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In many ways, The Genius of Burgess was a fitting title for a symposium focused on the works of such a controversial, challenging and boundary-pushing writer, immediately begging the question: was Anthony Burgess truly a literary genius? I suspect I wasn’t alone among the audience at Soho Theatre in only being familiar with his best-known work, A Clockwork Orange. Thankfully, this event had chosen to take its title as a statement of fact—rather than defending Burgess’ position in the literary canon — and instead set out to examine the perpetual popularity of Burgess’ writing; seeking to solve the riddle of why it continues to have such a strong impact on us as readers. In other words, why should we, and why do we, care about Anthony Burgess?
As you might expect, A Clockwork Orange dominated the discussion. After all, this event served as a companion piece to the current production from company Action to the Word, who are performing at the Soho Theatre until the 5th of January, and one of the four panellists was the play’s director Alexandra Spencer-Jones. It would have been easy for the symposium to take the form of a university lecture on the many forms of A Clockwork Orange, but the panel ensured that their discussion ranged beyond this, and threw up a great number of intriguing concepts along the way.
Early on, the idea was put forward that the narrative of Alex and his gang of droogs has remained so popular because of the way it lends itself readily to a multitude of artistic forms. Action to the Word’s production is just the latest in a long line of theatrical versions, and of course Stanley Kubrick’s infamous film (which shall be returned to later) looms large. However the narrative has also inspired music, art and – perhaps inevitably – other novels. On the panel was Andrew Biswell (the author of The Real Life of Anthony Burgess, a biography published in 2005) who argued that this is due, at least in part, to Burgess’ inability to leave A Clockwork Orange alone. He continued to write new prologues and extra scenes right up until his death, meaning that the narrative is ripe for just about anyone to reimagine it. Spencer-Jones underlined Burgess’ invention of a whole new language – nadsat, spoken by Alex and his droogs throughout the novel – and the freedom this grants to artists who want to explore Burgess’ ideas in their own work. During the Q&A session that followed the panel’s discussion, one audience member suggested that every time they encountered the narrative they were left emotionally drained and numb because of the pace and rhythm of the language. Spencer-Jones replied that her company’s approach had been to treat nadsat as if it were everyday speech, even using it in rehearsals. It is this quality – the way in which A Clockwork Orange seemingly seeps into our lives, and literally speaks to us – that has gone some way to ensuring its popularity.
The panel’s resident lecturer – Professor John Sutherland – was however keen to stress that Burgess is often wilfully difficult to read. The four panellists all agreed that A Clockwork Orange was by far his most accessible work, and talk turned to Napoleon Symphony, another Burgess novel that was recently re-released following a long period of obscurity and which will be performed as a radio play as part of Radio 3’s Napoleon season on the 2nd of December. This piece of writing is structured musically, with four passages reflecting stages of Napoleon’s life. It includes a number of parodies of famous figures such as Henry James. While it is easy to describe A Clockwork Orange as having an “everyman aesthetic” that speaks to the common man – as Spencer-Jones did early on in the discussion – the same can’t be said of Napoleon Symphony. It made me wonder whether Burgess’ genius – or popularity, if we’re taking the two words to be interchangeable – only really rests on A Clockwork Orange. And can you be called a true literary genius if people have only heard of one piece of your writing?
I think I’m probably unusual in not having being introduced to A Clockwork Orange through Kubrick’s 1971 film. Spencer-Jones was asked how it felt to stage her play adaptation in the shadow of Kubrick, and she admitted that the film was always going to be a hard act to follow. Also present in the audience was cast-member Martin McCreadie, Alex in Action to the Word’s current version, who stated that it is important with this narrative, as with any book that has been adapted so many times, to recreate it each time; find new ways of exploring a well-known story and the messages within it. He told us he had relied far more heavily on the book than on Kubrick’s film when building Alex as a character, and that in actual fact the film’s strong cultural impact is more a hindrance than help for someone wanting to create a fresh adaptation of Burgess’ work. I was given a similar message when cast as F Alexander in my university theatre society’s version of the play in 2010: if you haven’t seen the film, the cast was told, don’t watch it. So is the cult-status of A Clockwork Orange owed to the book or the film?
This symposium served as a reminder that, whatever we might think of Kubrick’s adaptation, the book was first; Burgess came first. Spencer-Jones described him as a “stimulator”, with the caveat that “if you have a bonkers mind, it helps.” The issues his writing raises are close to the human condition, so we can relate to them: we all want to be anarchic but feel safe, as the panel put it. And while the film is deeply ingrained in popular culture, these panellists made the perhaps controversial claim that the book will outlast it. It remains a timeless narrative, and one which still has the power to both shock and inspire.
So maybe if we think of Burgess as a genius (and the jury’s still out on that one, I’d suggest), it’s because he fulfilled every writer’s dream of creating a piece of writing that would be read, reread, and enjoyed – if that’s the right word – decades after it was written, and will be for many years to come.
Between November 2012 and March 2013 Serpent’s Tail will be reissuing four forgotten novels by the remarkable twentieth-century writer Anthony Burgess, starting with Napoleon Symphony.