Anthony Burgess had second thoughts about the impact of his most famous novel, a tale of ultraviolence, rape and Beethoven. Is it time to reassess `A Clockwork Orange'?

In March 1993, six months before his death, Anthony Burgess performed a remarkable volte face. Writing in the wake of the murder of a two-year- old child, James Bulger, by two Liverpool 10-year-olds, and addressing public anxiety about a "cult of violence" among the young, he conceded that his lifelong belief in the essential harmlessness of literature might have been wrong. "There are beliefs we cling to and will not let go," he wrote. "It must be considered a kind of grace in my old age to abandon a conviction that was part of my blood and bone. I mean the conviction that the arts were sacrosanct, and that included the sub-arts, that they could never be accused of exerting either a moral or an immoral influence, that they were incorrupt, incorruptive, incorruptible. I have quite recently changed my mind ... I begin to accept that, as a novelist, I belong to the ranks of the menacing."

The novel which puts Burgess in the ranks of the menacing is A Clockwork Orange, published in 1962, and adapted as a film by Stanley Kubrick 10 years later. Though Burgess continued to defend its moral and artistic integrity right up to his death, he was unhappy that it should be his most famous book. He feared he would be remembered only "as the fountain and origin of a great film". He wished the public would attend to other of his achievements: the Enderby novels; the playful fictional explorations of Shakespeare; the critical guides to Joyce; the music, the libretti, the plays, even the journalism and reviews.

Thirty or more years on, it's time to stick up for A Clockwork Orange. However much Burgess himself deprecated the novel, it was here that his powers were most fully concentrated. There is the title, to begin with, a richly suggestive one adapted from a piece of slang: "as queer as a clockwork orange" is a Cockney expression meaning very queer indeed (the meaning can be, but isn't necessarily, sexual). There is the fearful symmetry of the book's tripartite structure. There is the darkly enticing hero, Alex. There is the vision of a near-future society, as frighteningly persuasive, however small the canvas, as the dystopias of George Orwell or Aldous Huxley: a youth culture in revolt, a corrupt police force, a government unable to govern. There is the devastatingly simple, yet profound, moral dilemma, which underlies the book: is it better for us to choose to be bad than to be conditioned to be good? To which Burgess, not hedging his bets, answers yes.

Above all, there is the language of A Clockwork Orange, which is every bit as queer as the title might imply - Joyceanly queer in places, and exuberant in its inventiveness. No one who perseveres beyond the opening paragraphs is likely to forget the experience, difficult though it can be. The difficulty isn't only the language but the subject matter - here a gang rape:

"So he did the strong-man on the devotchka, who was still creech creech creeching away in very horrorshow four-in-a-bar, locking her rookers from the back, while I ripped away at this and that and the other, the others going haw haw haw still, and real good horrorshow groodies they were that then exhibited their pink glazzies, O my brothers, while I untrussed and got ready for the plunge. Plunging, I could slooshy cries of agony and this writer bleeding veck that Georgie and Pete held on to nearly got loose howling bezoomny with the filthiest of slovos that I already knew and others he was making up ... Then there was like quiet and we were full of like hate ... `Out out out out,' I howled. The writer veck and his zheena were not really there, bloody and torn and making noises. But they'd live."

"It was certainly no pleasure to me to describe acts of violence when writing the novel," wrote Burgess in 1972, the year Stanley Kubrick's adaptation embroiled him in controversy over the film's, and book's, possible incitement to violence. Later, in his autobiography You've Had Your Time, less on the defensive, he put it more interestingly: "I was sickened by my own excitement at setting it down." Strictly speaking, the excitement here is Alex's, not Burgess's. But there is no denying that the book is most alive when its hero behaves wickedly. Like Milton, Burgess was of the devil's party without knowing it.

Burgess called his invented language "nadsat", a transliteration of the Russian for "teen", and imagined that at the time and place the events in the novel take place (somewhere in Europe, circa 1972), it had become part of the culture. Many of the words are Slavic in origin. "Groodies", for example, comes from grud (breast), "veck" from chellovek (person) and "horrorshow" from khorosho, the Russian word for good, and so a term of approbation (like the modern use of "wicked"). Glazzies are eyes, though here they are the pink eyes on the tip of groodies and thus nipples. The body inspires some of Burgess's best inventions: rookers (from ruka) can be arms or hands, and nogas both legs and feet; there is also litso (face), rot (mouth), zoobies (teeth), yahzick (tongue), guttiwuts (stomach) and gulliver (head: a nod at Jonathan Swift). Other coinages are more obviously slangy. Cancers are cigarettes, pretty polly is rhyming slang for money (lolly), and to do something oddy-knocky is to do it on your own. Sinny is the cinema, aptly enough, given the evil Alex is forced to consume there and what Burgess would come to feel about Kubrick's film.

Though reading the novel requires some puzzle-solving, the meaning of a nadsat word is often made clear from the context: a paragraph about the pleasures of "deng" obligingly ends: "But as they say, money isn't everything." Russian imports aren't the only aspect of the language. There are also the repetitions ("creech creech creeching away"), the echoes of Shakespeare (to my ear, "untrussed" comes in this category), and the wonderfully laconic use of the word "like": "Then there was like quiet and we were full of like hate."

This use of "like" became commonplace in the counter-culture of the late Sixties, as did the hallucinogenic drugs (the "milk-plus") Alex uses for recreation. Much about A Clockwork Orange is prophetic. Television, for example, in Britain at least, was in its infancy in 1962: no satellite stations, no Euro-trash, no sign of Rupert Murdoch's global village. But Alex describes "what they called worldcast, meaning that the same programme was being viddied by everybody in the world that wanted to ... all being bounced off the special telly satellites in outer space". Science fiction novels have to be judged as novels, however, not by the accuracy of their predictions. It doesn't matter that some of the youth fashions are implausibly Elizabethan ("a pair of black very tight tights with the old jelly mould, as we called it, fitting on the crotch"), others recognisably skinhead or punk ("most of the gulliver was like bald and there was hair only on the sides"). Burgess's business was fiction, not futures.

Alex may not be as seductive a young narrator as Holden Caulfield in J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, but he has the same undeceived attitude to adults, and all their phoney values. As a classic teen anti- hero, he has a quality of innocence, even at his most depraved. Deceived by his droogs and arrested for murder, he is then conned by his fellow cons, who put the blame on him for a second murder. Later, having naively consented to Reclamation Treatment (which conditions him to feel nauseous every time he contemplates violence), he becomes a pawn in the political struggle between government and opposition. Alex is too brutal to be wholly sympathetic and too strong to be a victim. But he exudes diabolic charm.

One of Alex's charms is his love of music, which he plays full blast in his typically teenage bedroom ("Here was my bed and my stereo, pride of my jeezny, and my discs in the cupboard, and banners and flags on the wall"). Less typical is that his tastes in music are classical: Bach, Mozart, above all Beethoven, whose Ninth Symphony becomes the novel's dominant motif. It may reflect Burgess's own prejudices that, feeling some affection for his hero, he could not permit him to be a devotee of pop. More than this, Burgess uses music to address the question of whether high art is civilising - a notion which Alex laughingly dismisses: "Civilised my syphilised yarbles. Music always sort of sharpened me up." Music may not civilise Alex, but the fact that the government can use it in its reform programme, so as to nauseate Alex every time he hears Beethoven, is evidence of the state's depravity.

A Clockwork Orange finds room for literary jokes and allusions. The masks Alex and his gang wear to disguise themselves when committing crimes are those of Disraeli, Henry VIII, Elvis Presley and Peebee Shelley. A singer heard on the milk-bar stereo is Johnny Zhivago. There is a Kingsley Avenue and a Priestley Place, roads which allow Burgess a nod to his British contemporaries. He even works himself into the story in the form of F Alexander, the man whose wife is raped in the passage above, also the author of a book called A Clockwork Orange.

There is the effect of endlessly receding mirror-images here. In 1944, while Burgess was serving in Gibraltar, his first wife, Lynne, was beaten and robbed in London by a gang of four GI deserters. She suffered a miscarriage as a result, and Burgess once speculated, in an interview, that her poor health and early death may have had something to do with the attack. ("CLOCKWORK ORANGE GANG KILLED MY WIFE - AUTHOR" ran the resulting headline in the London Evening News.) The fictionalising of this episode in A Clockwork Orange was a catharsis for Burgess, and, as he once said, "an act of charity" to his wife's assailants, since he chose to write it from their point of view.

Burgess began the book in 1960 when, returning to Britain from Malaya and Brunei, he was diagnosed as suffering from an inoperable brain tumour and told (via his wife) that he had only a year to live. He was 43, with four novels behind him, written between teaching, composing music and working for the Colonial Service. Now, under a death-sentence, he became a professional, producing "two thousand words of fair copy every day, weekends included ... Two thousand words a day means a yearly total of 730,000. Step up the rate and, without undue effort, you can reach a million. This ought to mean ten novels of 100,000 words each ... [But] because of hangovers, marital quarrels, creative deadness induced by the weather, shopping trips, summonses to meet state officials, and sheer torpid gloom, I was not able to achieve more than five and a half novels of very moderate size in that pseudo-terminal year. Still, it was very nearly E M Forster's whole long life's output."

Newly back in Britain, Burgess was struck by the development of coffee bars, pop music and the rivalry between Mods and Rockers, whose Bank Holiday clashes - in Brighton and Hastings - he was in a good position to observe. Burgess was receptive to the new teenage vernacular, but worried that using it would make his novel ephemeral. He found a solution while studying Russian in preparation for a holiday in Leningrad. The Russo-American patois he devised had the additional bonus of suggesting that male adolescent aggression was not merely a British phenomenon. Indeed, once Burgess reached the Soviet Union, he saw that the Communist authorities were having their share of problems with rebellious teenage gangs. He even experienced the criminal underworld at first hand by indulging in a little black-marketeering: to subsidise the holiday, he had filled two suitcases with polyester dresses from Marks & Spencer, and sold these garments at a profit in the underground lavatories of his hotel. Perhaps this subterranean criminality fed an observation or two into the novel.

It finally appeared in Britain in May 1962 to a lukewarm reception and indifferent sales, despite being debated and dramatised on the BBC television programme Tonight, which in those days of only two channels was said to have an audience of nine million. In the US, it had a better reception, but his pleasure in the accolades was muted, since American reviewers were responding to a different version of the novel, minus the last chapter. Burgess's US publisher was W W Norton, whose vice-president, Eric Swenson, had been disinclined to publish the book unless the affirmative ending - in which Alex, on reaching maturity, renounces violence - was dropped. Burgess felt in no position to argue: he needed the advance, and was pessimistic about finding an alternative US publisher. The last chapter was therefore cut - and not restored in the US until 1988, 26 years later. Burgess saw himself as a helpless pawn, caught up in politics: "My book was Kennedyan and accepted the notion of moral progress. What was really wanted was a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it."

Perhaps the first author ever, if his version of events is to be believed, to suffer from an American need for pessimism, Burgess could at least count on the fact that the many foreign translations of the book were based on the English version. Yet most people know A Clockwork Orange in its truncated US version. Why? Because this was the text which Stanley Kubrick worked from when he came to make his film. It's surprising if Kubrick was not aware of the unabridged English version, especially since Burgess himself produced an early version of the screenplay, but that was the story Burgess liked to tell. It was the source of some tension between them - along with the fact that Burgess had sold the film rights for a pittance, and reaped no benefit when it became an international success.

The film provoked a huge controversy. In the US, it was reported that four boys dressed in droog style had gang-raped a nun in Poughkeepsie. The report was inaccurate (the boys had not seen the film), but the charges of immorality did not go away and Kubrick eventually withdrew A Clockwork Orange from Britain, where it remains unavailable to this day. The version I saw recently had to be sent from abroad, by mail order, and had Dutch subtitles.

The lopping of the last chapter from Kubrick's film was partly responsible for the controversy, Burgess felt, and it infuriated him for two reasons. First, there is the violation of the book's structural - even numerological - unity. Burgess divides A Clockwork Orange into three sections of seven chapters, each beginning with the same punkily defiant question: "What's it going to be then, eh?" There are 21 chapters in all: 21 is the age at which children traditionally become adult, and it is in the 21st chapter that Alex sees the light and puts the errors of youth behind him.

Burgess also felt a violation of the book's moral integrity. He had allowed his hero room for intellectual growth, which the sensationalising abridgement disallowed. Alex is often called amoral, but his willingness to learn from those older than himself - or as he puts it, "to slooshy what some of these starry decreps had to say about life and the world" - is established as early as Chapter Two. It is picked up again later, when, in prison, he reads the Bible. All he lacks is time, and the three years that pass in the course of the book are what make the difference.

His epiphany comes he meets his old friend Pete, now married, and envies him his family comforts: meals on the table, a warm fire, companionship, a baby gurgling in the cot: "That was something I would have to get started on, a new like chapter beginning." Eric Swenson, Stanley Kubrick and others found this too optimistic: to end at Chapter 20, with Alex's returning to violence ("I was cured all right"), was, they felt, tougher and more realistic. But Burgess's happy ending is hardly bland. Alex may reach maturity, but his son will later have to pass through adolescence and all the mayhem it entails - "And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round."

This leaves the question of whether A Clockwork Orange is not, as Burgess self- accusingly put it, "a work too didactic to be artistic", "pure art dragged into the arena of morality". His immediate target was the American psychologist B F Skinner, an heir to Pavlov and the conditioned response, who believed that the work he had done on behaviour modification in animals could be brought to the human domain. Burgess's answer to Skinner is that we must be able to choose to be good: Alex is not to be treated as a wind-up clockwork toy. But defending Alex's human rights is not the same as glamorising him, and Burgess doesn't hide his destructiveness and violence. His point is that attempts to defeat criminals like Alex by depriving them of their minds - a literal form of mindlessness - is no solution. Youth, Burgess seems to be saying, must have its fling, however wild. A well-run state will moderate the dangers. But the only real cure is growing up.

In the preface to his play version of A Clockwork Orange, Burgess quotes The Winter's Tale: "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 ..." This may not be so dark a vision as A Clockwork Orange minus its last chapter. But it's not blandly optimistic, either. Nor is Burgess's novel, which, restored to its integrity, still has urgent things to say about the world today.

! This is an abridged version of the Introduction to the new Penguin 20th Century Classic edition of `A Clockwork Orange', published this week at pounds 5.99.

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