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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The False Moral Center of Clockwork‘s Final Chapter
December 22, 2011, 9:19 am
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

In his introduction to A Clockwork Orange Burgess details his disagreement with his original American publishers about the form the published novel should take, whether it should be published with twenty chapters (as it originally was in the United States; this is what Stanley Kubrick based his film on) or with twenty-one (as Burgess wished). In this twenty-first chapter Burgess attempts to give his novel some moral shape or center, a clear and positive message about the ability of humans to change and grow. After having his morality defined and controlled via the Ludovico treatment, Alex in this final chapter is meant to appear to have come, of his own free will, to adulthood complete with an acceptable moral code.

Whatever Burgess’s intentions, though, this chapter feels rushed, tacked on, an attempt to “redeem” Alex and fundamentally change the character he has established for himself over the previous twenty chapters. This chapter falls back on tropes of the coming-of age novel, with Alex realizing that he is eighteen, that it is time for him to marry, that it is time for him to grow up. In falling into such traditional concepts of the move into adulthood, Burgess fails not only in a purely artistic sense, but also undermines his own belief that Alex at this point is no longer a clockwork orange. Because Alex is unable to imagine a life in which he is capable of making moral decisions or capable of making decisions birthed of his own agency rather than a sense of what is expected of him based on his age, he does not truly have agency even in III, 7; and Burgess’s decision to represent Alex’s growth through a baby photograph Alex carries in his pocket is far too similar to representations of enforced change earlier in the novel to effectively showcase Alex’s “growth” as a character. While Burgess does succeed in III, 7 in raising additional questions about Alex’s agency, he does so at the cost of the realism of the character and the novel. Alex becomes, in III, 7, nothing more than a cardboard figure, no longer a puppet for F. Alexander but for Burgess himself. Burgess ultimately fails as an author, in destroying the sovereignty of his main character and making apparent that he, Burgess, considers any and all aspects of his characters to be changeable without concern for the realism of the novel’s world.

To attempt to show, in one chapter, change and growth as they may actually occur—that is, gradually, over a long period of time, certainly not over a few days at the most as is the case here—is artistically irresponsible, and removes from Alex the possibility of any agency as a character. Burgess is correct in stating, as he does in the work’s introduction, that the work is too didactic to be artistic, but much of this didactism emerges in the final chapter, when Burgess attempts to imagine the sort of moral growth he feels is necessary to a successful novel, but without allowing Alex the time to grow and change in what seems a genuine manner.

In terms of this idea of moral growth, III, 6 is no better than III, 7; it is however a stronger close to the novel because it holds to the tone of the rest of the book, and seems to be more concerned with Alex than with explicitly imparting a moral message. Burgess succeeds in creating a horrifying vision of Alex’s powerlessness. Though he is cured of the Ludovico cure and is able to once again act according to his original sense of morality, he has no choice in this cure. It becomes unclear whether there is a way for Alex not to live as a “clockwork orange,” and Burgess is able to create this sense of uncertainty while holding with the artistic sensibility of the novel as a whole. When Alex asks the nurse, “has anyone been doing anything with my gulliver? What I mean is, have they been playing around with inside like my brain?” (174), Burgess succeeds in presenting Alex as a character with some depth, as a character who doesn’t feel like a character—a point on which he fails in III, 7. There is something genuinely shocking in the way Alex is “cured” of the Ludovico treatment, and in Alex’s question above. In making clear that it is only after days of receiving the “cure” that Alex begins to realize what is being done to him, Burgess crafts a more horrifying image of governmental control over the will than he is able to with the Ludovico treatment. It is unclear how Alex feels upon realizing that he may have received a sort of cure to the Ludovico cure (in his question above it’s not made explicit whether he’s pleased or unhappy at the thought of being cured again), but the ambiguity of Alex’s feelings, coupled with the ambiguity of the government returning Alex to his original morality without his consent, allows Burgess to raise more questions of morality and free will in this chapter than in III, 7. The moral growth Burgess desires to write of may not be apparent, but his artistic performance is high in that he is able to create sympathy for a character who will soon be carrying out the same acts of violence as he did in Part One of the novel. He raises questions of the differing levels of morality, of whether Alex is essentially more moral than those in the government who have “cured” him because he lacks power or agency against that government. It is precisely Alex’s lack of power in this passage, Alex’s inability to enact his will, that makes the scene such a striking one.

Burgess succeeds in III, 6 in making a character lacking any morality seem moral in comparison to those around him, makes Alex a character worthy of the reader’s sympathy (though this could not be termed an “easy” sympathy; questions of what Alex will do after release from the hospital complicate it). It is more the shame, then, that Burgess should in III, 7 make clear that Alex, that all his characters, have been nothing but machines through the whole novel, that Burgess should strip Alex of the humanity he seemingly gains when in the hospital so that he may strive to recraft the novel in the form of what he considers an artistically ideal morality tale. Alex may not be a moral character at the close of III, 6 (the chapter’s close, with Alex thinking, “I was cured all right” [179] is strong precisely because Alex is not moral, because this one sentence forces the reader to question how Alex will enact his will after leaving the hospital) but questions of his agency and will continue to exist within the novel, with Burgess’s hand far less visible than it is in III, 7.

While Alex in III, 7 does not seem to be explicItly influenced by any other characters as he is via the “cure” in III, 6, it becomes clear that he is only the creation of Burgess, and that he lacks any degree of selfhood. Burgess ceases to treat Alex as though he is a person, and Alex seems subject not only to the whims of those around him, but to the whims and artistic aims of Burgess as well—Alex’s world is no longer self-contained, but reveals itself to be the product of Burgess’s hand. While Burgess is able to take shortcuts in his writing elsewhere in the novel (for instance, in failing to explain in any detail how the Ludovico treatment works; the important thing to Burgess seems to be that he be able to examine questions of free will and morality, and to create a detailed cure would delay the answers to those questions), this is one instance in which such shortcuts fail Burgess’s artistic vision. Burgess attempts to show Alex’s growth and change by placing a baby photograph in Alex’s pocket. He writes, “I couldn’t explain how it had got there, brothers, but it was a photograph I had scissored out of the old gazetta and it was a baby. It was of a baby gurgling goo goo goo…” (184). The Alex of this passage, of this final chapter, does not seem to be the same Alex of the past twenty chapters; and this difference is not due to any growth on Alex’s part, but to forced change on Burgess’s part. Because Burgess is unwilling to devote more than a chapter to Alex’s growth, he is unable to achieve his artistic goal of a novel that ultimately addresses the growth of its characters. Burgess fails to understand that while enforced change can be represented as coming via a pill, a tv screen, or an IV, genuine change cannot be seen through a baby photograph suddenly and inexplicably placed in a character’s pocket. Such an image of change is not an image of genuine growth, and if Burgess truly believes (as he writes) that the point of a novel is to “…show the possibility of moral transformation…” (viii), then surely he could devote more than a single chapter to that transformation.

Burgess’s laziness is at other points in the novel excusable, as that laziness acts as an expedient to the telling of Alex’s story. There is something refreshing, too, in Burgess’s lack of concern with precisely why Alex confesses, or how the Ludovico technique works, as it suggests in the first instance that there is some level of Alex’s character that the reader is not able to access, and in the second instance that Burgess is more concerned with examining Alex and what happens to Alex than with the precise, scientific details of what happens to him. Burgess is able to get away with representing change as coming from a pill because that is the nature of the treatment he has created, because the very nature of enforced change does not allow any sort of gradual change or growth. By representing Alex’s “genuine” change in III, 7 through a sort of new pill, a photograph of a baby, Burgess treats Alex and his growth as though it is again enforceable, and in doing so destroys the illusion of Alex and the world of the novel. When Alex accidentally pulls from his pocket the photo of the “very fat baby” (184) it is clear that Burgess has simply attempted to plant another pill, that whatever redemption Alex finds in the last pages of the book will be as false as his previous pill-induced morality.

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Review: Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange
December 20, 2011, 4:58 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

Because I have some strong feelings on the twenty-first chapter of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, I’ll be writing today’s review as if there are only twenty chapters to the book. I’ll get to that final chapter in my next post.

A Clockwork Orange is a remarkable book, often more for its language than for the skill with which Burgess plays with the novel’s major themes. What’s often noted about the novel is, correctly, the “nadsat,” the slang that Alex and his friends speak to one another as they wreak havoc on the lives of strangers. Burgess’s world, a vision of our own had it gone on a slightly different course, is formed in large part through the language his characters speak; it’s that language, that world, that makes the book a must-read, that lends a sense of reality to the story. It’s the nadsat that hides the fault to Burgess’s writing, the degree to which he manipulates his reader, along with Alex, to certain lines of thinking throughout the book. (There’s a post coming on the nadsat, later.)

In the first seven-chapter section of his novel, Burgess establishes Alex as a character whose cruelty towards others is relieved, for the reader, only by his love of music. Alex and his droogs, his friends, spend the first chapters moving from bar to bar, buying people off for their complicity in creating abilis, and robbing and raping on the street and in private homes – and this as teenagers, Alex being only fifteen years old. Burgess is quick to establish Alex as a character whose moral center is far from the average; he’s not only a character who does wrong, but a character who fails to recognize the wrong. Even his love of music turns sour for the reader when he seduces a couple of girls back to his parents’ apartment to listen to albums on his new stereo, then rapes them.

Burgess neatly splits Clockwork into three sections, with the first ending when Alex is arrested for murder. This is all a set-up for Burgess’s main thematic questions, of whether a bad person can be forced to be a good person, and of whether it is better for a naturally bad person to remain so, or to lose his or her free will in becoming what society recognizes as “good.”

While in jail, Alex is selected to be the first recipient of the Ludovico treatment, a revolutionary program designed to reform the worst of criminals in only two weeks. The treatment isn’t as interesting as are the ethical questions Burgess raises; and if there’s a fault to this segment of the novel, it’s that Burgess is too quick to hand speeches to his characters, pushing the reader to think in the direction he’s directed. The Prison Chaplain is most often victim to Burgess’s puppetry, as when he discusses the Ludovico treatment from a moral standpoint (and keep in mind that Alex’s interest in the treatment is nothing more than an interest in getting out of jail 18 years earlier than he otherwise would).

‘Very hard ethical questions are involved,’ he went on. ‘You are to be made into a good boy, 6655321. Never again will you have the desire to commit acts of violence or to offend in any way whatsoever against the State’s Peace. I hope you take all that in. I hope you are absolutely clear in your own mind about that.’ I said:

‘Oh, it will be nice to be good, sir.’ But I had a real horrorshow smeck at that inside, brothers. He said:

‘It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good…. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? Deep and hard questions, little 6655321.’ (95)

To be sure, Burgess poses interesting moral questions here. When Alex is released he is a shell of his former self, despised by many for the person he used to be, yet unable to defend himself against a world that retains the cruelties he himself is no longer capable of inflicting. It’s in this third section (in the first six chapters of it, anyway) that Burgess creates a work that I find in so many ways stunning. Although Alex as a character has been significantly changed by his treatment, there’s a suggestion that the world itself doesn’t change; there are patterns that must be maintained, ones of redemption and of retribution. And Alex, a character who once acted his life out upon others with impunity, suddenly finds himself the subject of their worlds, used as a political pawn and unable to trust, any longer, the words of others. When the Ludovico treatment strips Alex of his ability to act violently he is stripped, too, of his ability to act as his own agent in the world.

There’s an answer in here to Burgess’s question, if you’re looking for one, but it changes significantly based on how many of the chapters you opt to read. I prefer to read the book as Burgess’s American editors initially published it, and as Kubrick adapted the film: twenty chapters, ending with Alex again listening to his music (which he had been unable to bear after the Ludovico treatment ended), thinking:

I was cured all right.

What a way to end the novel, what a stunner of a closing line: it suggests so much for the reader, tells us, really, what person Alex truly is, but leaves to us his next move. It suggests, too, a constancy in human nature; not that a person can’t change slightly over time, but that there are certain elements to a person’s nature that cannot be broken, and that Alex’s most true and correct self is the one that tears apart old men’s library books on the street. Some of Alex’s old droogs have grown up and moved away from him in the two years he spent in jail, but Alex himself stands at novel’s end as a character who has been changed but also proven the degree to which he cannot be changed. Though this isn’t the ending Burgess wanting, it’s one bristling with tension as we feel Alex, the real Alex, returning to himself.

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