Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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Anthony Burgess on the alteration of the meaning of his novel “A Clockwork Orange” in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. 

February 6th, 2011 · No Comments · Culture, Humanism, Philosophy

I first published the novella A Clockwork Orange in 1962, which ought to be far enough in the past for it to be erased from the world’s literary memory. It refuses to be erased, however, and for this the film version of the book made by Stanley Kubrick may be held chiefly responsible. I should myself be glad to disown it for various reasons, but this is not permitted. I receive mail from students who try to write theses about it or requests from Japanese dramaturges to turn It into a sort of Noh play. It seems likely to survive, while other works of mine that I value more bite the dust. This is not an unusual experience for an artist. Rachmaninoff used to groan because he was known mainly for a Prelude in C Sharp Minor which he wrote as a boy, while the works of his maturity never got into the programmes. Kids cut their pianistic teeth on a Minuet in G which Beethoven composed only so that he could detest it. I have to go on living with A Clockwork Orange, and this means I have a sort of authorial duty to it. I have a very special duty to it in the United States, and I had better now explain what this duty is.

Audiences did not exactly clamour for their money back, but they wondered why Kubrick left out the dénouement. People wrote to me about this-indeed much of my later life has been expended on Xeroxing statements of intention and the frustrations of intention-while both Kubrick and my New York publisher coolly bask in the rewards of their misdemeanor. Life is of course, terrible.
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My book was Kennedyan and accepted the notion of moral progress. What was really wanted was a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it. Let us have evil prancing on the page and, up to the very last line, sneering in the face of all the inherited beliefs, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Holy Roller, about people being able to make themselves better. Such a book would be sensational, and so it is. But I do not think it is a fair picture of human life.

I do not think so because, by definition, a human being is endowed with free will. He can use this to choose between good and evil. If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange-meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State.

Unfortunately there is so much original sin in us all that we find evil rather attractive. To devastate is easier and more spectacular than to create. We like to have the pants scared off us by visions of cosmic destruction. To sit down in a dull room and compose the Missa solennis or The Anatomy of Melancholy does not make headlines or news flashes. Unfortunately my little squib of a book was found attractive to many because it was as odorous as a crateful of bad eggs with the miasma of original sin.

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