After a short break from reading, I’m thrilled to return to my Library series today and to one of the most compelling novels of all time. A perfect way to start reading again, thanks to its short yet intense burst of genius, A Clockwork Orange is an unparalleled masterpiece.
A Clockwork Orange was the first, and to date only, novel I’ve read in a single sitting. I can’t remember why, but I was staying at my grandparents’ house for a few nights, perhaps home from university. For some reason, I found myself with a copy of the book and dove into one night, finishing it several hours later at 3am.
Divided into three parts, A Clockwork Orange, follows the story of Alex, a young and violent man who spends his evenings taking part in “ultra-violence”, beating, maiming and raping with his gang of three “droogs”. Caught and sentenced to jail, Alex is subjected to an experimental treatment which removes his free will and makes even the thought of violence turn his stomach.
The novel is one of a select few where it’s impossible to choose a true highlight, indeed it’s the perfection of the whole that makes A Clockwork Orange so successful. The prose is tight, explosive and yet works away at subtler themes than it often gets credit for. Of course, there’s free will under scrutiny, but so too is government interference, youth culture, violence, prisons and religion.
While the prose shines, it is often the narration that many remember, spurred on by Burgess’ nadsat, a language compounded from Russian, rhyming slang and pure invention, oh my brothers. Alex, our humble narrator, is the voice of his generation. He’s an anarchist, intellectual and philosopher rolled into the malevolent heartbeat of a disconnected teenager. He delights in violence and crime, despises authority, but you often sense is just a little too bright to truly believe he can last forever that way.
Martin Amis, in his 2012 essay on A Clockwork Orange, rightly celebrates the almost whisp-like nature of the novel:
“It is a book that can still be read with steady pleasure, continuous amusement and — at times — incredulous admiration.”
Like Amis, my main reaction the novel has always been a sense of wonder at the sheer perfection Burgess accomplished. Written in just three weeks, the book reads as if it was born in a storm of white-hot but short-lived fire. No other novel I know of better captures its tone, story and meaning in so few words. Perhaps The Great Gatsby is the closest in terms of creating a single, atmospheric story. Yet even Fitzgerald rests his novel from time to time. Burgess, you sense, did not blink.
A Clockwork Orange is one of TIME’s Best 100 Novels and one of The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels.
About the Author
Anthony Burgess is best known for his 1963 novel A Clockwork Orange, which was adapted for the screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. As well as writing many novels, Burgess composed over 250 musical works.