May 14: On this day in 1962 Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange was published; the novel and the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film made Burgess internationally famous and the target of controversy. Some found his book prophetic of our social breakdown; some dismissed both book and author outright: “Anthony Burgess is a literary smart aleck whose novel, A Clockwork Orange last year achieved a success d’estime with critics like William Burroughs, who mistook his muddle of sadism, teddyboyism, jive talk and Berlitz Russian for social philosophy.”
Burgess said that it was the least favorite of his books, and that the muddled meaning was due to the film being based not on the first, British edition but the truncated American version. According to his Introduction to the restored American edition (1986), he gave in to his first American editors because he needed their money, though he knew that they were turning the story into a sensationalistic fable by cutting his crucial last chapter. In Chapter 21 (the number of the last chapter for symbolic reasons), “my young thuggish protagonist grows up” because he recognizes “that human energy is better expended on creation than destruction.”
Having had to write the book “in a state of near drunkenness in order to deal with material that upset me very much,” Burgess was similarly unhappy with those who thought him promoting violence. His intended message was that “It is better to have our streets infested with murderous young hoodlums than to deny individual choice.” And better violence in the streets than death by television, says antihero Alex to his droogs, as they head out “for a yell or a razrez or a bit of in-out-in-out in the dark”:
…and in the windows of all the flats you could viddy like blue dancing light. This would be the telly. Tonight was what they called a worldcast, meaning that the same programme was being viddied by everybody in the world that wanted to, that being mostly the middle-aged middle-class lewdies. There would be some big famous stupid comic chelloveck or black singer, and it was all being bounced off the special telly satellites in outer space, my brothers.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.