Bastardised to Kill
By Anna Aslanyan.
When A Clockwork Orange was first published in 1962, one of its reviewers, writing for the TLS, proclaimed: “English language is being slowly killed by her practitioners.” This year’s 50th anniversary was marked by the publication of a new edition of the book, but otherwise went relatively unnoticed, partly because the novel has long been eclipsed by Stanley Kubrick’s scandalous film, partly as a result of its author’s reputation: Anthony Burgess has never been fully accepted by the British literary establishment as one of their own. Styling himself as a European writer, spending most of his time outside Britain, reluctant to pay taxes into the coffers of the Inland Revenue, he annoyed a lot of people, sometimes by being almost superhumanly prolific, often by giving bad reviews to his fellow authors. Having ruffled some feathers in his time, Burgess hardly ever expected to be canonised by his rivals in the trade, and the future must have looked too dystopian for him to harbour much hope. A review of his biography that the LRB ran in 2006 described him “a sharp but minor talent”, ending with a little flourish: “a grumpy old man.”
I don’t know how the 30th anniversary of the novel was celebrated in Burgess’ country of birth – all I can remember is that 1992 was the year I read it for the first time. It was something I had never experienced before: the beauty of violence, the power of music, the questions of free will and state control, all brought up (in both senses of the word) by a delinquent hero you felt you should despise but couldn’t help liking. It was fascinating to watch the cogs of that orange grind: Alex and his droogs, starry vecks they beat up and devotchkas they raped, and all that horrorshow. Alas, none of the words which, together with some elements of cockney and Romany, make the book the bold linguistic experiment that it is, came as a novelty to me: they were given their native spelling and mixed with other, equally mundane ones, for the only version I could get my hands on back then, in the post-perestroika Moscow, was Russian. Serialised in the Youth magazine, it was also peppered with some less familiar but easily recognisable terms, such as “герла”, “фейс” and “блад”; for those who didn’t do English at school a glossary was provided at the end, duly translating these transliterations as, respectively, “girl”, “face” and “blood”. Another ten years later, when I finally picked up an English copy, I felt short-changed: it turned out that we, Your Humble Narrator and her droogies, had been robbed of all the inventions of the original.
When we read that rendition of Orange, Russified English was the order of the day for us students, who had to learn by heart whole chapters from an English textbook, as it was for post-Soviet hippies, who never called a devotchka “девочка”, the only acceptable version in their peace-and-love universe being “герла” (“girl”, corrupted in transliteration). So finding accented Anglicisms all over the text didn’t feel strange; what did was the fact that this innocuous hippie slang should be used by people who looked, if anything, much closer to punks, what with their chains and short hair, their black jackets and leather boots perfect for kicking. We put it down to the translator’s background and didn’t question his choice at the time, so hungry were we for anything that wasn’t churned out by socialist realists and endorsed by official bodies.
Reading and rereading A Clockwork Orange over the next decade helped me overcome the feeling of being duped that first time. But I am still bitter at this lame attempt to tart up the translation without giving the author’s main idea – to write “a brainwashing primer” of a book – much thought. Burgess’ biographer Andrew Biswell, who compiled the restored edition, also believes that the main strength of the novel lies in its language. He told me in a recent conversation: “The book has never gone out of date because it was written in an invented language, which makes it timeless.” Biswell’s words echo Burgess’ recollections in the second volume of his autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time. Talking about his idea to write a novel in an idiolect, he says: “It was pointless to write the book in the slang of the early sixties: it was ephemeral like all slang and might have a lavender smell by the time the manuscript got to the printers.” The anniversary volume includes a piece where he admits that among his novels Orange is the one that he likes least, yet can’t quite disown.
The sought idiolect, the dominating Nadsat, came to Burgess during his 1961 trip to Leningrad, for which he diligently prepared: learnt some Russian and bought two suitcases of polyester dresses, the plan being to flog them to suckers for Western labels in public lavatories to pay for the holiday (he ended up giving away half of them). Burgess’ Russian was, one imagines, not ideal, but enough for him to read one of the first translations of the novel, which appeared much earlier than the above-mentioned version, and, according to Biswell, to find it “a lazy piece of work”. This was, perhaps, to be expected from someone who once reviewed his own book in glowing terms and, when it came to other people’s writing, was keen on hatchet jobs. On the other hand, Burgess praised his French translators, Georges Belmont and Hortense Chabrier, for their rendition of A Clockwork Orange. What would he think of my idea to use German punks’ argot to fix the problems of existing Russian translations? Having toyed with it for a bit, I concluded that a ready-made language wasn’t good enough.
edited by Andrew Biswell, Heinemann 2012
The restored text is rich in little known or previously unpublished material. There is a (somewhat disappointing) foreword by Martin Amis, several critical articles, Biswell’s introduction and notes, an extract from an unpublished interview with Burgess, as well as his prologue and epilogue to the eponymous musical, for which he wrote the score and the libretto. The play was recently premiered in Manchester, as a music performance only; hopefully, one day its full version will be put on stage. This edition also has an essay titled “Clockwork Marmalade”, where Burgess reflects on the similarities and differences between his novel and Kubrick’s film. In 1972 he was still willing to pay tribute “to the Kubrickian mastery”, but, as Biswell noted, came to resent the film later. In Burgess’ own words, “Kubrick’s achievement swallowed mine whole, and yet I was responsible for what some called its malign influence on the young.” The newly compiled volume allows Burgess to have “A Last Word on Violence” (the title of a piece he wrote in 1982). In the age of euphemisms, when nice wrappers are being invented and universally accepted for all sorts of ugly things, his words, “[v]iolence can only be countered by violence, and we must now accept the enactment of brutality, often for the highest declared purpose, as an ineradicable aspect of contemporary life”, sound timely.
Most things touched upon in the novel haven’t lost their relevance today. When Burgess says in his autobiography that he “had written […] a forecast of juvenile violence that had come all too true”, only the most blue-eyed reader will find it easy to laugh it off as a deluded ageing writer’s self-aggrandising promo. At the same time, Burgess doesn’t claim to have predicted anything completely new, talking instead about his initial idea to set the novel in the times of Shakespeare and centre it around apprentices’ riots of the 1590s. Even though what he foresaw was not exactly revolutionary, it’s hard to deny him a certain degree of prescience. Leaving aside the most obvious and far-reaching things, such as the apparent general decline of literary culture, it is worth recalling the book’s minor episodes whose symbolic significance can be interpreted in many ways. Asked about Burgess’ prophetic powers, Biswell recalled one such scene: “In the first violent episode, when the old man is beaten up by the gang, his library books are destroyed. What’s happening at the moment is that Manchester Central Library is throwing away half of its reference books. If Burgess was still here, he’d say, ah yes, I anticipated this; I’m not very happy about it, but that’s the way the world is going. He was in many ways an apocalyptic thinker, always exaggerating reality and assuming the future is going to be much worse than the past.”
The epilogue to the musical play, in which Alex, 25 years older now, is interviewed by one AB, serves to justify the last chapter of the novel. Deemed too bland by American publishers, it was excluded from early US editions, and Kubrick decided not to redeem the hero at the end of his film. Following the original ending, in this interview Alex, speaking “as a tax-paying adult”, addresses the youth of the late 80s: “What I say to these molodoy chellovecks is that they must like grow up. They must dig into their gullivers more. They must not smeck at what is gone behind. Because that is all we have. There is no to come and the now is no more than like a sneeze.”
Biswell kindly sent me a couple of songs from the musical, which struck me as rather avant-garde and more comical than the book is generally perceived. This last observation led me to believe that it might, after all, be possible to revive the novel in Russian. A by-product of the Russian blogosphere, known as “busturds’ jargon” (my own, by no means final, version of the moniker), popular with a fairly large group of users and based on most words, including numerous obscenities, being spelled in an exaggeratedly phonetical manner, might be the way forward. To bastardise these “grahzny bastards” would be an apt joke on those hostile reviews and inept translations. If realised creatively enough, the idea of spelling given a criminal twist (perhaps with a sprinkling of Italian – “teppisty”?) could kill off grammar, brainwashing – as the author intended – the reader into total illiteracy. This translation, if only I could pull it off, would replace all the pale imitations of the original and grow into the real veshch.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 18th, 2012.