A Clockwork Orange | Study Guide

Anthony Burgess

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Anthony Burgess | Biography


Born John Anthony Burgess Wilson in Manchester, England, on February 25, 1917, Anthony Burgess was a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, a composer, and a teacher and translator trained in literature and linguistics. Burgess had such productive spurts of writing that for a short time he also used the pen name Joseph Kell to avoid criticism that he wrote too quickly and thus carelessly. Over his life Burgess produced a two-volume autobiography, 33 novels, and many short and long nonfiction pieces, in addition to composing three symphonies and dozens of shorter musical works.

Burgess entered the University of Manchester in 1937, intending to study music. When he did not get into that program, he studied English literature instead and composed on the side. He finished his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1940, became engaged to Lynne Jones, and then was drafted into the army. Burgess and Jones married in 1942, while he was home on leave. He taught for the Army Education Corps in Gibraltar, continuing to write and compose in his spare time. After the war, Burgess taught, first in England and then, in 1954, in Malaya and Borneo, producing three novels in this setting and developing an affinity for living in different cultures.

Burgess published the first novel of his Malayan trilogy under his now well-known pen name in 1958. Several other novels followed quickly, to mixed reviews, as Burgess honed his abilities. In 1959, Burgess collapsed while teaching in Brunei; an incorrect diagnosis of a brain tumor spurred him to write and publish several novels in quick succession. In 1961, he traveled to Leningrad to gather material for a novel set during the Cold War, and in preparation for the trip, Burgess taught himself Russian. He got the idea to create a language that was a combination of Russian, English, and Cockney slang to use in the novel he was then writing, A Clockwork Orange. Another of the novel's many possible inspirations was an attack allegedly endured by Burgess's first wife, Lynne. She claims to have been gang-raped by four soldiers who deserted their posts during a blackout. She suffered complications, including alcoholism, until she died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1968.

A Clockwork Orange was published on May 15, 1962, with a small print run of 6,000 copies, and received reviews that could be described as puzzled but intrigued. Some considered the use of nadsat (the special language used in the book) burdensome and off-putting, and the matter-of-fact delivery of the violent scenes disturbed reviewers. Yet reviewers also acknowledged the novel's inventive use of language, captivating narrator, and satirical take on the modern world.

The novel sold poorly at first, but its audience grew through word of mouth, and American artist Andy Warhol adapted the story for his 1965 black and white film called Vinyl. By the time Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation appeared (December 1971 in New York City and January 1972 in London), Burgess could not escape questions and was sought-after for interviews about his dystopian novel, not to mention accusations that he had not merely documented violent aspects of youth culture but had in fact contributed to them. Burgess's biographer, Andrew Biswell, argues that the novel, which was uncharacteristic of much of Burgess's writing and not the author's favorite, became "a burden and an embarrassment" for him; yet he continued to defend and adapt the novel throughout his life. The novel has become a cultural touchstone and continues to generate controversy.

The Unwanted Seed, a dystopian novel about overpopulation, and other novels followed. Meanwhile, Burgess kept up a high output of journalism, reviews, and other nonfiction writing. Yet despite his fame and literary success, it was the debut in 1975 of his "Symphony No. 3 in C" that most pleased Burgess.

Later novels and screenplays dealt with global economic and cultural forces, a continuing fascination for Burgess. Earthly Powers (1980), a well-developed novel with a gay narrator, was favored to win the prestigious Booker Prize but fell short. All the while, though, Burgess was composing and wanting to be known more for his music. Burgess published a nonfiction work on the English language in 1992 and a novel about the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe in 1993, sustaining his productivity nearly until his death on November 22, 1993.
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