It was June-time when I picked up A Clockwork Orange from Waterstones in Glasgow city centre and, truth be told, this outing was a bit of an occasion. I rarely buy my own paperbacks these days, preferring either to request them as presents or else stock up on sample e-books, but my mother had decided to be old-school that birthday and so I entered the store proudly brandishing a £10 book token, the first I’d had in years.
Just inside the door was the novella stand, a table piled with books with 200 pages or less that was described by the loud caption adorning the table as ‘holiday reads’. I suppose the idea here is that you want something short, that you might realistically aim to finish, and that won’t weigh down your hand luggage. These kinds of books are also called ‘novellas’, which I can only assume is a cute diminutive borrowed from a foreign language that I don’t yet know.
At a mere 140 pages, A Clockwork Orange was therefore lumped with the other tiny, aesthetically pleasing novellas that were being advertised as great fun to accompany a person on a week-long trip to Spain or Italy, where it might perch next to you on the sun lounger as you rub sun cream into your husband’s back. Well, I’m not sure what other people look for in mood-lightening reading material for sunny days, but given that A Clockwork Orange mostly concerns rape, violence and more violence, I can only assume that the staff at Waterstones had either not read this book or else were executing some very savvy June-time advertising.
Now, I haven’t titled this post as a review because I am reluctant to consider it as such. A Clockwork Orange is a classic; it has been reviewed countless times. The film in particular enjoys a certain status among film geeks and is often listed as a ‘must-see’. On the other hand, if you have never read the book, nor seen the film, and yet feel like you ought to (I feel this way about a great number of books- To kill A Mockingbird, anyone?), I can only hope this post may encourage you to do so. I’ll start by outlining some of the more remarkable aspects of the novel:
- It is a dystopian novel, but not in the fun way that we’ve lately become associated with the term. The Hunger Games are dystopian novels, for example, because they take place in a futuristic landscape where the world has gone to pot. But at least they gave us a great female protagonist, budding young love and a revolutionary vibe to gush over. In A Clockwork Orange, however, Alex, a 15-year-old social delinquent, goes out of a night and causes havoc. And I don’t mean drinking too much vodka in the park or stealing his dad’s car, I mean go-to-prison-for-life, don’t-let-your-children-out havoc.
- The author, Andrew Burgess, has his protagonist narrate in a slang that he, Burgess, invented. His reasoning behind this was simple: slang, particularly amongst the young, is particular to a certain generation and evolves constantly. Burgess did not want his novel (…or, should I say, novella) to become antiquated by reflecting the slang specific to the 1960s when it was written. And so he invented a new slang that consisted mostly of Russian vocabulary, put into the mouths of vicious youths. This was a good call, on his part, as at no point does the novel strike me as old-fashioned. In fact, when I learnt that it had been published in 1962, I was surprised. Congrats to Burgess for having created a truly timeless dystopia.
- It has dealt with a fair bit of controversy, as well as censorship. Namely, the banning of the film in the UK for what was considered inflammatory content that was destroying the morals of its viewers. In 1999, it was finally rereleased after almost 40 years. If you enjoy controversy and challenging content, this book is clearly for you!
- The US publication was different from the UK version. The US publisher that offered to issue A Clockwork Orange originally refused to include the final chapter. Burgess, anxious that he may not find another publisher, agreed, but never approved. This was a deeply justified disapproval, in my opinion. Also omitted from the film adaptation, the last chapter speaks of (SPOILER ALERT) Alex’s waning enthusiasm for the violent deeds of his youth and his desires for a quieter, more dignified life, indicating that the only cure for his previous behaviour was growth and adult perspective. So basically, these guys were keen to keep the rape, violence and questionable remedial methods whilst spurning Burgess’s moral stance. I’d have been angry too.
I enjoyed this book. It was punchy and interesting. And yes, the behaviour of its protagonists is horrendous, but at 140 pages, it doesn’t get drag you down too much.
I must admit, however, that I may have had an easier time with this book that most. I am a Russian language graduate and therefore found Burgess’s hybrid slang oddly understandable. Unfortunately, I have read that critics often lambasted this publication on the grounds that it was a struggle to read. Which means that you’d best only attempt this book if you a) enjoy a literary challenge, or else b) have always yearned to learn Russian.
All in all, novella seems far too pretty a word to be used for such a book, and I would warn any holiday maker that wants their 7-days in the sunshine to consist only of happy thoughts to steer clear. But I am nonetheless glad that I picked this over an easy read. Perhaps a certain member of Waterstones staff knew more than I give them credit for. Maybe they knew exactly what they were doing when they placed A Clockwork Orange in the holiday reads. Maybe they hoped someone like me would pick it up.