Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and book-burning

There are a number of perverse pleasures that one can indulge in when reading Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. One can appreciate Burgess’ fun  conceptualisation of what Britain might look like as a communist state (woefully inefficient, apparently), one can enjoy how one gradually begins to understand Nadsat, the language that Burgess wrote the novel in, attempting to guess the way in which the youths of the future may speak, a fusion between  cockney rhyming slang and Soviet-inflected cockney rhyming slang (Burgess may have been slightly off on this point) or one could revel in Burgess’ anticipation of the polarised response to the text. Burgess makes the reaction of fusty types with destructive attitudes towards books complicit in the novel’s satire, as if expecting that A Clockwork Orange would one day number among the ‘bad boys’ of the Western canon, the books which have been banned. If you were expecting me to describe the depiction of ultraviolence as ‘a pleasure,’ look elsewhere, no MRA I.

Early in the novel, we have Alex and his droogs running into an older chelloveck, with a couple of books that seem strictly factual in nature, entitled Elementary Crystallography, The Rhombohedral System and The Miracle of the Snowflake. Alex tears them up: “This crystal book I had was very tough-bound and hard to razrez to bits, but being real starry and made in days when things were made to last like, but I managed to rip the pages up and chuck them in handfuls of like snowflakes, though big, all over this creeching old veck, and then the others did the same with theirs.”

It’s doubtful that all of Alex’s friends identify as anti-intellectual; Alex is a devotee of nineteenth century romanticism, especially the orchestral music of Ludwig van Beethoven. This is a the core of Burgess’ characterisation of Alex, and the signalling of a very important point, a big ol’ NB, about how Alex doesn’t lack humanity or education, which might make him capable of murdering, raping, etc. It is instead, a choice on his part, to do these things and to enjoy them. The others, Pete, Georgie and Dim don’t seem to identify as much of anything at all, Pete later looks back on his youthful hi-jinks with a kind of bemusement, laughing at Alex as the embodiment of those long departed days, while Dim has joined the police force, suggesting that all he ever wanted to do was beat people up. Fortunately for him he’s found a job wherein such behaviour is legalised and implicitly approved of.

Later in the night, the group break into the home of a writer writing a book, the theme of which seems to be how awful the mechanisation of the human being is, called, A Clockwork Orange. The manuscript is torn to pieces while the boys rape the writer’s wife. I found it disquieting to see these two things described in the same scene, almost as if there’s some comparison to be made between the two, when one is clearly more grotesque than the other. Nevertheless linked they are, as if Burgess is suggesting that those who condemn books, suggest that some should be banned or destroyed are of Alex’s company.

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