Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange and Nadsat

For the uniniated, the novel A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess is a near-future sci-fi novel about a 15-year old young man, Alex DeLarge. The book eventually became a movie by Stanley Kubrick, starring Malcolm McDowell. In both, Alex and his shaika of droogs go out at nochy, for drinks of a malenky Moloko-plus, from chasha to rot, goes straight to their gullivers. After that, they are up to finding some devotchka's for pol and sod. Some lubbilubbing, you know. Or maybe they come across another nadmenny shaika, break out the ole' britva, nozh, and oozy - for some Ultra-vi.

If you hadn't guessed, Burgess invented a slang for the novel - and called it Nadsat. He based much of it on Russian, bastardized it to adapt it to English, often putting clever little stylings or new meanings to the words. Horosho becomes horrorshow ... golova becomes gulliver ...
I had to have a smeck, though, thinking of what I'd viddied once in one of these like articles on Modern Youth, about how Modern Youth would be better off if A Lively Appreciation Of The Arts could be like encouraged. Great Music, it said, and Great Poetry would like quieten Modern Youth down and make Modern Youth more Civilized. Civilized my syphilised yarbles. Music always sort of sharpened me up, O my brothers, and made me like feel like old Bog himself, ready to make with the old donner and blitzen and have vecks and ptitsas creeding away in my ha ha power.
Burgess had a working knowledge of Russian, having travelled to St. Petersburg in the past with his wife.
The invention of Nadsat was to sort of cloud the violent actions of the characters, but also to coerce the reader into learning the new language, to put them inside the novel and this new future world he created. From Burgess's autobiography "You've Had Your Time":
My problem in writing the novel was wholly stylistic. The story had to be told by a young thug of the future, and it had to be told in his own version of English. This would be partly the slang of his group, partly his personal dialect. It was pointless to write the book in the slang of the early sixties: it was ephemeral like all slang and might have a lavender smell by the time the manuscript got to the printers, It seemed, at the time, an insoluble problem. A slang for the 1970's would have to be invented, but I shrank form making it arbitrary, I shut the half completed draft, who's sixties slang clearly would not do, in a drawer and got down to the writing of something else

Lynne and I felt we ought to take a holiday. There were Russian ships sailing from Tilbury to Leningrad, calling at Copenhagen and Stockholm, and then sailing back. There was a brief stay in a Leningrad hotel between voyages. The Russians were known to be good drinkers, and Lynne knew she would feel at home among them. When I finished my day's stint of novelising and reviewing, I started to re-learn Russian. I tried to persuade Lynne that she should at least learn the Cyrillic alphabet, so as to know where the ladies' toilets were and to master a few sweeteners of social intercourse. But she was above going back to school. I sighed and slogged away at my word lists and frequentive verbs, and soon it flashed upon me that I had found a solution to the stylistic problem of A Clockwork Orange. The Vocabulary of my space-age hooligans could be a mixture of Russian and demotic English, seasoned with rhyming slang and the gypsy's bolo. The Russian suffix for -teen was nadsat, and that would be the name of the teenage dialect, spoken by drugi or droogs or friends of violence.

Russian loanwords fit better in to English than those from German, French , or Italian. English, anyway, is already a kind of melange of French and German. Russian has polysyllables like zhevotnoye for best. But it also has brevities like brat for brother. In the manner of Eastern Languages, Russian makes no distinction between leg and foot - noga for both, or hand and arm, which are alike ruka. This limitation would turn my horrible young narrator in to a clockwork toy with in articulate limbs. As there was much violence in the draft smouldering in my drawer, and there would be even more in the finished work, this strange new logo would act like a kind of mist, half-hiding the mayhem and protecting the reader from his own baser instincts. And there was fine irony in the notion of a teenage race untouchable by politics, using totalitarian brutality as an end in itself, equipped with a dialect which drew on the two chief political languages of the age.

I ended up with a vocabulary of around 200 words. As the book was about brainwashing, it was appropriate that the text itself should be a brainwashing device. The reader would be brainwashed into learning minimal Russian. The novel was to be an exercise in linguistic programming, with the exoticisms gradually clarified by context: I would resist to the limit any publisher's demand that a glossary be provided. A glossary would disrupt the programming and nullify the brainwashing. It turned out to be a considerable pleasure to devise new rhythms and resurrect old ones, chiefly from the King James Bible, to accommodate the weird patois. The novel was nearly finished by the time we were ready to travel to Tilbury and board the Alexander Radishchev, a well-found ship of the Baltic line.
For the curious, the glossary of Nadsat can be found here.

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