Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Many Sins of Anthony Burgess

Not to speak ill of the dead, but I'm going to do so. (Don't you just love it when people start their sentences with, "Not to ______," because you know that's exactly what their going to do.)

I began reading "A Clockwork Orange" today to kill the hour while I was at the Mexican laundromat down the street. This version, which the old inhabitant of my room left on the desk for the summer, contains one additional chapter, the very last one, which was cut from the version originally published in America. This was cause enough for Burgess in 1986, nearly a quarter-century after the novella's publication, to rant about the lost last chapter and everything else wrong with the world. Chris and I talked the other day about Jonathan Franzen's unfortunate self-pitying writer qualities, and Burgess manages to take them all to another power in the span of six and a quarter pages. How?

1. In his complaint that the American publisher cut the last chapter, he whines that this disrupted his numerical symmetry. The novella contain three parts of seven chapters; do the math and that's 21 in sum. 21, he writes, is a number of significance to the work because 21 is official year of coming of age. "Novelists of my stamp are interested in what is called arithmology, meaning that number has to mean something in humans terms when they handle it." Was he actually masturbating when he wrote that, or just fantasizing about himself?

You know who else is an arithmologist? Dan Brown.

2. Poor, poor Anthony Burgess complains that he has spent his life explaining to foreign audiences why the American version, and thus Kubrick's film, omit the original ending. You sad bastard.

3. Speaking of Kubrick, you might think that Burgess would be grateful for his rendering of "A Clockwork Orange" for popularizing the work to a whole new audience and making Burgess a name remembered into the 21st Century. Well, Burgess never lived to see the 21st century, and in the 20th he wasn't grateful at all. He complains that thanks to Kubrick, his name is tied to something he didn't consider to be in the upper echelon of his own work. In fact, he goes so far as to compare himself to Rachmaninov and JS Bach, whose most famous works are not their best.

Had he never ascended to his current pedestal of cultural relevance, Burgess would have probably still thought of himself in the company of great artists. But the very fact that Kubrick made him more famous than he could have been as just-another-author is one of the reason that Burgess is able to make this self-serving comparison in published form. But I forget -- logic isn't for novelists of his "stamp," arithmology is.

4. Burgess uses the rejection of his last chapter as a rejection of American sensibilities. His original book, featuring the 21st chapter redemption, was "Kennedyan," he asserts, because it believed in hope and progress. But lop off that ending and the book is now "Nixonian," he writes, "with no shred of optimism in it." Americans thought they were tougher and could deal with hard reality better than Brits like him, and he writes that "Soon they would be facing up to it in Vietnam."

I could write a whole subsection ripping apart the errors in this daydream section of writing. First being the delusion that Kennedy=good and Nixon=evil, and that Kennedy would have never let the Vietnam War escalate so far. A writer of Burgess "stamp" should know better, and if he did know better, shame on him for leaning on this too-easy rhetorical crutch. Same with the whole "I'm English and therefore have better sensibilities," bit, and implying that Americans got what they deserved with the Vietnam fiasco.

5. Even when he attempts to appear self-deprecating -- throwing out there the truth that writers aren't their own best critics and that people should decide for themselves whether the 21st chapter enhances or diminishes the novella -- Burgess says that he is really only talking to ".00000001 of the American population which cares about such things."

Burgess may need some kind of poetry to be present before he'll sully his hands with numbers, but I don't. So I worked out his figure. To put his number in a more palatable form, it's 1 out of 100 million.

Even if you assume a US population of 300 million, which is far more than it was 22 years ago when Burgess wrote this introduction, .00000001 of that number equals 3 people. I don't care for this kind of hyperbolic sleight-of-hand. Even if there were only 3,000 people in the country who care (there are many more, no matter what woe-is-me-authors want to believe), then he was off by 3 orders of magnitude.

When I get to the end I'll write about the book, and its conclusions.

No comments: