How long did it take to write A Clockwork Orange?
Myth: Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in only three weeks.
Fact: Burgess composed his novel over a period of more than 18 months, during which time he visited Russia, devised a new slang, and crafted the book very carefully. It is a complex and intricate work, which continues to be read all over the world.
The source for the myth that Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in only three weeks is Burgess himself.
In his 1985 biography of D.H. Lawrence, Flame into Being, he wrote:
The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation, and the same may be said of Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Burgess’s purpose here is to place Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which had been suppressed for almost thirty years, in the wider context of D.H. Lawrence’s other novels. By 1985 he was keen to establish a similar context for A Clockwork Orange in relation to his own canon of fiction and non-fiction.
In Flame Into Being he does not even mention A Clockwork Orange by name — but Burgess’s later tendency to belittle his novel can be very misleading.
Burgess was planning the book which became A Clockwork Orange as early as 1960: an early notebook contains an outline for a novel of around 200 pages, set in the year 1980, with the working title ‘The Plank in Your Eye’. In this first outline, the protagonist was to be called ‘Fred Verity’.
Burgess taught himself the basics of Russian before he visited Leningrad in June 1961. His study of Russian formed the basis of ‘Nadsat’ (meaning ‘teen’ in Russian), the invented slang used by Alex and the droogs.
According to one of Burgess’s later accounts, he had written sixty pages of A Clockwork Orange by the middle of 1961, when he and his wife Lynne went to Leningrad. He absorbed the sights and sounds of the Russian city and it added much to the texture of his novel.
After he returned to England, he continued to work on the novel, possibly in consultation with his editor at William Heinemann, and completed it in August 1961.
It is misleading of Burgess to claim that he wrote the book for money. He received an advance from his publishers as part of a three-book contract which included The Wanting Seed and Honey for the Bears. But the advance payment of £250 for all three novels (before his agent had deducted 10% commission) would be worth only £5,795 today.
It is clear that the novel was not a commercial success when it first appeared. Records in the publisher’s archive show that fewer than 4,000 copies of the British hardback edition had been sold by the mid-1960s.
So did Anthony Burgess really write A Clockwork Orange in three weeks? The evidence points to a much longer gestation period of around 18 months, between signature of the publishing contract and delivery of the final manuscript.
This ‘Clockwork Controversies’ series, in which we will examine myths surrounding Anthony Burgess’s most famous book, is one of several ways in which the Burgess Foundation is marking the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange.
Find out more about the creation, meaning and legacy of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange elsewhere on our site.