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Essays on ANTHONY BURGESS in
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999
The Desperado Age:
British Literature at the Start of the Third Millennium,
Bucharest University Press, 2004
© Lidia Vianu
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999
Anthony Burgess was born in Manchester and graduated from university there. He worked in the army for six years, then was a college lecturer in Speech and Drama, and a grammar-school master. Between 1954-1960 he was an education officer in the Colonial Service, stationed in Malaya and Borneo.
He became a full-time writer in 1960. By then he had published three novels and a history of English literature. He is also a composer, and his Blooms of Dublin, a musical version of Joyce’s Ulysses, was presented in 1982. He also wrote a Life and Work of D.H. Lawrence, and Man of Nazareth, which was the basis of his TV script for Jesus of Nazareth.
Anthony Burgess is a highly enigmatical writer. He inherits the inclination for using literature as a puzzle game from Joyce. In A Clockwork Orange (1962), language becomes a serious obstacle to understanding the plot. As a matter of fact, the plot is simple and uninteresting. What makes it spicy and intriguing is the combination of Russian words and English spelling, which may easily look appalling to someone who knows no Russian at all. When you have read about half of the book, you start being interested in what is going on, but your energy is still sucked in by the arduous task of deciphering the language. The reader’s natural desire to approach the characters is thwarted by his perplexed attitude when confronted with their words.
Frankly speaking, one could hardly state that A Clockwork Orange has any characters at all. It deals with violence, illustrated in a long line of incidents. A short (150-page) novel, it is written in the first person, narrated by Alex, a terrifyingly violent teenager. The atmosphere of killing, blood and assaults is so exacerbated, the characters’ language is so full of Russian influences, that we may feel the fear that this could have been the England of the future (as seen in 1962), unless communism had collapsed. Read today, the novel loses some of its political poignancy, but not the philosophical one, the attempt to dig at the roots of crime.
As the main hero’s words flow incessantly, in an alert rhythm, we learn that he has several friends as young as himself, with whom he attacks defenceless people in the street, destroys, beats, at last even kills. There is a certain point at which these enraged teenagers fight one another, and there is blood again. What these young boys do is a nightmare of death and horror. They all end up in special schools and prisons sooner or later, but the violence has no end. I find it hard to say why this rage of hurting needed so many Russian words, adapted to English in a mockingly Joycean way. Politically speaking, it reveals no opinion whatever on Russian society or the evils of communism. A Clockwork Orange is first and last the self-description of a ruthless mind, a ruthlessness whose reasons are hardly mentioned at all.
In this nightmarish England of the future, young Alex has two hobbies: blood (in its Russian variant) and classical music. He is caught after a series of violent deeds which make the reader’s hair stand on end, and is sentenced. They try to cure him of violence by a special therapy, rather Freudian, which compels his brain to associate any blow or image of blood with physical ill-being, but also with classical music, the latter being the mere background of the therapy, and unwillingly (on the part of the doctors) becoming part of it. Alex comes out of this therapy as mild as a lamb. He cannot bear to see anybody hurt any more. He can’t bear listening to his concerts, either.
Burgess makes him, as a significant coincidence, come across the very people he previously attacked. Some recognize and take their revenge on him. One of them, the author of a book entitled A Clockwork Orange (the book within a book is a typical Desperado device, but this title remains unexplained to the last page, and after it, as well), treats him kindly, until he suddenly suspects, by putting together some of Alex’s remarks, that he was the one who raped his wife, who in the meantime has died.
As it seems, a similar incident actually happened to Burgess himself. His elderly wife was raped and died. As for ‘orange’, he explains at the end of a book on Joyce that he had in mind the word ‘orang,’ meaning ‘man’ in the Malay language, which connects more aptly to the ‘clockwork’ violence described. It is an encoded title, and, unless you know the writer’s biography, understanding is baffled. But it also is a title that catches the eye by its verbal absurdity. Burgess explains, in Joysprick:
‘I myself was, for nearly six years, in such close touch with the Malay language that it affected my English and still affects my thinking. When I wrote a novel called A Clockwork Orange, no European reader saw that the Malay word for ‘man’ – orang – was contained in the title (Malay students of English invariably write ‘orang squash’...).’
The incidents are utterly unimportant, as they do not create a character or underline some idea, except the constant feeling of confusion, deeply embedded in many Desperado texts. The incidents are mere atoms of violence. We have here violence addressing us directly, devoid of any sense of guilt or of any restraint. Violence as a way of life. The intensity of this urge to kill dies as mysteriously as it began, when Alex decides he must have a son in his turn, and must find a wife. Here is the very astonishing and hard to explain conversion of the murderer in cold blood into a future decent grown-up:
‘That’s what it’s going to be then, brothers, as I come to the like end of this tale. You have been everywhere with your little droog Alex, suffering with him, and you have viddied some of the most grahzny bratchnies old Bog ever made, all on to your old droog Alex. And all it was was that I was young. But now as I end this story, brothers, I am not young, not no longer, oh no. Alex like groweth up, oh yes.
But where I itty now, O my brothers, is all on my oddy knocky, where you cannot go. Tomorrow is all like sweet flowers and the turning vonny earth and the stars and the old Luna up there and your old droog Alex all on his oddy knocky seeking like a mate. And all that cal. A terrible grahzny vonny world, really, O my brothers. And so farewell from your little droog. And to all others in this story profound shooms of lip music brrrrr. And they can kiss my sharries. But you, O my brothers, remember sometimes thy little Alex that was. Amen. And all that cal.’
We are taken into the narrator’s deepest confidence. The first thing to be discussed about this (unfortunately) Joycean novel is the mood of disgust and paralyzing fear it leaves behind. A ‘terrible’ world, Alex calls it. Burgess plays a little with the technique of thrillers to make us side with the murderer and hate the victims. To a certain point he succeeds, as long as he can keep us interested in the psychology of a murderer. But there is a limit to everything.
He uses irony in describing atrocities: the teenagers beat up an old man in the dark, and tear his books, leaving him unconscious. They beat the author of A Clockwork Orange and rape his wife, after they have cheated him into letting them in. They kill an old lady. Blood is their favourite sight. The courage to die is their main characteristic, but what they are heading for or bringing about is an absurd death. They are demons of destruction. I wonder if the main theme of this enigmatical novel could lie in here: how do children come to long for the taste of death? Who teaches them the pleasure to torture their fellow-beings? Is it mere defiance of the established social order that leads to such deformity? Doris Lessing has her own theory about that, in The Fifth Child.
I do not have the feeling that Burgess means to answer such questions, this being the main reason, I suppose, why the England he described seemed to belong to the future, or, I should say, rather to a time which cannot (yet or ever) be explained. The whole novel is a continuous question mark, a clockwork question mark enclosed within the forbidden orange (orang) area of the book. Everything is elusive in these pages, from the quality of the characters to the meaning of the incidents. We seem to be witnessing the many scenes of an unfinished act. Because violence does not die with the hero’s decision that he has grown up and must leave it. Other teenagers may attack him sometime soon. The pleasure to kill looms hidden everywhere in Burgess’ image of the world.
I should venture to say that Anthony Burgess shows a remarkable lack of interest in the literary side of A Clockwork Orange. The literary conventions of character, plot, themes, are not only disregarded, but even demolished. When we are on the point of catching sight of Alex’s relationship with his parents, the blinds are drawn tight and we are left with the image of three strangers, out of which two (the parents) are ready to replace their son by a stranger who pays them a rent.
There is an intriguing lack of feelings, of human warmth, of emotional life – characteristic of most Desperado texts – in this dry novel. Julian Barnes, in Talking It Over, comes very close to the same thing. Like puppets, all characters move pulled by the strings of the author’s inventivity. An evil imagination conjures up streams of hatred, revenge, brutality. The world is a very cold place, and so is the text imagined by the Desperado novelist. Even in A Malayasian Trilogy, which is a far more humane novel, Burgess recoils from probing the depths of the soul. He prefers to ignore that characters are more than bodies, which allows him to do without psychological analysis. Many Desperado writers are as shy as he was of using the famous stream of consciousness, leading their fiction towards a merging with journalism, the furthest degree of hybridization of literary genres. The clockwork orange might stand for the shell of a world populated by clockwork beings, but, frankly speaking, Burgess never invites speculation.
An imaginary set of characters, set in an imaginary world, speaking an imaginary language: all these are united by the fact that they stem from the cruel reality that our world has, indeed, disquieting islands of crime and bloodshed. Detective stories are full of that subject-matter. But Burgess does not build his plot into a detective one. The crimes are mere incidents. The message is that in this world, terrified by adolescent violence, hopelessness is the only alternative.
The traditional image of the naive beginnings of life is destroyed. Children are no longer innocent. They are born vicious, grow up into monsters, end in prison and only maturity can soften their evil inheritance. Burgess does not try to explain, socially or psychologically, or in any kind of analysis, why the world is thus upside down. He records its distortion without any sign of amazement. I should reproach him with a certain lack of curiosity, which bars his readers from a closer contact with the text. But this is a major feature of most Desperado writers, whether poets or novelists. He teaches us – they all do – to be as enigmatical and incurious as he is.
Honey for the Bears (1963) suffers from the same apparent superficiality, the same wilful indifference, of dealing only with the part of the iceberg which is above water. Unfortunately, his characters do not have weight enough to charm us with the unseen miracle of what remains unexplained. Maybe too much orality, an easiness of style, the quick flow of inspiration, kill the pondering, brooding author in him.
Paul Hussey and his American wife Belinda come to the Soviet Union for a short trip, meaning to sell some cheap fashionable dresses and make money. They get into all sorts of trouble. Belinda falls ill with an enigmatical diagnosis, which switches from the body to the soul. She is looked after by a Russian doctor, a woman who, using either her skills or her drugs, persuades her to stay in Leningrad even after the end of the novel. Consequently Paul loses his wife. He also loses his dresses, which he does not manage to sell because of the Russian vigilant security service. In exchange, he finds out that both he and Belinda are homosexuals at heart, and he comes to realize that he has grown pretty old. He leaves Leningrad trying to smuggle out, disguised as his wife, a person whom he thinks to be the son of a great composer, whom his dead boy-friend greatly appreciated. In the very last pages of the novel, it turns out that the young man is in fact a criminal turned loose in the capitalist world. The last word uttered by Paul in this novel of misadventures is ‘Freedom,’ followed by his reflection, ‘Whatever it is.’
The major theme of this fairly light novel, which in fact does not touch any major chord properly, is the ironical approach to communist reality. The same as Doris Lessing, Burgess notices the false, ridiculously untrue language people use. It is obvious that the Englishman comes to the Soviet Union with the worst of expectations, but he manages to experience something even worse than the worst.
What he suffers from is the acute lack of freedom, which at first he detects in others and to which he finally falls a prey himself. He cannot bring himself to believe that people living in the Soviet Union are not aware of what mistreatment they are subjected to. He is sure that the greater their fear of punishment is, the more convinced of communist advantages they sound. When he offers the doctor a dress for free, her translator comments upon it in the following way:
‘In the Soviet Union,’ said Lukerya, ‘we do not have such things yet. But soon we shall have them. The important things first,’ she said, handling the dress with reverence. ‘Medical services and free bread and the conquest of space,’ she said doubtfully. ‘And then later better things than these. Though this,’ she said, shaking herself out of the official dream, ‘is very nice.’
The economic disaster is the main topic the story centres on. It is obvious that a totalitarian system leads to ruin: the ruin of the conditions of life, the ruin of the very essence of the human being. Russian society is presented as an underworld, a maze of fears, deprivations, betrayals, all crowned by the enraged desire to escape, to get out of it, to forget the advantages of communism, to be free.
Hypocrisy is depicted with a good sense of humour. Russia is a ‘country bloated with cosmonauts, starved of consumer goods,’ a ‘classless society’ in which, however, people have already organized themselves into classes which are almost impossible to ignore. The nomenklatura, the rich ones, the secret police, the helpless individuals who will do anything to lead a bearable life. Those of us who have lived for a number of years in a totalitarian system know what communist ‘happiness for everyone’ means. People acquire an obsession of uttering aloud the very opposite of truth, and develop a real fear of their own, truthful thoughts, which come out into the open unveiled.
Paul Hussey is at a loss in this world, whose code he ignores. He does his best to make fun of his isolation, but he puts his foot in it so many times because of his ignorance of the basic social rules that he reaches a very low standard. He is on the point of losing hope, of becoming one of those encaged, living in squalid conditions. We read the book with peculiar avidity: we are curious to know a foreigner’s reaction to the ordeals we were forced to undergo daily – poverty, deprivation, humiliation, misery, pain. Above all, intellectual starvation.
Labour camps are mentioned, but not at large. Two characters, Karamzin and Zverkov, are from the secret police. They easily discover Hussey’s intention of selling the dresses that had been bought by his friend Robert before he unexpectedly died of a heart attack. When Hussey tries to get in touch with Robert’s former contact, Mizinchikov, he is grabbed by those two, who accuse him:
‘Carrying on your friend’s bad work,’ said Zverkov. ‘Bringing in capitalist goods in order to sell them and thus upset the Soviet economy.’
Which is true. Paul Hussey really wants to sell those dresses and take the profit to Robert’s wife, for whom he has taken this trip. It was supposed to be a five-day trip, followed by a booked return to Tilbury on the Alexander Radischev. Only Leningrad turns out to be ‘a planet of another galaxy.’ His shock, Belinda’s treatment in a Soviet hospital, all these would have been highly interesting to follow if they had been analysed from an inner perspective. But Burgess chooses the mocking way, the outskirts of meditation. Everything must be funny. What is not funny is not recorded, and consequently what is recorded is rather shallow.
One sentence reminds us of A Clockwork Orange: ‘In Russia there are no unhappy children,’ says Dr. Lazurkina. Judging by the Russian’s words, everything in the Soviet Union is all for the best in the best of worlds. Burgess makes however one serious mistake for a fiction-writer, in this book: he is too much in a hurry to contradict those words explicitly. Before we have had the time to discover the lies on our own, we are told (or whispered to) that we are being misled. It is a crude, unconvincing irony, which affords no pleasure.
When Belinda makes friends with her doctor, and even considers she might apply for political asylum, her condition does not appear humorous to the reader, but grotesque. She tells Paul:
‘When I decide to come back to England I’ll let you know. But I’m not giving you any addresses now because I don’t want you to have any part of this decision one way or another.’
It all started with a rash she developed while on board the ship. She was taken to hospital. Visiting her there, Paul found out from her doctor that she had had a lesbian relationship with Robert’s wife. She spoke now very affectionately of Dr. Lazurkina, whom she called Sonya. The sexual undertone does not match her political grotesqueness. Maybe the humour is too gross, maybe it is deficient. Paul thinks she was ‘brain-washed.’ We shall never know the truth, and, considering the fact that Belinda is not really a character, we are not even much interested.
One social side which is well observed by Burgess is the use of bribery. ‘Corruption is going to be the ruin of this country,’ a character says. The best moment of irony is Paul’s last discovery that he has ‘Let a murderer loose in the Western world.’ Instead of the Soviet Union being infected by Western decadence, as the East fears, it is the West that suffers from Eastern corruption and criminality. This final suggestion of a reversed judgment is the best part of Burgess’ irony here.
Comparing the two novels, A Clockwork Orange and Honey for the Bears, we could conclude that Burgess would have made a good political writer if he had had better information, or he would have been able to write two more palpitating novels if he had had more nerve.
As it is, he offers an interesting image of the clash East-West, steps lightly around its outline, flirts with the idea of committing himself to it, and, suddenly, leaves us full of expectation and turns away. The novels are clockwork oranges that open and close mechanically before our eyes.