Quick facts from the life of Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange
1. His most famous novel, A Clockwork Orange, may have been partly inspired by a dark event in Burgess’ past, shortly after he and his first wife married. For this classic novel, Burgess invented an entire new language, Nadsat (the name is taken from the Russian for ‘teen’ – i.e. a form of slang used by teenagers). Burgess, a gifted linguist, would later translate T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land into Persian (unfortunately, the translation has not been published). The book was made into an even more controversial film by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. Burgess had mixed feelings about the film, referring to it as ‘Clockwork Marmalade’, and he received just £5,000 in subsidiary rights for the film. Quite where the title A Clockwork Orange came from remains a mystery, but Gary Dexter has speculated that Burgess may have misheard ‘Terry’s Chocolate Orange’ in a noisy pub and liked the mondegreen so much he used it as the book’s title. The title has inspired the nickname ‘The Clockwork Orange’ for Glasgow’s metro system.
But where the subject-matter for the book came from is perhaps an easier question to resolve. During the blackout in WWII, while Burgess was away serving in the Army, a gang of American deserters attacked his wife, who was pregnant with their first child, in a brutal mugging. She lost the baby. She would never conceive again. Later, she would drink herself into an early grave, and both partners in the Burgess marriage would have affairs with other people. Whether this event played a part in the creation of Alex and his gang of ‘droogs’ – who attack a woman in A Clockwork Orange – is not certain, but many critics and biographers believe it did, on some level.
2. A Clockwork Orange was one of several novels Burgess churned out quickly – because he thought he was dying. In 1959, Burgess was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Then in his early forties – he was born in 1917 – he was told he had perhaps a year to live. He promptly wrote five novels, designed to be published posthumously to support his widow. The most famous of these five was A Clockwork Orange, published in 1962 and very much non-posthumously. (The prognosis had been a false alarm, and Burgess would live to his mid-seventies, until 1993 – surviving his wife by 25 years.) However, it should be added that some biographers have wondered how true the story about the tumour is. Was Burgess having us all on? The next fact suggests he liked to play tricks with us.
Electric typewriters keep going ‘mmmmmmm – what are you waiting for?’ – Anthony Burgess
3. Burgess once wrote an anonymous review for the Yorkshire Post – of one of his own novels. What’s more, he gave it a less than enthusiastic review! This was no Mark Twain – writing a glowing review of his first book – but Anthony Burgess the mischief-maker. (It reminds us of the chance meeting between fantasy author Michael Moorcock and the young and then-unknown David Gemmell: ‘I told him Moorcock was crap,’ Moorcock later recalled, ‘he shouldn’t be reading that stuff.’)
4. Anthony Burgess wrote a novel about the last months of John Keats called Abba Abba. This novel, which was published in 1977, takes its title not from the Swedish pop group (alas) but from the words of Christ on the cross, ‘Abba’ meaning ‘father’. The words ‘Abba Abba’ appear on Burgess’ gravestone.
Laugh and the world laughs with you; snore and you sleep alone. – Anthony Burgess
5. In 1978, Burgess wrote a novel called 1985 as a tribute to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nearly twenty years after he began writing A Clockwork Orange, Burgess returned to the dystopian theme in his fiction with this novel, which is split into two parts: the first a critical response to Orwell’s novel and the second a short novel responding to it. (We’ve put together some interesting facts about Orwell’s book here.) The near-future that Burgess prophesies is a little different from Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism: the main themes are the growing power of Trade Unions (this was the late 1970s, after all) and the increasing number of General Strikes, and the rise of Islam in Britain owing to mass immigration. As well as these novels, Burgess was also a prolific composer and worked as a scriptwriter, perhaps most notably on the 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, starring Robert Powell as Christ. (Burgess had been raised, and remained, a Catholic.) He died in 1993, on 22 November – the same day that, exactly thirty years earlier, had taken JFK, C. S. Lewis, and fellow speculative dystopianist Aldous Huxley.
Image: Anthony Burgess bookshelves at Manchester Library (credit: Duncan Hull), via Flickr.