is in terms of pricing, for someone who gets a $200 living allowance a month. I went to The Strand in Manhattan, a bookstore that I didn’t like before (too big, poorly organized, shelves are so high you can’t see the top two or three rows of books, little quality control [my favorite bookstores only sell “good” books, which may be why they aren’t around for long]) and don’t like now, then on to St. Mark’s bookstore, which I liked and still like. At St. Mark’s, though, I kept building and diminishing my pile, because I couldn’t imagine spending money on so many books. So, pick up McSweeney’s and The Believer, add Matterhorn, return McSweeney’s and The Believer, pick up Electric Literature, pick up Joe Sacco’s Notes from Gaza, return Matterhorn, pick up Bitch Magazine, stare at pile of books and magazines until friend reminds me that I can purchase the books instead of just looking at them. Or a few nights ago, when I got Goon Squad, Game of Thrones and The Blind Assassin, and got all weepy looking at the prices, even when my dad said he would pay for them. (And he, by the way, got Matterhorn. A copy for me to steal!…in a year.)

I never thought I would say this, but America has too many books, and every time I’ve been in a bookstore or a library so far, I’ve gone in with a clear idea of what I want. Goon Squad was the first book I thought of buying after booking my flight home, and because these books are “extra precious” to me in that they’ll be the only ones I buy for a year, and the ones that come back to Macedonia/Albania with me, I can’t even begin to entertain the thought of buying a book that is “unknown” to me. My hesitance to try a book by an author I don’t know much about is heightened by the cost of doing so; I can’t help but convert prices into Macedonian denars, and figuring that a paperback costs 750 denars (that’s probably more than I spend on my groceries in a week) is pretty good incentive to NOT buy.

Other books coming back to Macedonia with me, if you were wondering: DFW’s Pale King, John M. Thompson’s The Reservoir, The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a new Albanian-English dictionary.

It may not sound like I am enjoying the wealth of books here, but I am. I’m also enjoying buying The New York Times every day.

Where are you, Ellen?
June 28, 2011, 5:04 pm
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How I feel right now

Well, right now I’m in Macedonia, sitting on my sofa, with a sugar headache. But in a couple days I’ll be in the States (FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 22 MONTHS), maybe reading but more probably devoting myself to the lost art of drinking beers out of paper bags in parks while wearing (scandal) a tanktop and a skirt that does not touch my knees. Which is to say, posts here may be irregular. Undoubtedly I’ll come up with something after my first trip to a bookstore (oh my god oh my god oh my god) that will probably only be of interest to fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who haven’t been in a bookstore in nearly two years, and I’ll probably read something that seems worth writing about, and I’m going to try and have a short story post up every Sunday still because I continue to love short stories whatever the rest of the world thinks…but these next three and a half weeks, I’m calling my summer vacation.

So weird to think that 72 hours from now I’m not going to be in my little town in Macedonia, but in New York. OPA!

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Mini-Break? Mini-Break!
April 29, 2011, 3:53 pm
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Things have been, uh, a little quiet around here, and not to give anything away but certain reader favorites (ha, ha) such as Story Sundays won’t be up this week. I’ll probably get some posts up in a week or so but for now I’ve got allergies and can barely lift my head off my pillow long enough to blow my nose, and have some Important Decisions to make about what I’m doing after Peace Corps – so, you know, I will be not posting here for a bit. See you all soon!

(I wish that I was writing this because I was off on some awesome vacation or something – but no, I’ll just be laying on my sofa, skyping my parents and trying to talk them into telling me what I should do with myself come October 2011.)

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Donate for Literacy this Holiday Season

I’m going off the beaten track today (though not off the cliched track, it seems) in honor of the holiday season and as my mild protest of Black Friday and the wasteful, rampant consumerism of the day.

If you read this blog regularly you’re probably vaguely familiar with some of the stuff I do in the Peace Corps, and that one thing I’m working on now is building an English language library in my school. I mean, that’s only half of it – we’re also working to improve the “infrastructure” of the library (I don’t know what that means, but it’s a good Peace Corps buzzword) by setting up a catalog system, and to encourage students to check out more books and thus read more. What this all means is that I am right now spending a lot of time trying not to tear my hair out, downloading trial versions of cataloging programs and testing them, and researching reading programs that have been successful in American schools.

Maybe you can see where this is going. It is, after all, the holiday season in America, smack dab between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which means it’s time for pleas for donations to go out. If you’re thinking that this post is a plea for you to donate books to me, you’re about halfway right; it’s a plea, for sure, but among other things I’ve learned during this project, it’s that the people who will work to collect and ship books halfway around the world are the ones you’ve worked with back home. And in my frustrating search for organizations that exist to donate books to Eastern European countries
(they don’t exist, not that I can tell), I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of great organizations that need your books as much as my school does.

I am as much, or more of, a hoarder of books than anyone I know, and only the impossibility of fitting my library in the two fifty-pound bags I could bring into the Peace Corps broke me of my desire to own pretty much Every Book Ever Published. But a lot of these books that I owned I never read. I never will read them. These books sat on my shelves for years gathering dust, and only having to move forced me to get rid of some of them.

So it being the season of giving and all, why not look at your own books and consider whether you really need to hang on to all of them? Why not pull out your boxes of children’s books that have been residing in your attic for twenty years and try finding a better home for them? Instead of waiting, like I did, to be forced to get rid of some of your books, why not do so now? It doesn’t, after all, cost anything to give away those books you’ve read once and don’t expect to return to, or the stacks you picked up as the result of some crazed enthusiasm rather than actual interest at the latest library sale.

It’s not, after all, only schools in Eastern Europe that need English-language books. There are countless schools and classrooms in the States that can use your unloved or forgotten books, and all it takes is a little legwork on your part to find local organizations that need your reading materials. (As a example, before I left my apartment in Philly I donated a lot of my books to the hospital at which I worked. If I hadn’t spent a year there, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that hospitals need books to distribute to their long-term patients.)

It’s easiest, and probably best, to donate to local organizations – to call your local library, schools and hospital to find out whether they’re interested in taking your books. But below I’ve put together a list of larger-scale organizations that could use your donations of books and/or money. These are geared to American readers, but if you’re coming from another country and know a great organization that could use donations, let me know and I’ll add it to the list.

  1. Darien Book Aid sends books to Peace Corps Volunteers working on library projects. I received a box from them and can vouch for the quality and usefulness of their books. If you live near them, in Connecticut, you can donate books, or you can provide a cash donation to help pay for shipping books to volunteers.
  2. Books for Africa sends shipping containers of books and takes cash donations to defray the cost of sending books overseas.
  3. Book Aid International, much like Books for Africa, accepts donations of money to help pay for book shipments.
  4. Books Behind Bars doesn’t handle book donations, but they list addresses of prisons in need of books and general instructions for donating your books to these prison libraries.
  5. The Prison Book Program is located in Massachusetts and doesn’t recommend shipping book donations, so I’ve linked to a page on their site with details on other prison book programs that may be closer to you.
  6. A resource page listing Native American K – 12 schools. There are some specific donation requests that you can explore from this site, notably the If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything program.
  7. Adopt a Library is a site with information on libraries seeking donations.

Trust me, your donations will be appreciated.