Have you ever read a book so startling, so intense, that it just makes you want to take a break from life altogether to have some time to process what you just read? Yeah, well that’s me right now after reading Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange”.
An important note before we begin- I am Russian, and although I do not guzzle vodka or play a James Bond villain in my spare time, I do, in fact, speak Russian fluently, and that played a huge role in my reading of this book (for those of you who have not read the book, you will soon see why).
A few words that describe “A Clockwork Orange”: intense (really, really intense), disturbing (so, so disturbing), upsetting (in so many, many ways), violent (in the strangest and worst possible ways), and also incredibly difficult to read for most Americans because the entire book is written in Nadsat, which is a slang language entirely composed of English heavily intermixed with distorted Russian words (please note that said language is completely fictional, created by Burgess solely for the purpose of writing this book).
Being fluent in Russian certainly helped with being able to quickly identify the meaning of a lot of the slang in the book, but at times even the seemingly simplest words presented a challenge. Most of the Russian words have been so heavily distorted that I could barely make heads or tails of the first five pages or so and had to go back and reread them once I’d figured out what was going on with the language. It took the longest time to click for me that ‘horrorshow’ is actually the really terrible phonetic spelling of ‘хорошо’, which means ‘good’ in Russian, and is not, in fact, a play you go to see on Halloween. As you can see, being fluent in Russian only provides a tiny bit more clarity than the average non-Russian speaking reader possesses.
As someone who has a rather expansive vocabulary and spends an enormous part of her free time reading, this type of situation, in which words took a much longer time for their meaning to fully register made for a very unnerving and uncomfortable read. The combination of wanting to fully understand what I was reading and the misshapen English/Russian words meant slow going, as well as an unpleasant dreamlike quality surrounding the violence taking place in the book. With the words describing heinous crimes robbed of their full meaning, it felt like I was watching an old movie on an out-of-focus projector that muddled all of the colors, sounds, and movements and left behind a grotesque, childish mess.
The seemingly innocuous, and at times amusing jargon, present in the novel threw me off at times, as it lent a lighthearted, even careless edge to upsetting content. More than once, I found myself chuckling at the phonetic spelling of a certain Russian word, when, if put in context and translated, it would have described a horrible crime. All in all, reading “A Clockwork Orange” was a conflicting, emotional roller coaster, and now that I’ve finished, here are my tips on reading “A Clockwork Orange” so you don’t give up on the language halfway through and chuck it out the nearest window.
How to read “A Clockwork Orange” without giving up and throwing your copy out the window:
- Start a mini dictionary while you read, writing down the words you don’t understand and putting down a few possibilities of their meaning.
- Don’t skim or skip around! Seriously, you’ll just make yourself more confused. Also, a fun fact: Anthony Burgess got angry at his American publishers because they wanted to put all of the Nadsat/English translations in the back of the book, and he said that he wanted people to focus on the feeling of the words (not necessarily their meaning).
- If you’re really feeling lost, enlist the help of an online Nadsat/English dictionary. This is a good one that even has the origin of the slang, along with the actual meaning: http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/nadsat.html
- Learn Russian.
- A slightly less extreme alternative to the last one: find a Russian person in the school to ask- you can find one sitting on basically every other bench throughout the school. Seriously, there’s a lot of us, so don’t be afraid to ask us. I promise we won’t bite.
Good luck reading!