“I think it’s the job of the artist, especially the novelist, to take events like that from his own life, or from the lives of those near to him, and to purge them, to cathartise the pain, the anguish, in a work of art. It’s one of the jobs of art. I think it was D.H. Lawrence who said, ‘We shed our sicknesses in works of art.’” – Anthony Burgess
Before writing A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess thought he was going to die. This is what he said, anyway. An education officer in Malaya and Brunei, he began writing under the name Anthony Burgess (he was born John Burgess Wilson). He taught, reportedly argued with headmasters and led a rather unhappy, though insatiably intellectual life. He drank. So did his wife, who imbibed with extraordinary excess. But he did begin writing his novels, shaping his style and voice with that musical and linguistic obsession while observing, listening and soaking in the direct horror through his tragic first wife, a horror (not “horrorshow”) that would partly inspire his most famous work, A Clockwork Orange. That was likely the key event – what happened to his wife – this unfortunate Welsh woman named Lynne who, by many accounts, was an unpleasant libidinous lush; a woman who, at first, inspired Burgess but then angered him with her overindulgence and bed-hopping and god knows what else. He, too, apparently cheated. Given what happened to her, one’s drinking would likely increase, if one were an alcoholic, and one’s unpleasantness, too (my god, give Lynne a break, I keep thinking). But I’ll get back to her because there was that other thing. That medical emergency.
One day in 1959, Burgess collapsed while teaching and was rushed home – a brain tumor was the diagnosis. He was given less than a year to live. That’s what Burgess had famously stated. Is this true? According to Burgess’ biographer Andrew Biswell and the reviews of the biography I pored over, perhaps, not? This could be some kind of Burgess fantasia (he lived 34 years past that). Perhaps he made up the condition? If not, it was obviously a misdiagnosis which is still terrifying, and I tend to want to believe his story, or a version of it, because he wrote numerous books in such short time. Write! Before you die! It makes sense. But it’s also interesting to consider the fantastic notion of it all. I am just postulating, but perhaps this marriage, this depressed wife poisoning herself required yet another narrative for himself? Another malady and one so directly deadly? Is it possible, as some critics speculated, that Lynne made it up to get out because he also wanted to get out? This mythology (possibly?) was the stimulus to create infamy and urgency, to make a case for the rest of his life, in which it seems a day did not go by that Burgess did not write something.
He was the complete opposite of the master who turned his most famous work into one of the most controversial movies of all time, Stanley Kubrick; Burgess was absurdly prolific, seemingly never pausing to breathe between books. Eventually this seemed to exhaust critics (probably himself too?). He wrote more than 50 works. He wrote novels but also books on music and James Joyce and Shakespeare. He was an amateur composer. He reviewed and essayed and interviewed. He went on Dick Cavett in 1971 and told a funny story about that famed brain tumor. He’s witty and “on” – who cares if he might have made it up? I certainly don’t. But the real truth was, after that infamous diagnosis, it was his wife who had very few years left to live.
He wrote his dystopian masterwork, A Clockwork Orange (published in 1962), supposed diagnosis looming, marriage in shambles. As I re-watched Kubrick’s picture, I thought about the movie and I thought about Burgess; I kept reading Burgess’s back-and-forth reflections on the novel, years of interviews and autobiographical explanation, over and over (I surely I missed even more, there seemed to be so many). I then watched the movie again. Burgess’s haunted memories and, at times, guilt, hung over the picture like some kind of Kubrickian bi-proxy (whose own family would be threatened because of the movie, according to Kubrick’s wife), mirroring why it’s so powerful and enduring, upsetting and exciting. Why it gives you a rush and slaps you down, and almost guiltily, lifts you back up – a brilliant, sexy, disgusting, funny, violent political satire that thrills and sickens.
Kubrick’s opening shot, in which Alex stares directly at you, is challenging, hypnotic and complicit. We’re in this terrifying world and we’re rapt (which has repulsed and angered some viewers and critics – we’re stuck with this psycho as our leading antihero). I keep saying this about Kubrick – that he’s frequently and unfairly accused of coldness – but he’s not cold – his technical achievement and exacting detail, his perfected frames, his innovation; they are not mere show, and rather, enrich the material and deepen our feelings and discomfort as we gaze and listen and, of course, enjoy.
Because, you (or, I, rather) can’t not feel some kind of buzz for Malcolm McDowell’s Alex. His sociopathic joie de vivre and white-wearing, bowler-topped style is too seductive and musical, even as his actions sicken. This buzz does not mean getting off on the violence (though some surely do), and this buzz becomes a kill when Alex and his droogs are abusive, chiefly when beating up and raping the writer and his wife in their home (darkly humorously marked “Home” outside) while perverting “Singing in the Rain.” This scene is so distressing, messy and ugly, and yet, superbly graceful on the part of a magnificent McDowell that, the first time I saw it (on VHS, in high school) my friend stormed out of the room, distraught. Too much joy! My eyes remained peeled to the screen. I felt awful for this couple but I was transfixed. It was unlike so many other violent movies I had ever seen and remains so to this day. I am not desensitized by it. It’s so violating and so casually unmoved, their act, and yet it feels so incredibly personal. It was.
In an interview with the Village Voice, Burgess said: “It was the most painful thing I’ve ever written, that damn book… I was trying to exorcise the memory of what happened to my first wife [Lynne], who was savagely attacked in London during the Second World War by four American deserters. She was pregnant at the time and lost our child. This led to a dreadful depression, and her suicide attempt… It was the only way I could cope with the violence. I can’t stand violence. I loathe it. And one feels so responsible putting an act of violence down on paper. If one can put an act of violence down on paper, you’ve created the act! You might as well have done it! I detest that damn book now.”
Strong words. And not surprising. A stricken, despairing Lynne, a victim of group violence not unlike the droog attack, died a painful death in 1968 from liver failure. She drank herself to death. Burgess remarried the same year to an Italian translator and literary agent named Liana whom he was seeing as Lynne was fading. He remained married to Liana until he died. The movie was released in 1971 and Burgess became even more famous. Guilt? Survival? Sheer ambition? Probably all of it – Burgess is nothing if not complicated and so available to discuss (in interviews, on television, in his own reviewing) that his ubiquity somehow makes him even more mysterious and tough to unravel. Burgess finds beauty in this horrifying world but, at times, seems angry with himself. As relayed in the Second Volume of his autobiography (via David Hughes’ “The Complete Kubrick”) he said, “I saw that the book might be dangerous because it presented good, or at least harmlessness, as remote and abstract, something for the adult future of my hero, while depicting violence in joyful dithyrambs. Violence had to be shown, but I was sickened by my own excitement at setting it down.”
This, I find fascinating, how he dealt with his wife’s tragedy, if this was indeed the only way to exorcise those demons (Burgess said a lot of things). Working through pain and grief through a frightful, exciting teenager, whom he casts as narrator, Burgess walked through the fire of free will, creating startling ultraviolence, hipped-out hedonism and beauty. For a man like Burgess who mostly disdained youth culture and popular music, it’s interesting, then, that the book and movie continues to be a teenage rite of passage, and is referenced endlessly in popular culture – from David Bowie to New Order to The Simpsons.
But, again, what a horrifying and intriguing way to face his wife’s wrecked life: by putting yourself in the mind of a young, ebullient psychopath and finding sympathy. And, then, also finding joy in all the things Burgess found such distinct joy in – classical music, beauty and language – and giving that sociopath a language all his own (Nadsat), a kind of slang poetry that’s lowbrow and exquisitely formal at the same time (Kubrick compared Alex to Richard III). Reading one of Burgess’s New York Times’ pieces on poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, I thought of Alex-speak when he wrote: “Modernism was dangerous, and one of the marks of modernism was strangeness of language. Hopkins, like James Joyce, had bizarre compound words like ‘beadbonny’ and ‘fallowboot-fellow’; he seemed to be dragging the Germanic roots of English out of freshly dug earth.” I then thought of Alex reciting “Pied Beauty”: “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings…” What a lovely thought, Alex saying such things. He could have. And then I remembered it was Alex – what would come after such beautiful verses?
The unduly harsh behavioral modification, the Ludovico technique, will solve nothing and removes any “Pied Beauty” from the world. And the bureaucrats are just as twisted as Alex. The movie’s final scene finds Alex, cured of the Ludovico, now some kind of celebrity, smiling while being spoon-fed by the apologetic Minister of the Interior. His face fixes into a wicked expression as he imagines himself naked with a beautiful woman, onlookers cheering him on. When Gene Kelly floods the soundtrack as the closing titles blast our eyeballs over red, we’re powerfully unmoored. This is only way to close the movie, in my mind. Burgess would not agree or, rather, he didn’t know what to think.
Burgess’s UK edition of the book included an extra last chapter in which Alex seeks goodness in life. This was not so in the U.S. edition and Kubrick didn’t know about it until he was already making the picture and wouldn’t have used it anyway. Burgess thought this was an extremely American point of view. He told the Paris Review: “Kubrick discovered the existence of this final chapter when he was halfway through the film, but it was too late to think of altering the concept. Anyway, he, too, an American, thought it too milk-and-watery. I don’t know what to think now. After all, it’s twelve years since I wrote the thing… They seem to me to express in a sense the difference between the British approach to life and the American approach to life. There may be something very profound to say about this difference in these different presentations of the novel. I don’t know; I’m not able to judge.”
When presented cinematically, Burgess and Kubrick’s ideas became even more dangerous to social hysterics who began blaming a rise in violent crime on the film, which both novelist and director resented. Kubrick famously pulled the film in 1974 (as previously mentioned, his family was receiving death threats), banning it from ever being shown in the British Isles and Ireland (this was reversed shortly after his death). As I’ve discussed, Burgess wavered on his novel, and the movie – he also resented that out of all of the works he published, it was A Clockwork Orange most everyone talked about.
Even though Burgess and Kubrick were conflicted about the work (for various, seemingly mostly personal reasons), they would agree regarding the question (if it’s even a question – it’s been discussed ad nauseam): Should evil be erased and goodness be imposed? No, of course not. That’s totalitarianism and that’s dangerous. One of the most horrific maladies of Alex’s rehabilitation is how it sickens his love of Beethoven’s Ninth, so much that he must attempt suicide. This is, obviously, anathema to Burgess and Kubrick. The message sticks, of course, but it’s the way both novel and film present the “message” (this isn’t exactly a preachy film) through such a vivaciously twisted anti-hero, who returns right back where he was by film end, that makes the story so unique and compelling.
There’s a television interview of Burgess promoting the picture with Malcolm McDowell in which he says to moderator William Everson that he doesn’t find his work a depressing view of the future because he’s not “capable of getting depressed very much.” Curious, considering what influenced all of this. Presumably still on good terms with Kubrick (there was a falling out regarding the unrealized Napoleon project, and then his eventual resentment of Orange) he doesn’t appear haunted here but … Burgess gave good interview. He’s entertaining and eloquent in ways you don’t see on TV anymore. He sums up the work beautifully:
“I think that man is probably inherently bad or inherently anti-social. But, in a sense, men’s original sin is a product of his own will, he willed it himself and by curious paradox this will is a rather glorious thing to possess. There’s a terrible statement made by St. Augustine which all Christians like to forget, but what he said about the fall, the fall of Adam, was this: ‘Oh happy fault. Sins that produce so great a redeemer.’ In other words, the orthodox Christian must feel the fall from grace… was a good thing, that it produced Christ, and it’s a good thing on a secular level because it indicated man’s desire to make his own life, to work his will, to make mistakes, and in the process of making mistakes, produce, as kind of byproducts, things like art and beauty in the life. Out of this powerful libido of Alex for instance, in the book and in the film, there is also cognizant with it, a realization of a beauty of music, a beautiful world, a beauty of language. Alex is a man in that he is violent as men are, he loves music, he loves beauty and he loves language. These three things go all together. If you produce a human being without the will to do evil, if you produce a human being without the will to do anything, and certainly not the will to create. So, this is not in my view a gloomy view of man of all. It’s a fairly realistic view of what man is like and the book, and also the film, represent a kind of fabula treatment of this human condition. It is not the future, really, it can be the future if you will, but it’s just a period of time which is at a slant to real time.”
Burgess died in 1993 at 76 (a ripe old age considering his early diagnosis) and Kubrick in 1999, at age 70 (which, at the time, seemed premature and sudden). Though Burgess is impossible to sum up (no person should be so easily assessed), listening to him discuss the novel and movie in that earlier television clip, he seemed to be describing his own life, his possible mythology. Burgess, himself, reminds one why art and life are complex and not so simple to summarize or merely write off. And, in the case of A Clockwork Orange, writing off such thoughtful, innovative work as simply obscene or offensive. The book and movie continue to shock, sicken and inspire, while its creators, one who talked publicly (a lot) and the other, very little, are both endlessly analyzed (especially Kubrick), both still fascinatingly enigmatic. The work is alive and vital; our feelings toward it don’t sit there so easily and remain, as Burgess said, “a slant to real time.”
A Clockwork Orange screens December 14-17.