Novelist Martin Amis marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of A Clockwork Orange in this week’s New York Times Book Review. I enjoyed reading the Amis article because Anthony Burgess is one of my own favorite authors. I actually liked the Enderby series best, but I agree that A Clockwork Orange is a wonderful work. I have to disagree with both Amis and Burgess, though, on a distinction at the end of the article. Referring to Burgess’s writing on James Joyce, Amis notes:
Burgess made a provocative distinction between what he calls the “A” novelist and the “B” novelist: the A novelist is interested in plot, character and psychological insight, whereas the B novelist is interested, above all, in the play of words. The most famous B novel is “Finnegans Wake,” which Nabokov aptly described as “a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room.” The B novel, as a genre, is now utterly defunct; and “A Clockwork Orange” may be its only long-term survivor. It is a book that can still be read with steady pleasure, continuous amusement and — at times — incredulous admiration. Anthony Burgess, then, is not “a minor B novelist,” as he described himself; he is the only B novelist. I think he would have settled for that.
I’m not going to defend Joyce here. I find Finnegans Wake interesting, but it is clearly not everyone’s idea of a good read on the beach (or even in the library). But even if we agree to reject Joyce’s final work, I don’t think we can say that A Clockwork Orange is the only successful survivor of a type of novel concerned with language. I believe J.P. Donleavy, best known for The Ginger Man, still has plenty of fans, and verbal acrobatics are essential to Donleavy’s fiction. More importantly, though, I think that Burgess set up an artificial and unsustainable distinction as a way of making a point.
A Clockwork Orange itself refutes the neat categorization. It works so well as a novel because the sub-cultural idiom Burgess created for his juvenile delinquent protagonist out of Russian, Romany, and bits of London slang supports the novel’s presentation of “plot, character, and psychological insight.” The words create the strange mind of Alex and show us the unfolding of events. Burgess was an “A” novelist and a “B” novelist at the same time.
He was also, I think, a “C” novelist. In addition to a plot-character dimension and a linguistic dimension, works of fiction also have a dimension of ideas. The British novelist David Lodge, for example, uses fiction as a means of exploring ideas. His Therapy is a fictional application of the ideas of Soren Kierkegaard. Contemporary ideas of consciousness provide the premise for Lodge’s Thinks. The greatest novelist of ideas may have been Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Russian writer’s biographer, Joseph Frank, described Dostoevsky’s novels as thought experiments, in which the author attempted to consider how ideas about politics, morality, and religion play out in the world of action. Whatever one’s opinion of Finnegans Wake, it concerns ideas as much as words, since its fundamental theme (and maybe its “plot”) is the cyclical form of events in human experience, a perspective derived from the Italian political philosopher and historian Giambattista Vico.
If a “C” novelist is one interested in ideas, then this designation clearly fits Burgess, in A Clockwork Orange and all of his other works. As Amis mentions, Burgess was an Augustinian Catholic. The problems of evil and of free will at the core of his work are theological issues and Burgess was a deeply theological writer. Linguistic brilliance is only one of the reasons A Clockwork Orange survives and probably not the most important reason. It is also a profound meditation on how a therapeutic society of rehabilitation that denies evil and denies will threatens the fundamental character of humanity.