A Clockwork Orange (audio)

A banda of bazoomy malchiks roam the streets high on moloko looking for a bit of the old ultra-violence. Razrezzing a starry vesh’s books from the local biblio is just the beginning. The boots on their nogas are perfectly suited for kicking, so when a vesh is down, they kick him in the gulliver. These chellovecks take what they want and do what they want, with hardly a thought of an a polly loggy.

Confused? What you’ve just read is a bit of nadsat, the teenage slang used throughout Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange. (If you want a translation, check out this nadsat dictionary.)

A Clockwork Orange is set sometime in the near future. The central character and first-person narrator, Alex, is a teenager with no interests in life except violence, sex (usually violent sex), and classical music. He and his gang of droogs roam about the city streets at night, beating people up, breaking into homes, robbing people, raping women, and pretty much anything else they can think of that’s vile. Alex has been in trouble with the law in the past, but he’s making no attempt to clean up his act.

Eventually, Alex’s antisocial behavior catches up with him, and he is sent to prison for murder where he eventually undergoes experimental psychological treatments meant to make him a productive member of society. But is the cure really a cure at all? Can a human being be conditioned to behave a certain way? And if goodness comes entirely through conditioning and not through free choice, is it really goodness at all?

Alex tells his whole story in nadsat. Sometimes almost entire sentences are made up of nadsat words. Because of the language, this seems like exactly the wrong kind of book to attempt on audio. I was skeptical myself, but I figured I may as well try, as this is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years. If I found it incomprehensible, I’d just go for print later.

I was astonished to find that much of the time I could pony (understand) Alex’s meaning from context. The meaning of some words was pretty obvious, but others I never quite figured out. However, there’s no need to figure out the meaning of every single word. If it’s important, it’s clear in context. In fact, I think the audio enhanced the experience because I didn’t have the time to obsess over each individual word. I had to roll with it. It probably did help that I’ve seen the movie and knew the basic storyline, but still, I just didn’t find it that difficult to get the gist of what was happening. Only the gist sometimes, but that was fine.

Not only did I understand much of the golosh, I enjoyed it. It felt like word play a lot of the time. I could often pick up on meanings by thinking of derivations (viddy–>video–>see), and the sound of the language is wonderful, real horrorshow. The audiobook reader, Tom Hollander, gets a lot of credit for making the language sound so smooth and natural, even if his pronunciations aren’t always the same as Burgess’s, as I learned from listening to Burgess’s reading of the first chapters on a bonus disc that came with the set.

The nadsat also serves a useful purpose in that it gives the reader some distance from the shocking nature of Alex’s crimes. The film is tough to watch because you see the brutal acts, and seeing these acts makes it difficult to care about Alex’s later difficulties. The fanciful golosh lets readers in on exactly what Alex has done without shocking us into complete disgust. That’s not to say that his acts aren’t disgusting, but my reaction to hearing about flowing krovvy was less visceral than it would have been to have heard about flowing blood.

Burgess is taking on some weighty ideas in this book, and I found much here to think about. In his introduction, he talks about the nature of original sin and the possibility of human goodness, and as it happens, he believes in both. Most of all, though, he believes in free will. If Alex behaves like a good man because he’s been conditioned to, is he really good at all? And if he’s not, are we ok with that, as long as he behaves? I think Burgess’s view is clear, perhaps too clear. Hearing the story from Alex’s victims would give a totally different spin on things.

Alex isn’t just manipulated by his behavioral therapy, he’s also manipulated by the people who want to use his story for their own ends. This aspect of the story was fascinating, particularly coming on the heels of what seemed to be an especially poignant encounter between Alex and a previous victim of his crime. How often do we see politicians use stories of down-trodden people to make a point? Do we know what those people think of their message? And what happens to those people when the point has been made?

The audiobook that I listened to was the complete version, including the final chapter, which wasn’t originally published in the U.S. and isn’t part of the notorious Kubrick film. Having listened to it, I have to say that this is a totally different book without it. The message is completely different. Instead of skewing in one direction regarding free well and the battle between good and evil, it skews in precisely the opposite direction.

I don’t know which ending makes for better literature, but I strongly prefer the world view of Burgess’s original. I believe most U.S. versions have that final chapter now, but if you decide to read it, be sure to get the complete version. That’s what Burgess wrote and what most of the world got.

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16 Responses to A Clockwork Orange (audio)

  1. Eva says:

    I read this in high school, before I started studying Russian, and loved the wordplay too. I don’t think I’ll ever reread it, though, because now I just see all the Russian words! lol

    • Teresa says:

      I imagine knowing Russian would affect how you see the nadsat. I didn’t even know how Russian it was until I checked out that online dictionary.

  2. Iris says:

    This must be hard to read and it surprises me that audio works so well for this book.

  3. Jeane says:

    I didn’t know it was full of all those strange words! I think it would frustrate me and make me want to run to a dictionary every sentence or other.

    • Teresa says:

      I knew about the slang, but didn’t realize how much there was until I got going with it. It really isn’t so hard if you don’t worry about the individual words.

  4. Steph says:

    I’ve picked this one up in print several times and have never made it very far. The language gets me every time, and not in a good way. But to be fair, I haven’t necessarily given it an honest effort, so I wouldn’t say that it could never appeal to me. I think my problem is that I do agonize over every single word, and that’s probably not the best approach to take, as you point out. I think I have to approach it in a more relaxed state and just let it wash over me, kind of like when I finally read The Satanic Verses.

    • Teresa says:

      I really do think worrying about each word doesn’t work here. That’s more of a project for later readings.

      What would be perfect for you is if an ebook were published that linked to a nadsat dictionary. But then I guess you’d have to stop yourself from clicking on every second word.

  5. Emily says:

    It’s been ages since I read this, but I know what you mean about leaving off the last chapter – TOTALLY different book. I loved the word play & thought it was a smart examination of the ways in which all the tendrils of human experience are intertwined, regardless of which ones we consider “positive” or “negative.”

    • Teresa says:

      That intertwining is so interesting! I didn’t get into it in my review, but I was fascinated by the whole idea that for Alex to lose the pleasure he took in violence, he had to lose so many other pleasures.

  6. Jenny says:

    I didn’t know about all this last chapter confusion. I am almost intrigued enough to read it, except violence upsets my brain and I think I might not be able to manage with all the weird words. You’re probably right in saying it’s better on audiobook where you can’t go look up every word every time–if I had a physical book, I’d look up every word over and over again. I cannot resist a glossary. (You can imagine the page-flipping that went on with Sea of Poppies. :p)

    • Teresa says:

      It is violent, but the language helps keep some distance. (Then again, I’m not all that bothered by violence in fiction, so I’m not the best judge.)

      I’ve also always been too lazy a reader to go to the dictionary if I don’t know what a word means. I’m a big context clues kind of girl, and if context isn’t enough, I shrug and move on. Seems like my reading style was perfect training for Clockwork Orange ;)

  7. I loved this book, and really want to re-read it, despite only reading it for the first time last year. Found it a little difficult to get into initially due to the nadsat, but like you said, it was easy to figure out what was being said simply by the context.

    I didn’t realise there are two different endings to this book – I checked my copy! Luckily, it’s the complete one. Yippee.

    • Teresa says:

      I imagine this would stand up to multiple readings.

      And I’m glad you had the full version. I think the last chapter was only left off in the U.S., so older U.S. editions are the ones to avoid.

  8. Melissa says:

    I thought the audiobook was the perfect way to read this one because it was so much easier to understand his language.

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