Friday, February 25, 2011

Notes For February 25th, 2011

This Day In Writing History

On February 25th, 1917, the legendary British novelist, playwright, poet, and composer Anthony Burgess was born. He was born John Burgess Wilson in Manchester, England. His confirmation name, Anthony, would be added to his legal name. The next year, in November of 1918, Burgess' eight-year-old sister Muriel died of Spanish Flu, which had become a pandemic. Four days after his sister's death, his mother died of the disease. His aunt Ann (his mother's sister) raised him while his father worked as a bookkeeper and part-time musician. He would later say that he believed his father resented him for surviving the pandemic that killed his sister and mother. When his father remarried, he was raised by his stepmother.

As a young boy, Anthony Burgess was a loner, despised by other children because he liked to dress well and could read before he started elementary school. Although his father was a musician, Burgess didn't care about music until he heard a dazzling flute solo while listening to classical music on the radio. After the piece ended, a voice announced that he had been listening to Prélude à l'après-midi d'un Faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) by legendary French composer Claude Debussy. Awestruck, Burgess told his family that he wanted to be a composer.

Burgess' family refused to let him study music because there was no money in it. Music wasn't taught at his school, so when he was around fourteen, he taught himself to play the piano. Later, he enrolled at Victoria University of Manchester as a music major, but the music department turned him down because of his poor grade in physics. So, he switched his major to English. While at university, Burgess met Llewela "Lynne" Isherwood Jones, whom he would marry after they graduated.

During World War 2, Anthony Burgess served as a nursing orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was disliked for his practical joking and anti-authoritarian nature. Once, he knocked off a corporal's cap; another time, he rebelled by deliberately overpolishing a floor to make the other men slip and fall. In 1942, he asked for a transfer to the Army Education Corps. He excelled as an instructor, and though he loathed authority, he was promoted to sergeant. He was stationed in Gibraltar, where his talent for languages came in handy, as he debriefed Dutch expatriates and Free French for army intelligence. His anti-authoritarianism got him into trouble while on leave in a nearby Spanish town: he was arrested for insulting the fascist leader Generalissimo Franco. He was soon released.

While Burgess was serving in the Army, his pregnant wife Lynne was attacked during the blackout by four GI soldiers who had deserted. She lost the baby, and the Army denied Burgess' request for leave to see her. When Burgess left the Army in 1946, he had attained the rank of sergeant-major. He spent the next four years as a lecturer in speech and drama, then took a job as a secondary school teacher. In 1954, Burgess joined the British Colonial Service as a teacher and education officer. He was first stationed in Malaya, an experience that would serve as the inspiration for his first three novels.

The first book in the trilogy, Time For A Tiger, was published in 1956. The novel is set at the Mansor School in Kuala Hantu, where British resident teacher Victor Crabbe determines to neutralize the threat posed by a young communist student who has been influencing his classmates and indoctrinating them to join in his cause. The second book in the trilogy, The Enemy In The Blanket (1958), proved to be controversial for, of all things, its cover art. Burgess was shocked and appalled to find that for the cover art, his publishers had chosen an illustration of a Sikh rickshaw driver pulling a white man and woman in his rickshaw. This was unheard of in Malaya, and considered extremely insulting. Burgess found himself falsely accused of racism.

In 1962, Anthony Burgess published what is considered his greatest novel - a bold, brilliant, experimental work of dystopic science fiction. A Clockwork Orange (the title comes from the British slang expression, "queer as a clockwork orange.") is set in a dystopic England of the future. The novel is narrated by its main character, Alex, a brilliant but psychopathic teenager who leads a gang of "droogs" that includes his friends Pete, Georgie, and Dim.

Alex and his gang meet at a milkbar, where they drink drugged milk to get them ready "for a bit of the old ultra-violence," that is, random acts of violence. One night, while joyriding in a stolen car, the gang breaks into an isolated cottage, where they terrorize the couple that lives there, beating the husband and raping his wife. When he's not out with his gang, Alex passes the time in his dreary home, escaping his poor excuse for parents by blasting the works of his favorite composer, "Ludwig Van," (Beethoven) and masturbating to violent sexual fantasies.

When Georgie challenges Alex for leadership of the gang, he puts down the rebellion by beating Georgie in a fight and slashing open Dim's hand. Then he takes them out for drinks at the milkbar. Georgie and Dim have had enough, but Alex demands that the gang follow through with Georgie's plan for a "man-sized" job and rob a rich old woman who lives alone. The robbery is botched when the old woman calls the police - but not before she is assaulted and knocked unconscious. The gang then turns on Alex, attacking him and leaving him to take the fall when the police arrive. The old woman later dies of her injuries and Alex is accused of murder.

After spending a couple years in prison, Alex becomes an involuntary participant in an experimental rehabilitation procedure called the Ludovico Technique, which, in two weeks, is supposed to remove all violent and criminal impulses from the human psyche. The prison chaplain is opposed to the Ludovico Technique, arguing that conscious, willing moral choice is a necessary component of humanity. Nevertheless, Alex undergoes the procedure.

For two weeks, in a horrific kind of aversion therapy, Alex's eyes are wired open and he is forced to watch violent images on a screen while being given a drug that induces extreme nausea. Unfortunately, the soundtrack to the violent film presentation includes works by Beethoven, and Alex begs the doctors to turn off the sound, telling them that's a sin to take away his love of music, and Beethoven never did anything wrong. They refuse.

After the procedure is completed, Alex is brought before an audience of prison and government officials and declared successfully rehabilitated. To demonstrate this, they show how Alex is unable to react with violence even in self defense, and is crippled by nausea when he becomes sexually aroused. The outraged prison chaplain again protests the Ludovico Technique, accusing the state of taking away Alex's God-given ability to choose good over evil. "Padre," a government official replies, "There are subtleties. The point is that it works."

Alex is released from prison, but his life plunges into a downward spiral. He finds that the Ludovico Technique has rendered him physically unable to listen to his Beethoven and he cannot defend himself from attack. First, he is beaten by a former victim, then when the police are called, they turn out to be Alex's old gang member Dim and rival gang member Billyboy. They beat him, too. Later, Alex is befriended by a political activist who turns out to be the man whose wife Alex had raped during the home invasion. When he finally recognizes Alex as the gang leader, he tortures him with the classical music he once loved. 

Alex attempts suicide, and a scandal erupts. The embarrassed government agrees to reverse the Ludovico Technique in order to quell all the bad publicity. They also offer Alex a cushy job at a high salary, but he looks forward to returning to his life of ultra-violence. He forms a new gang, but after watching them beat a stranger, he finds that he has tired of violence. Alex contemplates giving up gang life, becoming a productive citizen, and doing what he secretly always wanted to do - start a family of his own. He wonders if his children would inherit the violent tendencies he once had.

In the U.S. edition of the novel, the last chapter was omitted by the publisher, who wanted the story to end on a dark note (with Alex looking forward to resuming his life of violence) because he believed that the original UK edition ending (with Alex realizing the errors of his ways) was unrealistic. When legendary British filmmaker Stanley Kubrick adapted the novel as an acclaimed feature film in 1971, he felt the same way, and based his screenplay on the U.S. edition of the novel. I myself prefer the U.S. edition because its ending really brings home the main theme of the novel: that fascism is an evil far worse than the societal ills it seeks to cure - by any means necessary.

Today, both editions of A Clockwork Orange are available in the U.S., and it remains a classic work of literature, famous for its dazzling experimental narrative, wherein Alex speaks a lyrical dialect that combines English with modified Slavic and Russian slang expressions and words specifically invented by the author.

Burgess would go on to write more great novels, including The Wanting Seed (1962), Tremor of Intent: An Eschatological Spy Novel (1966), M/F (1971), and The End of the World News: An Entertainment (1982). As a playwright, he would adapt A Clockwork Orange as a stage play; as a screenwriter, he wrote the screenplays for the popular TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and A.D. (1985) and contributed to the screenplays of feature films. As a composer, his classical pieces were broadcast on BBC Radio. He translated Bizet's Carmen into English, wrote an operetta based on James Joyce's Ulysses called Blooms of Dublin, and a new libretto for Weber's opera, Oberon. He also wrote the book for the 1973 Broadway musical, Cyrano, basing it on his own adaptation of the Rostand play.

Anthony Burgess' other literary works included poetry collections, children's books, and non-fiction works. He died of lung cancer in 1993 at the age of 76.

Quote Of The Day

"Violence among young people is an aspect of their desire to create. They don't know how to use their energy creatively, so they do the opposite and destroy." - Anthony Burgess

Vanguard Video

Today's video features Anthony Burgess being interviewed on Canadian TV in 1985. Enjoy!


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