Monday, June 27, 2011

Do you know what "A Clockwork Orange" Is?

Because studying for the bar sucks so much and I spent all day today hunched over a book with 200 multiple choice questions, I decided to reward myself with a bath tonight. My back needed to calm down and I needed to escape. I considered listening to a civil procedure lecture via the iPod while laying in the bubbles, but quickly dismissed that idea.

The whole point of taking a bath is to relax with a book. Unfortunately, everything I'm in the middle of reading right now is on a Kindle or an iPad and those don't go anywhere near a tub. So I checked out my TBR shelf. I chose three books I've been wanting to read, and I figured I'd give them all a chance to hook me.

My mom sent me "The Literary Guernsey and Potato Peel Society" for Christmas, and while it seems like a decent (easy) read for a lazy afternoon someday, it's written all in letters, and I just don't have the patience for that right now. The other book I looked over is one my brother sent to me: "Warbreaker." It seems like it will be a good story, and I have always liked the books my brother sends me, but it's a fantasy / adventure type novel, and I don't have the brain power or desire to learn about a whole different world/society right now.

My third option is a book I've been wanting to read for years, but somehow never quite got around to: "A Clockwork Orange." I've seen the movie, of course, and I think I remember liking it. Although all I really remember is that there is a lot of violence, and in one scene they beat up someone while "Singing in the Rain" plays in the background. I remember thinking it was a really significant movie, but I was 19 and dating a boy who loved it, so who knows what I really thought. Anyways, because I've never forgotten that juxtaposition of violence and a song from a musical I grew up watching with my mother, I've always wanted to know more about it. I'm not sure quite what has kept me from reading it until now, other than the fact that I am afraid I won't get it or that it will be something other than what I've built it up in my mind to be.

I still can't start reading it right now, though, because I have enough to think about with the bar studying, and I don't want to read this until I can spend some serious time with the text - preferably when I have nothing else going on at all - like August when I'll be unemployed.

But tonight, I read the introduction written by Anthony Burgess himself, and I have some thoughts on it that I wanted to get out. I bought this copy of the book at a used book store in Fort Collins this past March, while visiting my brother (he's coming up a lot in this post), and it's published by W.W. Norton & Company in 1986. I only mention this, because I'm not sure whether this particular introduction is in other printed editions.

Three things I learned from the introduction: 1) when published in England (and almost every other country in the world) it was published with 21 chapters, but the original publication in the US was published without the final chapter - more on this below; 2) the phrase "a clockwork orange" is a phrase used to describe something bizarre - like "he's as queer as a clockwork orange." I always just assumed (not totally incorrectly it turns out) that the title was something weird and made up to go along with the weirdness of the story; and 3) I can't decide whether I like Anthony Burgess or not. I'm leaning toward not.

First, let's talk about the difference in the US version. Burgess tells us that his US publisher made him leave out the last chapter as a condition of publication in the US, and he was so desperate for money that he agreed (against his better judgment, of course). The publisher adds his own little note later saying that he remembers things differently, but it doesn't really matter which story is true, what matters is that they are now publishing the novel as Burgess intended. This seems like a petty little note to include and it's clear there's no love between these two.

The significance of leaving off the last chapter is important. In the 21st chapter, apparently, something that happens to make the protagonist more human. He sees the pointlessness and futility of his actions and his remorse makes him more human. As Burgess says:

"There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation ... When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory."

He makes a good point, and I agree. Apparently his US publishers thought it would be more interesting to portray the character and leave off the change of heart (i.e. it would sell better to Americans). Stanley Kubrick made his movie based on the American novel, also leaving out the change in the protagonist. Certainly it made the film the work of art that has interested and (scared?) us all to this day - an unrepentant and unchanged character.

All of this is very interesting, and it's great background information, but the point I want to bring up is that the way he writes his explanation makes me dislike Burgess some. I almost always dislike artists that put their work out into the world, and then act like they didn't want it to be a commercial success. Burgess, in this introduction goes on for several paragraphs about how this isn't the work that means the most to him, and compares himself to Rachmaninoff and Beethoven who were not appreciated for their later, more developed work, but were known for the work created when they were young and less experienced. He goes on about why it was so important to him to have 21 chapters and having only 20 threw off the whole numerological point he was trying to make (something about reaching an age of maturity).

But then he freely admits that he wrote the book for money. He agreed to whatever the publisher asked of him simply so that he could make a buck. He admits to appealing to our sinful natures and to the baser interests of the human race to make a point about moral choices- right and wrong, free will, etc. - which is kind of an elementary, or at least simple, theme. He writes that this novel "is a work too didactic to be artistic," and he seems to be ashamed of it.

This is what bothers me. Here is this brilliant man who has written this great work, which has inspired other great works, and has infiltrated the imagination of people worldwide, and he is too much of a snob to be proud of or glad that he wrote it. I dislike this so much. I also hate it in actors who later in their careers become ashamed of the commercial and (in their minds) "silly" projects they did while building a career - like they're above that now because they only do independent films. But it's necessary. It's part of becoming an artist, and there's no use looking down on it - it's the experience and the creativity and the product they've put out into the world, and which has shaped them as a performer / artist, and which has shaped our perception of them.

Inherent in those kinds of statements is the idea that if we (as consumers an patrons of art) like this novel, or those commercial films, or their other early pieces, we don't have good taste. We can't possibly understand their art or their point of view. It's snobbery, but it's also arrogance. And I just don't like it.

But, having said all that, I'm obviously still going to read the book. The fact that I dislike the author won't have anything (much) to do with how I read the novel. I believe I'm capable of divorcing the art from the artist. An honestly, it's the artists who are infuriating and unbearable in reality that create the best works. And with this much to say about the Introduction, imagine what intellectual treats await me within the actual story!

Have I embarrassed myself with this post? I've just re-read it, and I sound kind of snobby. Oh well, those are my impressions. In the final words of Burgess from this introduction: "Eat this sweetish segment or spit it out. You are free."


  1. Your brother sounds like a Clockwork Orange.

    Well, he actually sounds like a badass, but I wanted to use 'Clockwork Orange' in my response, while avoiding insulting you.

    I can't say that I'm a fan of Anthony Burgess, for the sole fact that his last name makes me unsure how to pronounce it- is it a soft or hard 'G'? He would be better off with a more pronounceable last name, such as Smith or Tricola.

    The fact that you don't like him either only vindicates me and my rather biased opinion. heh. :-p

  2. No, you didn't embarrass yourself - that was pretty interesting! I have the same weird recollection of the movie, and vaguely thought I should read the book sometime. Not sure I'd like Burgess very much though...

    Don't be put off by the format of Guernsey. It's easy to follow and would be a perfect de-stressing diversion!

  3. Xaereth, you are the Clockworkiest Orange I know! Thanks for stopping by and for commenting. I don't comment on your blog because I feel lost most of the time and I don't want to embarrass myself (or you).

    JoAnn, thanks for the encouragement, and for the Guernsey note. I'll give it another try, after The Help. :)