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Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange

This book is Anthony Burgess’ best known because of the film and, if you have seen the film, you have more or less got the flavour of the book. At some unspecified time in the future, in London, Alex (age fifteen) is the leader of a gang of petty thugs, who take great pleasure in violence, with the proceeds of their violence being almost secondary. However, his gang is tired of his being the boss and, after he disciplines them, they abandon him after a robbery and he is caught by the police. The victim – an old lady – dies and he is sent to prison for fourteen years. When he is involved in the killing of a fellow inmate, he is sent for a special treatment which makes him physically very sick whenever he contemplates violence (and has the side effect of also making him sick when he hears his favourite classical music, particular Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). However, he is quickly released as he is no longer a danger. Rejected by his parents, beaten up by his former friends and victims (and unable to defend himself), he tries to kill himself but merely ends up curing himself.

The novel is short and to the point but is distinguished by one feature – nadsat language. Nadsats are teenagers and the language has considerable Russian influence which seems rather odd, as why would teens adopt Russian as opposed to American slang? Burgess plays around with this a bit – khorosho (good in Russian) becomes horrorshow and stariy (old in Russian) becomes starry – but many of the terms are straightforward transliterated Russian so, if you don’t know, Russian, you might find you are frequently turning to the glossary. Behind the language games, Burgess gives an interesting if somewhat simplistic view of moral choice and social control à la 1984 and Brave New World. But the film is more fun.

Publishing history

First published 1962 by Heinemann