Monday, July 12, 2010

On Revisiting A Сlockwork Orange After 25 Years

I suppose it’s fitting that my first post on this new blog concerns Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange: the book combines my native language (English) with my second language (Russian), and I decided to reread it after I found similar themes in a Russian novel, Mikhail Elizarov’s Мультики (‘Toons), which I wrote about here on my Russian literature blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf.

The story of A Clockwork Orange – with all its talk about religion, free will, teenage violence, reformation, and redemption – still intrigues but it was Burgess’s use of language that grabbed me most in my first reading of the book in about 25 years. (I won’t summarize the plot since Wikipedia does.) Alex, the book’s first-person narrator, is a violent teenager who speaks in a youth slang that blends Russian with English, and Burgess wrings maximum effect out of both languages. “Creech,” for example, comes from the Russian verb кричать (krichat’, pronounced roughly kreechaht, scream) but evokes “screech,” too. And “rabbit,” similar to the Russian noun and verb for work -- работа (rabota) and работать, respectively -- makes work sound awfully meek. Then there’s “gulliver” for head, a nifty blend of the Russian голова (golova, gahlahvah) and Gulliver, the guy with the travels.

There’s so much Russian in A Clockwork Orange that it was far easier to read the book now than when I was in college. The blend of languages still feels jarring – the Russian words aren’t always transliterated exactly, and some are adapted – but I have to admit I missed the mystery I felt when reading the book before. Reading then was a more intense experience of ostranenie that forced me to see English, Russian, and language itself differently. As I sorted through the puzzle of words, I had to follow and trust Burgess’s narrator, Alex, when he used terms in context to display their meanings. There’s a strange, eerie irony in growing accustomed to Alex’s language as he describes ultraviolent episodes with lots of blood.

One of my favorite Russian terms in the book is “oddy knocky,” lonely, a split and quirky but nearly accurate transliteration of the Russian adjective “одинокий.” The word, which sounds to me like knocking around in an odd way, is perfect for the book, given Burgess’s presentation of personal choices, government control, and Alex’s attempt to find his place in the world, even as he separates himself through language, and narcissistic and sociopathic behavior.

[Beware: Plot turns revealed!] Strangely, I didn’t realize that my book, dated 1980, is incomplete, missing a final, 21st chapter, in which Alex makes a decision that changes almost everything. I’m so used to the 20th chapter ending, which I see expressing pessimism about human nature as Alex prepares to return to ultraviolence, that the 21st chapter, with Alex deciding to put away childhood things and abandon crime, initially felt sappy. But the chapter fits (and this is satire, after all), what with Alex’s references to the youthful achievements of his beloved composers and his very human -- dare I say adult? -- desire to avoid an oddy knocky existence by finding love.

New York Times review dated March 19, 1963 (no reviewer name)


  1. I love this review. I've never read CLOCKWORK and have always been sort of afraid of it. I still am! But I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and how your impressions changed with the years.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Marie! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I completely understand your fear of the book: A Clockwork Orange still scares me after all these years and rereadings.