A Blagger's Guide To: A Clockwork Orange

Fifty years of dobby droogs, devotchkas and ultra-violence
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The Independent Culture

The 50th anniversary of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange is celebrated this weekend with the publication of a handsome new hardback edition (the edges of its paper are orange!) by Random House (£20). It is compiled and edited by Andrew Biswell – Burgess's biographer – and has a foreword by Martin Amis, as well as unpublished material including a 1972 interview with Burgess, the prologue to his 1986 A Clockwork Orange: A Play With Music, and his annotated 1961 typescript of the novel, complete with his doodles in the margins. His picture of an orange with a spring poking out of it is particularly special, the Blagger can reveal.

The book was originally written in three parts, each containing seven chapters. When the book was published in America, the publisher removed the final, redemptive chapter, insisting that readers wouldn't buy it. For 30 years, the book was published in two different versions – both with and without the final chapter. Stanley Kubrick's 1972 film, starring Malcolm McDowell as Alex, omits the final chapter. Kubrick later admitted that he had not read the original version until he had almost finished the screenplay, and anyway believed that the book and film are better without it. The new Random House edition restores the text of the novel as Burgess originally wrote it.

Last weekend, The Independent on Sunday revealed that A Clockwork Orange was very nearly not published after an internal reader's report warned that it would be hard to understand. "Everything hangs on whether the reader can get into the book quickly enough," she wrote, adding that the ending is "a little soggy … but the rest of the book is pretty cynical. No one escapes." She concluded: "With luck the book will be a big success and give the teenagers a new language. But it might be an enormous flop. Certainly nothing in between."

Burgess once said in an interview: "It is ironic that I am always associated with A Clockwork Orange. This, of all my books, is the one I like least." He later wrote: "The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation …." However, William Burroughs wrote: "I do not know of any other writer who has done as much with language as Mr Burgess has done here – the fact that it is also a very funny book may pass unnoticed."

Burgess was a harsh critic of others, as well as of his own books. In his book on James Joyce, Joysprick (1973), Burgess described Finnegan's Wake as "a cold pudding of a book, a snore in the next room".

Burgess was born in Manchester in 1917 and served in the Army for 14 years before becoming a colonial education officer. As well as 33 novels, musicals, scripts, essays and translations, Burgess wrote three symphonies. He died in 1993.

The dialect used in the book, "Nadsat", is a combination of Russian, Romany and rhyming slang, chosen by Burgess – a linguist – because he didn't want to use a current street slang that would become dated. The word "droog", for example, was based on the Russian word for "friend". It is now included in the Chambers English Dictionary, meaning "gang member or violent hooligan". When the book was translated into Russian, English words were used instead of the Russian ones.

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