Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘essays’

A Clockwork Orange: The Restored Edition, Anthony Burgess, edited and with an introduction by Andrew Biswell (Heinemann 2012)

Like a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange should be read for the first time as a battered old paperback. That’s the best way to feel the power of the words, to experience black print on white paper conjuring a world of action, excitement and ideas. When you read A Clockwork Orange for the first time, it shouldn’t have a glossary, an introduction or any references to the film. It should fly in your mind unaided, fuelled on nothing but Burgess’s invention, imagination and jet-black humour.

That’s why this “Fiftieth Anniversary” edition is not the best way to read A Clockwork Orange for the first time. It’s an expensive hardback whose cover refers to the film straight away. There are many more references to the film in the “Essays, Articles and Reviews” included as an appendix inside, accompanied by a glossary, an introduction and notes by Burgess’s biographer Andrew Biswell, a foreword by Martin Amis, early reviews by Kingsley Amis, Malcolm Bradbury and Christopher Ricks, various pieces by Burgess himself exploring the roots of and reactions to his book, including discussion of his own musical version, and an afterword by Stanley Edgar Hyman from “the first American edition” in 1963. Not good, my bratties, for a first-time reader. Especially the glossary. As Burgess himself points out in one of the essays: part of the point of A Clockwork Orange is that it brainwashes its readers into learning an elementary Russian vocabulary, in a subtler and milder echo of the brainwashing that the book’s hero Alex undergoes as part of his rehabilitation.

I hadn’t seen that parallel before, so the essay was worth reading. So was everything else, apart from the glossary of Nadsat, the teen-speak created by Burgess for the anti-hero and his droogies. Okay, the glossary had to be there, as part of the full academic package, but if it had to be there it should have gone further, giving full etymologies for all the words. Stanley Edgar Hyman gets one of those etymologies wrong in the afterword, suggesting that rozz, meaning “police”, comes from Russian рожа, rozha, meaning “to grimace”. Not so. “Rozzer” was English slang for a policeman long before A Clockwork Orange was written. Nadsat both imported Russian and adapted English, and Burgess based the ultra-modern Alex on the Teddy Boys of the 1950s. British readers spotted those local ingredients easily for decades after the book’s first publication in 1962.

But it’s less easy now and this expanded edition makes one important point in both a literary and a literal way. A Clockwork Orange is bigger now than it was in 1962. It became a cult, it influenced many other writers, and it’s now Burgess’s most famous book by far. And it was also, of course, made into an iconic film by Stanley Kubrick. I’ve never seen the film and don’t want to. I think literature and language are much more interesting and important than film. So did Burgess and you can pick up some of his resentment about the film here. He called it “a highly coloured and explicit film” in 1982 (“A Last Word on Violence”, pg. 305). And he later expanded Nadsat by adding the word zubrick, meaning “penis”, apparently from Arabic, and rhyming with Kubrick. But I felt resentment towards Burgess himself, because he disappointed me in this book. I had assumed that he was taking the piss of the Guardian-reading community when he put a keyly core Guardianista phrase into the mouth of P.R. Deltoid, Alex’s “Post-Corrective Adviser”:

“Wrong?” he said, very skorry and sly, sort of hunched looking at me but still rocking away. Then he caught sight of an advert in the gazetta, which was on the table – a lovely smecking young ptitsa with her groodies hanging out to advertise, my brothers, the Glories of the Jugoslav Beaches. Then, after sort of eating her up in two swallows, he said: “Why should you think in terms of there being anything wrong? Have you been doing something you shouldn’t, yes?” (ch. 4)

That “in terms of” is pretentious and redundant, as Burgess must have been aware. But what is Burgess himself using in something he wrote for the Listener in 1972?

The fact remains, however, that the film sprang out of a book, and some of the controversy which has begun to attach to the film is controversy in which I, inevitably, feel myself involved. In terms of philosophy and even theology, the Kubrick Orange is a fruit from my tree. (“Clockwork Marmalade”, pg. 245, reprinted from the Listener, 17th February 1972)

That use of “in terms of” isn’t as bad as P.R. Deltoid’s, but Burgess would have been better writing “In philosophy and even theology” or “In its philosophy…” That would have been more vigorous and direct, and so more in keeping with the vigour and directness of A Clockwork Orange. It’s a very clever and funny book and although you should definitely not read it for the first time in this edition, reading it here for the fourth or fifth time would be good. Inter alia, you even get a reproduction of parts of Burgess’s “1961 typescript”, with doodles and alterations. For example, Burgess changed “the dimmest of us four” in chapter one to “the dimmest of we four”. It’s a small but significant change in one of the best books ever written, though not one of the greatest, in my opinion. I haven’t reviewed it properly above, but here’s a badly flawed review of mine from about 2005:


Clockwork Crock

A Clockwork Orange is the story, written in an invented slang of miscegenated Russian and Cockney, of a juvenile delinquent called Alex, who hands out beatings and rapes for kicks in between worshipping at the shrines of Ludwig V. and Wolfgang M. After many blood-stained adventures with his droogies, he is caught by the police and conditioned by government scientists to respond with nausea to the merest thought of violence. Unfortunately, because the films of concentration camps and Japanese atrocities with which they condition him are accompanied by classical music, he also responds with nausea to the merest snatch of Ludwig or Wolfgang.

The state then sees the error of its way and deconditions him, but although Alex is now free to continue his lawless – A-lex – ways, he discovers, in a closing scene cut from the first American edition, that he is growing up and just isn’t interested any more.

And with that, Burgess thought he had said something profound and important about free will and the dangers of the then-current behaviourist solutions to crime and deviance. He hadn’t. As a piece of experimental writing, this book is very clever and entertaining. As philosophy and ethics, it’s infantile. Burgess’s intent is summed up in what he said about the title: “I meant it to stand for the application of a mechanistic morality to a living organism oozing with juice and sweetness.”

The mechanistic morality is that of behaviourism, which regards men as living machines that can be conditioned by pain and pleasure to behave in appropriate ways: to avoid bad and seek good. But as the prison chaplain says to the imprisoned Alex:

“The question is whether such a technique can really make a man good. Goodness comes from within, 6655321. Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.”

Burgess doesn’t seem to have noticed what he had been writing in the rest of the book. Why did Alex stop choosing violence? Because the thought of it made him sick. But why did Alex, before then, carry on choosing violence? Because the thought, and the fact of it, gave him enormous pleasure. And why was that? Had Alex chosen to receive pleasure from violence? Burgess doesn’t say, and the question doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.

Nor does the related question of why Alex is a young man. If free will is indeed this mysterious metaphysical entity floating free of the mechanistic, electro-chemical morality of the behaviourists, why is Alex a young man? Why does it matter that, as he grows up, he starts to lose interest in violence and think about starting a family?

When I read that ending as a very young man myself, I thought it was ridiculous: it spoilt the book. Alex should have carried on as he was, lawlessly flouting the rules of the society that had treated him so brutally. But when I’d grown up a little myself and I read it again, I saw that it was perfectly realistic – and it’s an interesting commentary on the maturity of American society that it was cut for that first American edition. Violent young hooligans, like the Teddy Boys Burgess was inspired by, do grow up and stop being violent, because they stop being young. In other words, their brains change. Burgess is happy to accept Alex’s brain being changed by age, but not to accept it being changed by the state, presumably because one is natural and implicit and the other artificial and explicit.

But both are beyond the control of the autonomous individual Burgess supposes Alex to be. What Burgess should have written the book about is whether the state has the right to do to an individual what nature does. But the state alters individuals by putting them in prison, so Burgess’s objection seems to be that the scientists of A Clockwork Orange alter prisoners efficiently and speedily. It might be a valid objection, if it were based on something other than a defence of free will. The chaplain says this to Alex too:

“What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed on him? Deep and hard questions, little 6655321.”

In fact, they’re neither deep nor hard, but they’re not answered by this book in either case and Burgess’s weak argument is not strengthened by hyperbole. Suppose that instead of nausea Alex had been conditioned to respond with boredom or indifference to the thought of violence. Suppose that classical music had not accompanied the films he was conditioned with. Unless Burgess is suggesting that beauty cannot exist without ugliness and pain, Alex’s before and after reactions to classical music are irrelevant.

Does he choose to listen to classical music as he chooses to be violent? But he listens to classical music because he gets pleasure from it, just as he commits violence because he gets pleasure from it. If he were indifferent to either he would not choose to indulge in it with the vigour and frequency that he does. In some very important ways we are machines, and Burgess’s title, like the book itself, is not the refutation of behaviourism that he supposes it is. Read it as fiction, not as philosophy, because as a thinker, Burgess was a very good writer.

Read Full Post »

Mortality by Christopher HitchensMortality, Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books 2012; paperback 2013)

Christopher Hitchens died as he lived: writing badly. And raising a lot of questions. Why did intelligent people, some of whom write much better than he did, heap so much praise on him? “Characteristic of his elegant wit,” said the Times of this final brief book. The Irish Times called its author “unremittingly elegant, a master of elegant prose”. Elegant? Elephantine is more like it. As a sample of Hitchens’ execrable style, try this:

…kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system (part I, pg. 7)

Why did “bag of poison” become “venom sack”? Why not simply say “bag of poison” and then “the bag”? Because Hitch followed the adolescent – and irritating – rule of varying words for the sake of it or out of a mistaken fear of boring the reader. Fowler called that rule “elegant variation”. He was being ironic. Which is ironic, because Hitch was supposed to be a master of irony.

He wasn’t. He was a master of pomposity and plodding platitude. For me, he was the Tony Blair of journalism: an untalented and unoriginal man who enjoyed success far beyond his merits. True, there is some good writing here, but Hitchens wasn’t responsible for any of it. Nor was Graydon Carter, an editor of Hitch’s who wrote the introduction. No, the only good writing appears in the afterword by Hitch’s wife Carol Blue:

By the time I saw him standing at the stage entrance of the 92nd Street Y that evening, he and I – and we alone – knew that he might have cancer. We embraced in a shadow that only we saw and chose to defy. We were euphoric. He lifted me up and we laughed. (Afterword, pg. 96)

Carol Blue knows how to play the instrument of English. Her late husband didn’t. She can conjure reality. He couldn’t. But she increases the puzzle of Hitchens’s bad writing not just by doing what he didn’t and couldn’t. Hitch liked Waugh and Wodehouse, but refused to follow their literary example and write well. He also failed to learn anything from three more very good writers, as Blue reveals here:

Slightly down the page he wrote what he wanted me to bring from our guesthouse in Houston:

Nietzsche, Mencken and Chesterton books. (Afterword, pg. 100)

How could Hitchens read those three and still write so badly? Elsewhere Blue offers a glimpse into something that helps explain it: the smugness and self-satisfaction of Hitch’s life and world:

At home at one of the raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinners we often found ourselves hosting, where the table was so crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents and children that elbows were colliding and it was hard to find a space to put down a glass of wine, my husband would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause, and jokes. “How good it is to be us,” he would say in his perfect voice. (Afterword, pp. 94-5)

That “perfect voice” is part of the key to Hitchens’ success, I think. Americans appear to be suckers for a Brit with a posh accent and lots of self-confidence. Moving to the US was the best thing Hitch ever did for his career, because he could play the role of patrician intellectual and polemicist much better over there.

And once there, as he described in Hitch-22, he made friends with other pseuds and windbags, like the late Susan Sontag, also hugely self-confident, also hugely over-rated. She is also an example of how Hitch’s Jewishness was a factor in his success, I think. His maternal ancestry was much more evident in him than in his conservative brother Peter, a better writer and thinker who has fully rejected his youthful Trotskyism, not transmuted it into neo-conservatism as Hitch did. But Peter is pricklier and much less good as schmoozing than Hitch was. He hasn’t attached himself to a powerful clique and propagandized for it, so he wouldn’t have departed on a wave of eulogy and affection if he’d died instead.

I don’t think Hitch deserved the eulogy. The affection is another matter: that’s personal, not public. There was obloquy from some too, but although I disliked and disagreed with him I didn’t like the way he died. It’s wrong to want someone to have a painful and unpleasant death because you disagree with them. I don’t believe in free will and I don’t think that consciousness is responsible for our choices. It’s only consciousness that suffers, not the part of us that chooses.

Hitch bore his own suffering bravely and without abandoning his principles: “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does” (pg. 91). That’s not funny or original, but he did at least try. He tried to write well about dying too, but he didn’t succeed. I found that a relief, because cancer is an unpleasant and frightening thing. That’s a final unintended irony of a literary life that will, I predict, look smaller and more misguided with the years.


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Cigarettes and Al-Qaeda – a review of Hitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens (2010)

Read Full Post »

Front cover of A Book of English Essays selected by W.E. WilliamsA Book of English Essays, selected by W.E. Williams (Pelican, 1942)

If we could always do exactly what we wanted, life would be less interesting and we’d discover much less. That applies to literature too. I wanted something to read, but I didn’t want to try this particular book. Nevertheless, faute de mieux, I did. And I’m glad I did, even though I didn’t like most of the essays in it. Too many of them seemed arch and affected, written to fill paper and earn money, not to say anything important or interesting. Joseph Addison, Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt are big names and were big disappointments. Robert Louis Stevenson is an even bigger name and was an even bigger disappointment. His essays don’t seem to live up to his fiction.

Perhaps I should be forced to try those essays again, because first impressions are often wrong. But even if I’ve missed something good there, I’ve found something good elsewhere. More than one essay was good, but one would have been enough to justify reading this book. I’d never heard of Arthur Clutton-Brock (1868–1924) before, but his essay on “The Defects of English Prose” was one of the most interesting I’ve ever read. I thought it would be about grammar and semantics; it was actually about style and personality. I like his ambition and confidence. He surveys centuries of one of the world’s great literatures and finds them wanting:

Yet still one dreams of a prose that has never yet been written in English, though the language is made for it and there are minds not incapable of it, a prose dealing with the greatest things quietly and justly as men deal with them in their secret meditations, seeming perhaps to wander, but always advancing in an unbroken sequence of thought, with a controlled ardor of discovery and the natural beauties of a religious mind. Johnson might have written it, if he had had a stronger sense of beauty and more faith in the flights of reason; Newman, if he had been a greater master of words and less afraid of his own questioning; Henry James, if he had exercised his subtlety on larger things. The best of our prose writers, living or dead, are not civilized enough or too much in love with something else, or not enough in love with anything, to write the prose we dream of. The English Plato is still to be. (“The Defects of English Prose”)

I’ve not liked Plato when I’ve tried him, but that is a thought-provoking judgment and Clutton-Brock makes it with skill and subtlety. J.B. Priestley’s essays were good too, though I started them not expecting much. Evelyn Waugh didn’t like him, after all, and though Waugh’s essays are better – and should have been represented here – Priestley is obviously worth more attention. I already knew the same about G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), but I’ve been neglecting his writing for too long. This book has shown me so, because I thought Chesterton’s three essays – “A Defence of Nonsense”, “A Piece of Chalk” and “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls” – were the best things in it. He is a very good and very vivid writer whose writing seems impervious to age and fashion.

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1954) comes straight after Chesterton – they were two cheeks of one arse, someone once said about their shared Catholicism and anti-modernism – and he suffers by comparison. I still enjoyed his defence of “Crooked Streets” against rational town-planning and its destructiveness and arrogance. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who begins the book, is one of the few essayists in English who don’t suffer by comparison with Chesterton. He’s not as vivid or easy to read, but he’s still someone who illuminates the world and makes you glad to be part of it.

Read Full Post »