Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The Classic Novel That Almost Never Was

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Anthony Burgess’s classic dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange.  (I, however, read it for the first time only this year - no-one can ever accuse me of being ahead of the game, that’s for sure…)

 The novel (or, more accurately, the novella) is set in the near future in an unnamed city (which appears to be a curious mix of the darker elements of New York, London and Gotham).  This hybrid metropolis is over-run by gangs of feral youths, who nightly inflict terror on those citizens who are unlucky enough to find themselves in their path. The novel’s narrator, Alex, is the leader of one such posse, and the book is littered with his sometimes incomprehensible idiolect – an argot deriving from Russian, gypsy patois and rhyming slang.

However, Alex’s reign of terror is brought to an abrupt end when he is betrayed by one of his fellow gang-members (or ‘droogs’).  After being arrested by the ‘millicents’ (police) and charged with murder, Alex is subjected to ‘aversion therapy’ in attempt to ‘cure’ him of his violent urges and sociopathic tendencies. 

The notion of good and evil, and the free will to choose between the two is the central theme of this book.  But in a departure from the ‘good-guy-turned-bad’ approach so common to this theme, Burgess has presented us with a thoroughly bad character who is turned good against his will.  And, it is this rather unorthodox slant which has elevated A Clockwork Orange to its well-deserved status as a modern classic. 

However, the novel’s success was far from a foregone conclusion – in fact, a recently-uncovered document seen by The Independent on Sunday reveals that the book’s publishers suffered a bad case of pre-publication jitters which almost resulted in the book being shelved (!) entirely.

The document was written by Maire Lynd, an in-house fiction reader for the publishing house, Heinemann.  Maire, it seems, could not decide whether A Clockwork Orange, was destined to be a hit or ‘an enormous flop’.  Lynd correctly noted that slang used in the book would pose ‘great difficulty’ to the reader, but by the same token, felt brave enough to predict that some of it may find its way into teenage vernacular. 

As it turned out, Maire’s assessment of the novel’s chances was proved right - on both counts.  The book posted very poor sales figures, and unenthusiastic reviews, when it was eventually published in 1962 – and it wasn’t until Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 movie adaptation that it was embraced by the general public – and it has retained its place among the cannon of modern literary greats ever since.

Interestingly, Burgess was somewhat less enthusiastic about his best-known work: "It is ironic that I am always associated with A Clockwork Orange”, he said in a previously unpublished interview. “This, of all my books, is the one I like least."


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