Clockwork Orange Cold Type

Oct. 5, 2012
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 Although he was a well-respected Englishman of letters, Anthony Burgess, became an international literary star only after the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film of his 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange. Yet, Burgess hated the movie, accusing it of reveling in anarchic youthful violence, an opinion shared by careless youthful audiences but disputed by Kubrick.

The 50th Anniversary Edition of A Clockwork Orange (published by W.W. Norton) is touted as a restoration to Burgess’ original conception. Accomplishing the task was editor Andrew Biswell (of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation), who poured over pen jottings on the author’s manuscript. But whether these small points are necessarily an improvement on the versions that had been in print all these years is as doubtful as any certainty over recovering a definitive prototype of Burgess’ novel. Biswell admits that some of the author’s “handwritten amendments to the 1961 typescript are ambiguous,” which in plain English means he had to guess.

Biswell’s footnotes are enlightening, explaining many obscure references, but where is the Nadsat glossary included in some earlier editions? A lexicon of Burgess’ invented slanguage would be more useful to most readers than any other appendix, albeit the author’s previously unpublished essay on social control included in the new edition, “The Clockwork Condition,” is fascinating.

Biswell’s introduction provides a useful overview of A Clockwork Orange’s abortive brushes with pop culture prior to Kubrick. He doesn’t report Burgess’ thoughts on Andy Warhol’s 16mm riff on the novel, Vinyl (1965), but given its use as backdrop for the Velvet Underground and Burgess’ denunciation of rock as music fit only for droogs, he probably wasn’t pleased. Director Brian Hutton (Where Eagles Dare) considered filming A Clockwork Orange and asked Christopher Isherwood for a script; Terry Southern and Michael Cooper hoped to shoot the novel with Mick Jagger as Alex. Burgess even tried his hand at screenplay “but nobody could be persuaded to film it,” including Kubrick.

With Kubrick’s movie, A Clockwork Orange became an essential facet of 20th century culture. Asking whether the book was better is irrelevant. The film and the novel were composed for different media and each is a definitive statement in its own sphere on the precarious wobble between freedom and authoritarianism and the human necessity for being able to chose.



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