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Famous Literary Gimmicks: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

November 19, 2020

A Clockwork Orange has a reputation of being a disturbing movie, but the novel by Anthony Burgess is controversial for a different reason: the United States version of the novel is missing the final chapter.

I haven’t read A Clockwork Orange, not because it’s disturbing, not because it’s missing a 21st chapter, but because the novel relies on a fake slang language (called Nadsat) throughout. Too much fake slang language can be distracting to me.

Creating a fictional language is a cool gimmick for a novel or short story, but I’m not a fan of learning a new language just to read a book. If I’m going to put the time and effort into learning a language, I want to apply it after I’ve learned it. Yeah, I’m interested in the 21st chapter of A Clockwork Orange, but I don’t want to slog through 20 chapters of a slang language just to get to it.

Below is an excerpt from the first page of A Clockwork Orange. Maybe somebody will write a translated non-slang version:

*****

“What’s it going to be then, eh?”

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no license for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog and All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.

*****

What do you think? Does A Clockwork Orange rely too much on its fake language? Am I a lazy reader for not wanting to check an appendix to translate a fake language while reading one (and only one) novel?

12 Comments
  1. No. You pick up on the meanings pretty quick and it’s really just a word here and there. He slang is partly working-class British slang and Soviet borrow ed words. Great novel.

  2. Here goes: There was me, that is Alex, and my three FRIENDS, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really Dim, and we sat in the COW Milkbar making up our MINDS what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The COW Milkbar was a milk-plus PLACE, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these PLAACES were like, things changing so QUICKLY these days and everybody quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no license for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against SELLING some of the new THINGS which they used to put into the old MILK, so you could DRINK it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencom or one or two other THINGS which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring GOD and All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your BRAIN. Or you could DRINK milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were DRINKING this evening I’m starting off the story with.
    This is the British slang on those times. It is a great book, and a great movie as well.

  3. …of those times, sorry

  4. I think Clockwork Orange is a truly a great feat of writing. I remember reading it in high school for a paper I had to write. I was confused by the language at first but found that I picked up the meanings of the words through context and repetition fairly quickly. The comments above are correct about it being a combination of British slang and Russian. Probably makes it a little easier for a British audience. Some versions have a glossary in the back, which pissed off Anthony Burgess. He wanted readers to learn the lingo as they read, not flip to the back and look up all the words. He suggested that readers tear out the glossary and throw it away. I read the removed chapter but I don’t remember much about it. I think it softened the ending quite a bit. I thought the movie sucked, but the book was fantastic.

  5. I agree. That was a slog. I get all my fiction from the library and when I go pick up books that I’ve put on hold, I always read through the first page to get a sense of the writing style. This one would have been put back on the shelf immediately. This is why I don’t read Shakespeare.

    • Did anybody call any of Shakespeare’s works a “slog” during Shakespearean times? Was “slog” even a word back then?

      Maybe Shakespeare created the word “slog.” Or maybe it was from Nadsat. That might be my next blog post.

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