1962 – “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess

When I decided that I would read one book from each of the past sixty years during 2022 I was then faced with the challenge of compiling the list of titles. I have found various on-line lists of books that won awards in certain years and lists of bestselling titles although I have found that there are is more choice for more recent years as this type of list doesn’t always stretch back the distance I need. Having then found a range of titles from each year I needed to choose which I want to read. I have no particular rules in mind and the list of sixty books which I have chosen is quite varied, although all are novels. I have tried to pick books I have never read or have not read for a long time and that I am pretty sure I will be able to finish.

My 1962 book is A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I have never read this book and nor have I seen the film. I understood when I picked it that the book and/or film is said to be very violent but I knew no other details. I read this book in a second-hand paper edition and found the print very close together and rather small. It is not a long book.

This book is set in 1960s Britain but in one which is considerably more violent and lawless than the real thing. Alex is fifteen and he roams the streets with his small gang of mates carrying out robberies, rapes and other acts of violence. The author doesn’t hide the extent of what he does but the way it is described and the language used give us a certain distance from the crimes and I did not find the book very violent although what was done was shocking. This book is in Alex’s voice and he addresses the reader directly as he narrates what happens to him. Alex is betrayed by his companions and arrested for murder when one of his victims dies. While in prison he is offered the opportunity to receive a type of brutal aversion therapy which removes his ability to inflict violence on others. On early release Alex finds that there is no place for him in this world, he is uniquely vulnerable because he cannot fight back in any way and he will now become the victim of others.

What makes the book stand out is not the plot but the way that the book is written. The story is narrated by Alex who has his own language and words. We are told that the dialect he uses is of Slavic origin and used by young people who live the same lifestyle as he does. Alex uses a lot of standard English but he also uses a lot of new words to describe people and actions. His friends/followers, for example, are called “droogs” and a head is a “gulliver”. When Alex reports the speech of those in authority it is obvious that they use standard English but the whole book is written in Alex’s language and there is no glossary. You can nearly always work out what the word means by its context and I didn’t have any problems following the narration – the author has crafted this very carefully to make the language seem alien to the reader but to allow them to access it. The actual writing of the book is what makes this novel stand out and I thought that it might have been interesting to hear it on audio as the way it is written seems like poetry in places.

I do not normally enjoy books with experimental styles of writing and nor do I enjoy those with such an unsympathetic main character. In this instance, however, I was blown away by the experience of reading this novel. I loved it. I thought that the language used to tell the story was clever and expressive. I was absorbed by Alex’s story and the questions it raises about violence and society. It was a quick but very satisfying read and I don’t think that I would ever have reached for this novel had it not been part of my sixty year challenge. I am glad that I did.

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