Friday, September 23, 2011

Reading group: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Trevor suggested this book on which the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name was based, a film Kubrick famously withdrew after accusations that it had provoked copycat acts of violence.

Published in 1962 and set in a projected time when the cult of youth has turned the world into a place where gangs of teenagers rule the streets with drugs and violence and theft, and adults cower away from them behind closed doors, the novel is narrated in a hermetic teen-speak by ultra-violent fifteen-year-old Alex. Alex considers himself the leader of his gang or 'droogs' but is ultimately betrayed by them and ends up plucked from prison to be the guinea-pig in a government-run aversion therapy scheme to turn criminals against violence.

Trevor was unfortunately unable to make the meeting, and was surprised to hear afterwards that the book had not in fact stimulated a particularly heated discussion. As far as I remember, Doug opened things by commenting that he had found the book far superior to the film. Firstly, there was the interest of the teen vocabulary, based largely on Russian and rhyming slag, which caught so well the exclusivity of the teenage cult. The first-person narrative voice makes you complicit with it, and thus with Alex's psychology, in a way the film doesn't. Clare said she had found the vocabulary quite hard to follow, though, but others disagreed, saying that Burgess cleverly provides context for the words so that their meanings are soon clear. Clare clearly hadn't been that engaged, however, as she now said that she thought Alex was a pretty horrid character and she simply didn't like reading the book as a result.  Jenny didn't agree with her: she said that she thought he was amoral rather than immoral. He wasn't evil, he was just having a laugh in the way teenagers do, with no thought for the consequences for others. I think the rest of us needed to think about this, as the point was left hanging. Jenny went on to say that she wondered why Burgess had made Alex love classical music rather than the popular music espoused by all the other teenagers. Ann and I said that the point Burgess was making was that art doesn't civilize. Alex himself makes the point: 'I had to have a smeck, though, thinking of what I'd viddied once in one of these like articles on Modern Youth about how ... Great Music ... and Great Poetry would ... make Modern Youth more civilized. Civilized my syphilised yarbles.' In fact, classical music induces particularly violent fantasies in him. Jenny said, But what was the significance of the fact that it was played during the aversion therapy so that Alex then began to feel ill not only at the sight and thought of violence but the sound of his previously beloved music? This was another point that people needed to ponder and was left hanging. What's clear, however,  is that the doctors' choice of music is arbitrary, and they are surprised and interested to learn that Alex has  loved classical music and is distressed to have been made physically averse to it. Later, however, and in consequence, the aversion will be employed by another faction deliberately and cruelly to use Alex, so that classical music, already disconnected from morality, becomes even an instrument of torture.

People noted that the main point of the novel, expressed by the prison chaplain, is that there is no point in making people behave morally simply through fear (or aversion): no one is truly moral unless they are so by choice; without moral choice Alex is simply a 'clockwork orange'. Inevitably, as the circumstances change, Alex regains his enjoyment in both classical music and violence. People said that they found very interesting the way that most of the victims in the book became vengeful and some of them formed a faction that was just as manipulative and callous as the government that had imposed the aversion therapy. It's a very cynical book, with a very cynical view of human nature, they all agreed, and this seemed generally to be considered a drawback of the book.

I said but what about the final chapter, which was left out of both the American edition and the film, in which Alex does start to grow up and finally lose his taste for violence - although I did think it was a bit too pat, and was inclined to agree with the choice of Kubrick and the American publisher. Everyone immediately said that it was more more than a bit pat! Where did that come from: suddenly, out of the blue, Alex starts feeling different, and it's just because he's growing up? Such authorial cynicism up till that moment and then suddenly so sentimental! I said that there is that bit where Alex says he knows however that his own son will behave as he did, and his sons after him: that's pretty hopeless and cynical. However, I did think it was rather pasted in, and I couldn't help sensing a kind of authorial struggle here. I felt that the logic of the story had led Burgess to a place he wasn't comfortable with: he had painted himself into a cynical corner and the more upbeat ending was his  attempt to pick his way out.

Finally, Doug said once again that he had found the book profoundly better than the film. The film had inevitably depicted the violence objectively and graphically and made one a voyeur, but the book, mediating everything through the narrative voice and Alex's psyche, was extremely thought-provoking, and he was really glad he had read it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

No comments: