Anthony Burgess on A Clockwork Orange

Excerpts from "You've Had Your Time"

British writer Anthony Burgess (1917 - 1994) kick-started his literary career in 1960 after mistakenly being diagnosed with a cerebral tumour and given a year to live. Subsequently he became the prolific author of novels, literary criticisms, essays, film scripts and plays. His most well known book, A Clockwork Orange, was published in 1962, and made into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1971.

Although Burgess wasn't involved with writing of the script or any aspect of the film's production, he found himself a reluctant publicist and defender of Kubrick's work. In the second volume of his autobiography 'You've Had Your Time' - from which these excerpts are taken - he writes about how the novel came about, as well as recounting some of his experiences working with Kubrick.

I typed a new title - A Clockwork Orange - and wondered what story might match it. I had always liked the cockney expression and felt there might be a meaning in it deeper than a bizarre metaphor of, not necessarily sexual, queerness. Then a story began to stir.

Lynne (Burgess' first wife) and I had come home to a new British phenomenon - the violence of teenage gangs. We had on our leaves of 1957 and 1958, seen teddy boys in coffee bars. These were youths dressed very smartly in neo-Edwardian suits with heavily soled boots and distinctive coiffures. They seemed too elegant to be greatly given to violence, but they were widely feared by the faint hearted. They were a personification of the Zeitgeist in that they seemed to express a brutal disappointment with Britain's post war decline as a world power and evoked the age of Edwardian expansion in the clothes if nothing else. They had originally been called Edwardian Strutters. Now in 1960 they were being superseded by hooligans more casually dressed. The Mods and Rockers were so called because the first group wore modern clothes, whatever they were, and the others had motorcycles with rockers or parking prongs. The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is right in pointing to the leather jackets of the Rockers as a sartorial mark, but it is wrong in supposing that they got there name from a love of rock 'n' roll. Lynne and I saw Mods and Rockers knocking hell out of each other when we made a trip to Hastings

These young people seemed to love aggression for its own sake. They were expressing the Manichean principle of the universe, opposition as and end in itself, yin versus yang, X against Y. I foresaw that the Queen's Peace was going to be greatly disrupted by the aimless energy of these new young, well-fed with money in their pockets. They were not, of course, all that new. The apprentices of Queen Elizabeth 1's time used to riot, but they were delt with in a very summary way - sometimes hanged on the spot. I at first though of making my new novel a historical one, dealing with a particular apprentices' riot in the 1590's, when young thugs beat up the women who sold eggs and butter at prices considered too high, with perhaps Will Shakespeare breaking his hip when slithering on a pavement greasy with blood and egg yolk. But I finally decided to be prophetic, positing a near future - 1970, say - in which youthful aggression reached so frightful a pitch that the government would try to burn it out with Pavlovian techniques of negative reinforcement. I saw the novel would have to have a metaphysical or theological base - youthful free will having the choice of good and evil although generally choosing evil; the artificial extirpation of free will through scientific conditioning; the question as to whether this might not, in theological terms, be a greater evil than the free choice of evil.

My problem in writing the novel was wholly stylistic. The story had to be told by a young thug of the future, and it had to be told in his own version of English. This would be partly the slang of his group, partly his personal dialect. It was pointless to write the book in the slang of the early sixties: it was ephemeral like all slang and might have a lavender smell by the time the manuscript got to the printers, It seemed, at the time, and insoluble problem. A slang for the 1970's would have to be invented, but I shrank form making it arbitrary, I shut the half completed draft, who's sixties slang clearly would not do, in a drawer and got down to the writing of something else


Lynne and I felt we ought to take a holiday. There were Russian ships sailing from Tilbury to Leningrad, calling at Copenhagen and Stockholm, and then sailing back. There was a brief stay in a Leningrad hotel between voyages. The Russians were known to be good drinkers, and Lynne knew she would feel at home among them. When I finished my day's stint of novelising and reviewing, I started to re-learn Russian. I tried to persuade Lynne that she should at least learn the Cyrillic alphabet, so as to know where the ladies' toilets were and to master a few sweeteners of social intercourse. But she was above going back to school. I sighed and slogged away at my word lists and frequentive verbs, and soon it flashed upon me that I had found a solution to the stylistic problem of A Clockwork Orange. The Vocabulary of my space-age hooligans could be a mixture of Russian and demotic English, seasoned with rhyming slang and the gypsy's bolo. The Russian suffix for -teen was nadsat, and that would be the name of the teenage dialect, spoken by drugi or droogs or friends of violence.

Russian loanwords fit better in to English than those from German, French , or Italian. English, anyway, is already a kind of melange of French and German. Russian has polysyllables like zhevotnoye for best. But it also has brevities like brat for brother. In the manner of Eastern Languages, Russian makes no distinction between leg and foot - noga for both, or hand and arm, which are alike ruka. This limitation would turn my horrible young narrator in to a clockwork toy with in articulate limbs. As there was much violence in the draft smouldering in my drawer, and there would be even more in the finished work, this strange new logo would act like a kind of mist half-hiding the mayhem and protecting the reader from his own baser instincts. And there was fine irony in the notion of a teenage race untouchable by politics, using totalitarian brutality as and end in itself, equipped with a dialect which drew on the two chief political languages of the age.

I ended up with a vocabulary of around 200 words. As the book was about brainwashing, it was appropriate that the text itself should be a brainwashing device. The reader would be brainwashed into learning minimal Russian. The novel was to be an exercise in linguistic programming, with the exoticisms gradually clarified by context: I would resist to the limit any publisher's demand that a glossary be provided. A glossary would disrupt the programming and nullify the brainwashing. It turned out to be a considerable pleasure to devise new rhythms and resurrect old ones, chiefly from the King James Bible, to accommodate the weird patois. The novel was nearly finished by the time we were ready to travel to Tilbury and board the Alexander Radishchev, a well-found ship of the Baltic line.


In May 1962 A Clockwork Orange appeared... no British reviewer like it, the Times Literary Supplement called it: 'A viscous verbiage...which is the swag bellied offspring of decay.' A Clockwork Orange was published in New York by W.W. Norton Inc. later in the year. Eric Swenson, Norton's vice-president insisted that the book lose its final chapter. I had to accede to this lopping because I needed the advance, but I was not happy about it. I had structured the work with some care. It was divided into three sections of seven chapters each, the total figure being, in traditional arithmology, the symbol of human maturity. My young narrator, the music loving thug Alex, ends the story by growing up and renouncing violence as a childish toy. This was the subject of the final chapter, and made the work a genuine if brief novel. But Swenson wanted only the reversible artificial change imposed by state conditioning. He wished Alex to be a figure in a fable, not a novel. Alex ends chapter 20 saying: 'I was cured all right,' and he resumes joy in evil. The American and European editions of my novel are thus essentially different. The tough tradition of American popular fiction ousted what was termed British blandness.

Though they were reading a somewhat different book, American reviewers understood what I was trying to do rather better than their British counterparts. Time said: 'It may look like a nasty little shocker, but Burgess has written a rare thing in English letters - a philosophical novel. The point may be overlooked because the hero tells all in nadsat which serves to put him where he belongs - half in and half out of the human race. The pilgrim's progress of a beatnik Stavogrin is a serious and successful moral essay. Burgess argues quite simply that Alex is more of a man as an evil man than as a good zombie. the clockwork of a mechanical society can never counterfeit the organic vitality of moral choice. goodness is nothing if evil is not accepted as a possibility.'

It was gratifying to be understood in America, humiliating to be misread in my own country. American critics forced me to take my own work seriously and to ponder whether the implied moral of the novel was sound. Brought up as a Catholic (and the book is more Catholic and Judaic than Protestant), I naturally considered that humanity is defined by its capacity for St Augustine's liberum arbitrium, and that moral choice cannot exist without a moral polarity. I saw the book might be dangerous because it presented good, or at least harmlessness, as remote and abstract, something for the adult future of my hero, while depicting violence as joyful dithyrambs. But violence had to be shown, If I had begun my story with Alex in the dock, condemned for crimes generalised into judicial rhetoric, even the gentlest spinster reader would rightly have complained about evasion. Fiction deals with the concrete and the particular, even in Henry James, and the sin of showing juvenile brutality was, for me, behovely. But I was sickened by my own excitement at setting it down, and I saw that Auden was right in saying that the novelist must be filthy with the filthy.

I discussed the matter of the novelist's moral responsibility with George Dwyer in his Leeds Bishopric. I was invited to a Yorkshire Post literary luncheon at which he said grace. George had written his master thesis on Baudelaire and knew all about flowers of evil. Literature, even the kind celebrated at a literary luncheon, was an aspect of the fallen world and one of its tasks was to clarify the nature of the fall. Thoughtful readers of novels with criminal, or merely sinful protagonists achieved catharsis through horror, setting themselves at a distance from their own sinful inheritance. As for thoughtless readers, there was no doing anything with them. With the demented literature could prime acts of evil, but that was not the fault of literature. the Bible had inspired a New York killer to sacrifice children to a satanic Jehovah; the murderer Haigh, who drank the blood of the women he slaughtered, was obsessed with the Eucharist.


In the Autumn of 1971 Liana (Burgess' second wife) and I were ordered by Warner Brothers to go to London (from their home in Rome), there to stay at Claridge's and be ready for a private showing of Stanley Kubrick's film A Clockwork Orange.

I knew Kubrick's work well and admired it.. Paths of Glory, not at that time admissible in France, was a laconic metaphor of the barbarity of war, with the French showing more barbarity than the Germans. Dr Strangelove was a very acerbic satire on the nuclear destruction we were all awaiting. Kubrick caught in a kind of one-act play, trimmed with shots of mushroom clouds, the masochistic reality of dreading a thing while secretly longing for it. I felt, though, that he over-valued the talent of Peter Sellers and made the tour de force of his playing three very different parts in the same film obscure the satire by compelling technical admiration. Lolita could not work well, not solely because James Mason and Sellers were miscast, but because Kubrick has found no cinematic equivalent to Nabokov's literary extravagance. Nabokov's script, I knew, had been rejected; all the scripts for A Clockwork Orange, above all, my own had been rejected too, and I feared that the cutting to the narrative bone which harmed the filmed Lolita would turn the filmed A Clockwork Orange into a complementary pornograph - the seduction of a minor for the one, for the other brutal mayhem. The writer's aim in both books had been to put language, not sex and violence, into the foreground; a film, on the other hand, was not made out of words. What I hoped for, having seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, was an expert attempt at visual futurism. A Clockwork Orange, the book, had been set in a vague future which was already probably past; Kubrick had the opportunity to create a fantastic new future which, being realised in decor, could influence the present.

So, one the reception staff of Claridge's accepted that Liana was my wife and not an Italian -speaking nanny, we were given a suite suitable for an oil-sheikh and I feared the worst: I feared that I would have to work for the film; film companies give nothing for nothing. Liana, Deborah Rogers (Burgess' agent) and I went to a Soho viewing-room and, with Kubrick standing at the back, heard Walter Carlos' electronic version of Henry Purcell's funeral music for Queen Mary and watched the film unroll. After ten minuets Deborah said she could stand no more and was leaving; after eleven minutes Liana said the same thing. I held them both back; however affronted they were by the highly coloured aggression, they could not be discourteous to Kubrick. We watched the film to the end, but it was not the end of the book I had published in London in 1962: Kubrick had followed the American truncation and finished with a brilliantly realised fantasy drawn from the ultimate chapter of the one, penultimate chapter of the other. Alex, the thug-hero, having been conditioned to hate violence, is now deconditioned and sees himself wrestling with a naked girl while a crowd dressed for Ascot discreetly applauds. Alex's voice-over gloats: 'I was cure all right.' A vindication of free will had become an exaltation of the urge to sin. I was worried. The British version of the book shows Alex growing up and putting violence by as a childish toy; Kubrick confessed that he did not know the version: an American, though settled in England, he had followed the only version that Americans were permitted to know. I cursed Eric Swenson of W.W. Norton.

The film was now shown to the public and was regarded by the reactionary as the more dangerous for being so brilliant. Its brilliance nobody could deny, and some of the brilliance was the directors response to the wordplay of the novel. The camera played, slowing down, speeding up; when Alex hurled himself out of a window a camera enacted his attempted suicide by being itself hurled - a thousand pound machine ruined at one throw. As for the terrible theme - the violence of the individual preferable to the violence of the state - questions were asked in parliament and the banning of the film urged. It was left to me, while the fulfilled artist Kubrick pared his nails in his house at Borehamwood, to explain to the press what the film, and for that matter the almost forgotten book, was really about, to preach a little sermon about liberum arbitrium, and to affirm the Catholic content. The Catholic press were not pleased. I told the Evening Standard that the germ of the book was the fourfold attack on my first wife by American deserters, and this was summarised on newspaper vendors' posters as CLOCKWORK ORANGE GANG ATTACKED MY WIFE. Maurice Eldelman MP, an old friend, attacked the film in the same newspaper and I had to telephone though a reply. I was not quite sure what I was defending - the book that had been called 'a nasty little shocker' or the film about which Kubrick remained silent. I realised, not for the first time, how little impact even a shocking book can make in comparison with a film. Kubrick's achievement swallowed mine whole, and yet I was responsible for what some called its malign influence on the young.

There was, certainly, an influence that could not be wholly malign, and that was the musical content of A Clockwork Orange which was not just an emotional stimulant but a character in its own right. If the pop loving young could be persuaded to take Beethoven's Ninth seriously - even in its Moog form - then one could soften the charge of scandal with the excuse of artistic uplift. But the film, and perhaps the book, seemed to deny the Victorian association of great music with lofty morality. There were still musicologists around who alleged that Beethoven opened up a vision of divinity. Alex gets something very much opposed to that out of the scherzo of the Ninth, which sets ikons of Christ marching while making a communist salute. Still, the music remained the music, and the Clockwork Orange record that was all over London only invited to violence on its cover.

At Kubrick's home, where I went for dinner, I met fist his guard dogs, then the daughter, now grown, who had been the lisping infant on the blepophone screen in A Space Odyssey, and then the delightful wife who had been the singing German girl at the end of Paths of Glory. I met also Kubrick's concern with music. After Alex North had crippled himself with the rushed writing of a score for A Space Odyssey, Kubrick had decided to draw his music out of the existing concert repertory. He set a bad example to some of his followers. John Boorman's Excalibur, for instance, uses music from Tristan und Isolde and Gotterdammerung, who's non-Arthurian associations are blatant. But Kubrick has usually chosen right. I showed him, on his piano, that Ode to Joy and Singin' in the Rain (which Alex sings while thumping the husband of the woman he proposes to ravish) go in acceptable counterpoint, but he let it go. What he gave me of value was the idea for my next novel. This was all to do with music.

I had for some time toyed with the notion of writing a Regency novel, a kind of Jane Austen parody, which should follow that pattern of a Mozart symphony. There would be four movements - an allegro, an adante, a minuet and trio, and a presto finale - and the plot would be dictated by symphonic form, not by psychological probability. So in the first movement, a country house party, the characters would be introduced in an exposition, become involved in a violent fantasy in the development section, and then be as they were before in the recapitulation. There was an obvious problem: music admits exact repetition, but this is impossible in narrative prose. The problem might be solved by inexact repetition - characters recapitulating their actions in a changed prose style, or doing new things in a style which recalled, in rhythm and imagery, what had already been stated. The project presented such difficulties, and so large a promise of unreadability, that I let it lie in a drawer. I mentioned this to Kubrick in a discussion of narrative techniques, and he suggested what I should have already thought of - namely, the imitation of a symphony which already had narrative associations and, for plot, the filling out of the theme which had inspired the symphony. He meant Beethoven's symphony no 3 in E flat, the Eroica, which began by being about Napoleon and ended by being about any great military hero. where were these narrative associations? The first movement was clearly about struggle and victory, the second about a great public funeral, and in the third and forth the hero was raised to the level of myth - a specific myth, that of Prometheus, which Beethoven spelt out by drawing on his own Prometheus ballet music.

Kubrick was not presenting this idea in a generous void. He wanted to make a film on Napoleon, using techniques denied to Abel Gance, and he wished Napoleon's career to be contained in a film of moderate length. He needed a script but the script must be preceded by a novel. The musicalisation of Napoleon's life, from the first Italian campaigns to the exile on St Helena, would be an act of compression and it would suggest compressive techniques in the film. Thus, if the battle of Waterloo came with Beethoven's scherzo, then the cinematic narrative would be justified in speeding up the action to an almost comic degree. Exile and death on St Helena would have to follow Beethoven's of theme and variations - perhaps recapitulating film styles from Eisenstein on - and Napoleon's death would have to be followed by his mythic resurrection, since Beethoven says so. The financing of such a film with helicopter shots of major battles, all reproduced in pedantic detail - would run into more millions than A Clockwork Orange had cost, but the film had to be made someday and Kubrick was clearly the man to make it. Meanwhile the writing of a novel called Napoleon Symphony (the only possible title) would cost only time.


I discovered that Warner Brothers were relying on me to boost A Clockwork Orange which had just opened in New York, they put me up in the Algonquin Hotel and the put Malcolm Mcdowell, into the Pierre. He and I, in a kind of father son mockery, were to appear on radio and television to publicise the film. The relationship was apt for in the film the hero was named Alex Burgess, though only after he has been named Alex Delarge (a reference to his calling himself, though only in the book, Alex the Large, or Alexander the Great). The cinema gets away with inconsistencies that no copy editor would stomach in a novel.

Before embarking with Malcolm on a publicity programme which, since Kubrick went on paring his nails in Borhamwood seemed to glorify an invisible divinity, I went to a public showing of A Clockwork Orange to learn about audience response. The audience were all young people, and at first I was not allowed in being too old, pop. The violence of the action moved them deeply, especially the blacks, who stood up to shout 'Right on, man,' but the theology passes tight over their coiffures. A very beautiful interview chaperon, easing me through a session with a French television team, prophesied rightly that the French would 'intellectualise like mad over the thing,' but to the young Americans the thing looked like an incentive to youthful violence. It was not long before a report came in about four boys, dressed in droog style copied from the film, gang raping a nun in Poughkeepsie. The couture was later denied - the boys had not yet seen the film - but the rape was a fact, and it was blamed upon Malcolm Mcdowell and myself. Kubrick went on paring his nails, even when it was announced that he was to be given two New York Critic's awards. I had to collect those at Sardi's restaurant and deliver a speech of thanks. Kubrick telephoned to say what I was to say. I said something rather different.


I stopped off in London on my way back to Rome. I had to deliver the two plaques confirming that the New York critics considered Stanley Kubrick the best director and script writer of the year. I also had to appear on a BBC radio programme to defend Stanley Kubrick's art and the apparent depravity of a book that few had read.

So going back to Liana in Rome was returning to Europe in a more than geographical sense. Any trouble I was to have in Italy would, much later, be for alleged blasphemy more than the fathering of youthful violence. Europe, being more or less Catholic saw what both the book and the film were really about. Roman journalism was to play up my status as the pardrino of sin, but it was also to accept that sin was not my invention. the French and Italian terms for free will were close to St Augustine's liberum arbitrium, and to speak of libre arbitre or libero arbitrio was automatically to invoke theology. A Clockwork Orange whatever Protestant Britain might say, was theologically sound.