A real good horrorshow
By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
On holiday in the remote mountains of Mallorca recently, I read Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and for days after finishing the book, had a recurring nightmare which involved a person with a “Peebee Shelley maskie” violently hacking me into tiny, bloody bits. Maybe I’m easily shocked, but the nightmares are a price worth paying for the experience of reading Burgess’s unexpectedly mind-blowing prose. The incidents that Alex, the novel's school-boy narrator, describes are shocking; more so because of the book's disturbing language. Here’s how Alex and his “droogs”, Georgie and Pete, rape a woman and attack her husband, a writer:
“He did the strong-man on the devotchka, who was still creech creech creeching away in very horrorshow four-in-a-bar, locking her rookers from the back, while I ripped away at this and that and the other, the others going haw haw haw still, and real good horrorshow groodies they were that then exhibited their pink glazzies, O my brothers, while I untrussed and got ready for the plunge. Plunging, I could slooshy cries of agony and this writer bleeding veck that Georgie and Pete held on to nearly got loose howling bezoomny with the filthiest of slovos that I already knew and others he was making up.”
In the TLS of April 22, 1965 (three years after the original, UK publication of A Clockwork Orange), Burgess wrote an article explaining his experimental style: “I wanted to write about possible ways of dealing with the disease of juvenile delinquency, and I wanted the story of one young thug’s rehabilitation to be recounted by the patient himself. This, I thought, called for the use of teenage slang, and I began my first draft in the coffee-bar idiom (most painfully learnt) of the day. But I reflected that, by the time the book came out, the slang would already be out of date . . . . A trip to Russia showed me that stilyagi behaved much like our own (as they were then) teddy-boys, and I was struck by the notion of fusing the cognate images into one . . . by manufacturing a composite language, a sort of Anglo-Russian dialect I called (after the Russian “-teen” prefix) Nadsat. Conservative by nature, I do not like strangeness for its own sake, and the fact that my new slang could be justified in terms of a real foreign language eased my embarrassment at having to write in it . . . . The title of the book is A Clockwork Orange, taken by some Americans as avant-garde clever-cleverness but, as any Cockney will know, as native and traditional as Bow Bells”.
The author’s unfamiliar “slovos” (words) are especially imaginative when it comes to describing body parts: “litso” (face), “rot” (mouth), “zoobies” (teeth), “rookers” (arms and hands), “guttiwuts” (stomach) and “glazzies” (eyes). “Droogs” comes from Russian drugi, meaning friends in violence. “Horrorshow”, from kharashó, the neuter form of the Russian word for “good”, is used as a term of approbation, like modern slang “wicked” and “sick”. The latter, incidentally, is also used by Alex to express approval – an unintentionally prophetic stroke on Burgess's part.
For me, one of the best slang coinages is “sinny” (cinema), apt given the evil Alex is forced to endure through films and also because of what Burgess was later to feel about Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, released in 1971. Burgess thought his novel’s unfamiliar language veiled the violence – nothing is described outright, he leaves it to the reader’s imagination (which is often more powerful) – whereas Kubrick’s film starkly realizes the incidents and Burgess’s wordplay is mostly lost.
An awareness of his novel’s potential to do harm perhaps encouraged Burgess to write a letter to the Editor of the TLS in 1964 defending the work of his friend, William Burroughs:
“if any writer is likely to rehabilitate an effete form and show us what can still be done with a language that Joyce seemed to have wrung dry, it is William Burroughs . . . . Unfortunately, too many people who should know better protract a squeamishness about subject-matter that sickens their capacity to make purely literary judgments. I do not like what Mr. Burroughs writes about; for that matter I do not always like what I myself write about: I was nauseated by the content of my A Clockwork Orange. There is . . . no lip-smacking on the part of Mr. Burroughs when he works at the refining of his raw material into art. Life is, unfortunately, life. Out of life we must choose, for our writing, what will best stimulate us to write well. ‘Everything that lives is holy.’ This may not be morally true, but it is true of the subject-matter of literature. For heaven’s sake, let us leave morals to the moralists and carry on with the job of learning to evaluate art as art”.
In his autobiography, Burgess suggested poor sales of A Clockwork Orange were probably down to over-exposure – people didn’t feel they needed to read the book, especially following the film. Yet Kubrick based his film adaptation on the American edition, which cuts the last chapter where Alex matures and reforms, and then muses that the next generation will go through the same mayhem of adolescence, “so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round”. The US publishers, W. W. Norton, thought this ending wouldn’t appeal to American readers; perhaps they didn't get the author’s subtle, cyclical pessimism. (Burgess only accepted the cut and the addition of a Nadsat glossary for financial reasons, but in later reprints, he insisted on reinstating the last chapter and dropping the glossary.) And another editorial oversight, this time from the English publishers, Heinemann: in Burgess’s typescript, from which the original 1962 edition was taken, an editor has written in the margin, “will this name be known at publication time?”, beside “Elvis Presley”.
Why read A Clockwork Orange now? Well, if you don’t, “bolshy great yarblockos to thee and thine”.