book review: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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A CLOCKWORK ORANGE by Anthony Burgess
★★★★★
originally published in 1962

I’m seeing the play adaptation of A Clockwork Orange off Broadway in a couple of weeks, so I thought it would be a good idea to read the book first. I read one paragraph and thought ‘oh god, what am I getting myself into?’ before deciding to soldier on anyway. Now, since I’m guessing this has been the experience of just about everyone who has ever read the first paragraph of A Clockwork Orange only to put it down after that, my advice is: push through it. By the second chapter it gets easier, and by the fourth or fifth you’re practically fluent in nadsat.

But let’s back up. The most notable thing about A Clockwork Orange is that it’s written in Anthony Burgess’s invented argot, ‘nadsat,’ which draws on Cockney, Malay, and Russian. You’re thrown into this hybrid language immediately without any explanation, and it’s a little disorienting, which I think was the effect that Burgess was going for. But it works, beautifully. It draws the reader into Alex’s world, and somehow serves to desensitize from the brutal violence that Alex and his gang inflict on others. The relief you feel at being able to understand the language washes over you in stark opposition to the horrors that the nadsat is masking, and it’s a uniquely unsettling experience. I was completely drawn in by the effect that Burgess created here.

Thematically, this book is absolutely fascinating. Burgess constructs a vaguely futuristic totalitarian state that draws on elements of both communism and capitalism, which makes sense given the social climate that Burgess was writing in, in 1960s Britain. This book raises a lot of questions about humanity, free will, and the symbiotic relationship of the state and the individual. What value is there in free will if an individual doesn’t choose to be good? Is it better to choose to be evil, or to be forced to be good? What’s so striking about A Clockwork Orange is that we don’t have a hero worth rooting for in this dystopian society, but it’s still a powerful commentary on governmental injustice and youth violence. I was very moved by Alex’s story, and it’s a testament to Burgess’s skill that he was able to evoke pity for this character who should by all accounts be irrevocably loathsome.

I really enjoyed reading this, as much as you can ‘enjoy’ a brutally violent book. I don’t recommend this lightly, but if you can handle this kind of dark fiction, reading this book is a surprisingly rewarding experience.

24 thoughts on “book review: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

  1. I might give this one a second try! I think I read about 5 pages of it several years ago and noped right away from it. But if it gets easier to read, then it’s definitely worth another shot.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It gets so much easier than I ever would have believed if you told me “it gets easier” after that first paragraph. You get a feel for which words to hone in on, like maybe ten or fifteen or so, and once you’ve got those down you’ve got a solid 80% of the text. It definitely helps if you have an edition that has a glossary in the back, but even without one most of the words are made clear through context. It’s just the first couple of chapters that are really slow going – after that it’s almost like reading a ‘normal’ book.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Ahhh I definitely need to read this now. I’ve had it for like a million years sitting on my shelf. But I’m glad I’ve been warned about the language, I feel like that may have turned me off easily.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Totally, I doubt I would have persevered if I hadn’t wanted to read it before seeing the play, but I’m so glad I did, it became ‘readable’ a LOT more quickly than I thought it was going to.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read the book when I was about your age. I also saw the old movie. Both book and movie can still scare me. Enjoy the play ” as much as you can ‘enjoy’ a brutally violent” play. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, thanks! I felt like ‘enjoy’ was a strange word to sum up my experience with this book, but I did still ‘enjoy’ it, in a way. I hope the play will be just as stimulating and interesting!

      Like

  4. Yes, yes, yes this is SUCH a great review summarizing exactly why this book is so interesting to read, but also enjoyable isn’t quite the right word. I read it about 10 years ago for a British Fiction class in University and remember really liking it. I never have watched the movie though, maybe one day.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s been so long since I read this, and I was probably wayyyyy too young when I did haha, but I remember I loved it! The language was so fun but yes, it was violent. I should definitely reread it soon just to see how I like it now. Great review!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hahaha I have so many books in that ‘I was probably way too young to read this when I did’ category. It’s always fun to revisit books like that when you’re at an ~appropriate age for them.

      Did you grow up bilingual or did you learn English as a second language? I can’t imagine reading this book in a second language, it was hard enough as it is. Also this just got me thinking – how on earth does this book get translated into different languages?? I wonder if translators keep Burgess’s made up words or if they make up their own. This book is so linguistically fascinating.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Haha I’m glad I’m not the only one! Sometimes I look at a book now and wonder first of all what compelled me to get it, and then how I got away with it, like no one ever said anything. A Clockwork Orange is definitely one of them XD

        I grew up bilingual but my English is far more fluent today than it was then. I did read it in English but yeah, I wonder how it would read in Norwegian or any other language, really! I was always impressed with the Norwegian Harry Potter translations and how creative they got with the “magical words”, they were always fun but good. So I wonder what translators do when they have to translate a made-up language.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I never really had a YA phase even when I was a teenager, so the result is that I just ended up reading all these super fucked up books when I was like fourteen, hahaha. I think I would have liked A Clockwork Orange if I read it back then, but I probably would have been even more confused.

        That’s so cool that you grew up bilingual, but YEAH even with ever-so-slightly-less-than-fluent English I’m sure it was a challenge! You should definitely reread it and see what you think of it now. I read a couple of the Harry Potter books in Italian and I loved the way they translated characters’ names and spells and things, it was so cool.

        Damn, I just googled ‘A Clockwork Orange translations’ but all that came up is a bunch of nadsat glossaries. Nooo I want to learn how this book is translated into foreign languages!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Me neither! The most YA I’ve read at that age would be Harry Potter, but HP is special.

        Exactly! I read Wuthering Heights back when I was like 14 and thought I was fluent enough then, but I don’t think I fully got it lol. I remember I didn’t care much for the romance but I only have a vague sense of the plot. I’m interested to reread now just to see if I feel the same.

        Haha, all we get for A Clockwork Orange is nadsat translations x) I’m reading a Nesbø book at the moment and I’m curious how it reads in English. Like, references to Norwegian celebrities and real life crime cases and TV shows etc. is one thing, but what about puns that are basically meaningless when directly translated? How do they do it when the pun is crucial for like, a whole passage to make sense? So impressed with translators lol.

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  6. “A Clockwork Orange,” is a masterpiece of literature, a philosophical treatise disguised as a novel that any philosopher should read. Now, may I make a suggestion. Read the author’s other works. Anthony Burgess was a prolific writer, writing a vast amount of novels. He was genius and a Shakespearian. He hated “A Clockwork Orange.” He got tired of Clockwork Orange this, Clockwork Orange that. He wanted his other work appreciated. Yet, we seem to have forgotten his other books. I recommend reading the Malayan trilogy with the start of “The Long Day Wanes.” Also “Any Old Iron” is another good historical fictional novel. However, if you want something really trippy by Anthony Burgess, check out his book “The End of the World News.” The book is part musical, part history, and part science fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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