I had put off reading "A Clockwork Orange" for a long time. It's a book that has become part of common cultural knowledge, and the things I knew about it - the ultraviolence, the nadsat slang - didn't really entice me to read it. That despite the fact that I liked what else I've read by Burgess - "One Hand Clapping" is a very funny read, and "Language Made Plain" is the one book I'd recommend for a popular introduction into the history and workings of the English language.
But then my daughter left her edition of "Clockwork" behind when she went off to study recently, and I started reading. And I didn't put it down - well, almost, I interrupted reading maybe once or twice.
It turns out that the ultraviolence, while taking up a substantial part of the book, is described not too gorily, and then we're probably nowadays too used to graphically described violence - the book contains less blood and gore than the average episode of Game of Thrones. And the violence is not gratuitous, but again, it's a well-known fact that good and evil and the role of choice betwen them are central topics of the book.
The nadsat - a slang containing a large part of Russian - was also less of a hindrance to understanding than I had assumed. As I speak Russian reasonably well, some of it grated and felt unnatural; gloopy for "stupid" sounds natural, but a lot of the loaned verbs didn't look like natural candidates for loaning and their English adaptations feel forced. But on the whole, it gives the book its very own flavour. Some of the words escaped me for quite some time, simply because the adaptations in English don't sound much like their Russian originals. I only understood in the middle of the book that horrorshow is Russian хорошо, and even more embarrassingly, it took me until the last pages to get that lewdies "people" is not derived from lewd, but Russian люди.
Now you ask, this is all faint praise or no praise at all, so what kept me hooked? It's the voice, the language, the way Alex (the first-person-narrator) talks. It's enchanting, taking you along on the ride, making you want to find out more about the character. He has a great lot of negative traits and for his actions he'd deserve contempt or hate, and in the chapters after his treatment he's quite pathetic, but still the narrating voice is like a tasty drink that I couldn't put down. The only other narrator who can capture me like that is Isaak Babel, who also knows how to tell horrible tales with a voice that you don't want to stop listening to.
And despite the fact that the book's content has become a part of popular culture, the ending still was surprising.
The (Ir)relevance of Language
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