Anthony Burgess

from A Clockwork Orange: A play with music (Century Hutchinson Ltd, 1987)

The novel, properly novella, entitled A Clockwork Orange first appeared in the spring of 1962. I had written its first version in late 1960, when I was coming to the end of what the neurological specialists had assured my late wife would be my terminal year. My late wife broke the secret in time for me to work hard at providing some posthumous royalties for her. In the period in which I was supposed to be dying from an inoperable cerebral tumour, I produced the novels entitled The Doctor is Sick, Inside Mr Enderby, The Worm and the Ring (a reworking of an earlier draft), One Hand Clapping, The Eve of Saint Venus (an expansion in novella form of a discarded opera libretto) and A Clockwork Orange in a much less fantastic version than the one that was eventually published. This first version presented the world of adolescent violence and governmental retribution in the slang that was current at the time among the hooligan groups known as the Teddyboys and the Mods and Rockers. I had the sense to realise that, by the time the book came to be out, that slang would already be outdated, but I did not see clearly how to solve the problem of an appropriate idiolect for the narration. When, in early 1961, it seemed to me likely that I was not going to die just yet, I thought hard about the book and decided that its story properly belonged to the future, in which it was conceivable that even the easy-going British state might employ aversion therapy to cure the growing disease of youthful aggression. My late wife and I spent part of the summer of 1961 in Soviet Russia, where it was evident that the authorities had problems with turbulent youth not much different from our own. The stilyagi, or style-boys, were smashing faces and windows, and the police, apparently obsessed with ideological and fiscal crimes, seemed powerless to keep them under. It struck me that it might be a good idea to create a kind of young hooligan who bestrode the iron curtain and spoke an argot compounded of the two most powerful political languages in the world - Anglo-American and Russian. The irony of the style would lie in the hero-narrator's being totally unpolitical.


There was what must seem, to us who are living in a more permissive age, an unaccountable delay in getting the work accepted for publication. My literary agent was even dubious about submitting it to a publisher, alleging that its pornography of violence would be certain to make it unacceptable. I, or rather my late wife, whose Welsh blood forced her into postures of aggression on her husband's behalf, reminded the agent that it was his primary job not to make social or literary judgements on the work he handled but to sell it. So the novella was sold to William Heinemann Ltd in London. In New York it was sold to W.W. Norton Inc, though with the last chapter missing. To lop the final section of the story, in which the protagonist gives up his youthful violence in order to become a man with a man's responsibilities, seemed to me to be very harmful: it reduced the work from a genuine novel (whose main characteristic must always be a demonstration of the capacity of human nature to change) to a mere fable. Moreover, though this was perhaps a minor point, it ruined the arithmology of the book. The book was written in twenty-one chapters (21 being the symbol of human maturity) divided into three sections of exactly equal size. The American reduction looks lopsided. But the American publisher's argument for truncation was based on a conviction that the original version, showing as it does a capacity for regeneration in even the most depraved soul, was a kind of capitulation to the British Pelagian spirit, whereas the Augustinian Americans were tough enough to accept an image of unregenerable man. I was in no position to protest, except feebly and in the expectation of being overborne: I needed the couple of hundred dollars that comprised the advance on the work.


... The reviews it received not only failed to whet an appetite among prospective book-buyers: they were for the most part facetious and uncomprehending. What I had tried to write was, as well as a novella, a sort of allegory of Christian free will.. Man is defined by his capacity to choose courses of moral action. If he chooses good, he must have the possibility of choosing evil instead: evil is a theological necessity. I was also saying that it is more acceptable for us to perform evil acts than to be conditioned artificially into an ability only to perform what is socially acceptable. The Times Literary Supplement reviewer (anonymous in those days) saw the book only as a 'nasty little shocker', which was rather unfair, while the down-market newspapers thought the Anglo-Russian slang was a silly little joke that didn't come off.


But the nasty little shocker was gaining an audience, especially among the American young. Rock groups called 'Clockwork Orange' began to spring up in New York and Los Angeles. These juveniles were primarily intrigued by the language of the book, which became a genuine teenage argot, and they liked the title. They did not realise that it was an old Cockney expression used to describe anything queer, not necessarily sexually so, and they hit on the secondary meaning of an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness and agreeable odour, being turned into an automaton. The youth of Malaysia, where I had lived for nearly six years, saw that orange contained orang, meaning in Malay a human being. In Italy, where the book became Arancia all' Orologeria, it was assumed that the title referred to a grenade, an alternative to the ticking pineapple. The small fame of the novella did not noticeably enrich me, but it led to a proposal that it be filmed. It was in, I think, 1965, that the rock-group known as the Rolling Stones expressed an interest in the buying of the property and an acting participation in a film version which I myself should write. There was not much money in the project, because the permissive age in which crude sex and cruder violence could be frankly presented had not yet begun. If the film was to be made at all, it would have to be in a cheap underground version leased out to clubs. But it was not made. Not yet.


It was the dawn of the age of candid pornography that enabled Stanley Kubrick to exploit, to a serious artistic end, those elements in the story which were meant to shock morally rather than merely titillate. These elements are, to some extent, hidden from the reader by the language used: to tolchock a chelloveck in the kishkas does not sound so bad as booting a man in the guts, and the old in-out in-out, even if it reduces the sexual act to a mechanical action, does not sicken quite as much as a Harold Robbins description of cold rape. But in a film little can be implied; everything has to be shown. Language ceases to be an opaque protection against being appalled and takes a very secondary place. I was bound to have misgivings about the film, and one of the banes of my later life has been the public assumption that I had something to do with it. I did not. I wrote a script, like nearly everybody else in the script-writing world, but nobody's script was used. The book itself, as in a literary seminar, was taken on to the film set, discussed, sectionally dramatised with much free improvisation, and then, as film, stowed in the can. All that I provided was a book, but I had provided it ten years previously. The British state had ignored it, but it was not so ready to ignore the film. It was considered to be an open invitation to the violent young, and inevitably I was regarded as an antisocial writer. The imputation that I had something to do with the punk cult, whose stepfather I was deemed to be by Time magazine, has more to do with the gorgeous technicolor of Kubrick's film than with my own subfusc literary experiment.


I am disclosing a certain gloom about visual adaptation of my little book, and the reader has now the right to ask why I have contrived a stage version of it. The answer is very simple: it is to stem the flow of amateur adaptations that I have heard about though never seen. It is to provide a definitive actable version which has auctorial authority. And, moreover, it is a version which, unlike Kubrick's cinema adaptation, draws on the entirety of the book, presenting at the end a hooligan hero who is now growing up, falling in love, proposing a decent bourgeois life with a wife and family, and consoling us with the doctrine that aggression is an aspect of adolescence which maturity rejects. ... Alex the hero speaks for me when he says in effect that destruction is a substitute for creation, and that the energy of youth has to be expressed through aggression because it has not yet been able to subdue itself through creation. Alex's aggressive instincts have been stimulated by classical music, but the music has been forewarning him of what he must some day become: a man who recognises the Dionysiac in, say, Beethoven but appreciates the Apollonian as well.


... One final point. I toyed, when first publishing the book, with the notion of affixing an epigraph from Shakespeare. This was considered to be a dangerously literary proposal: the book had to stand naked with no chaperonage from the Bard. But perhaps I may now conclude with it. In Act III Scene 3 of The Winter's Tale the shepherd who finds the child Perdita says: I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting -. It sounds like an exceptionally long adolescence, but perhaps Shakespeare was thinking of his own. It is the adolescence, somewhat briefer, that I present in A Clockwork Orange.