Sunday, October 28, 2012

Peace Off!

The John Lennon Letters

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, October 21-28, 2012

From the outside, The John Lennon Letters looks like a feast for Lennon buffs. The book is 400 pages long and as heavy as a paver. If Lennon really wrote this many letters, this isn’t merely an “international publishing event.” It might also be a significant and revealing contribution to cultural history.  

Unfortunately, the Letters is less full of letters than you might think. Its editor, Hunter Davies, initially dreamed of discovering “large, hidden-away caches” of unknown Lennon correspondence. In the event, he unearthed only a handful of substantial letters. To fill the book up, Davies has, by his own admission, “rather expanded the definition of the word ‘letter’.” He’s expanded it, apparently, to include any piece of paper or cardboard that bears Lennon’s signature: shopping lists, memos to domestic staff, postcards to fans (“Dear Toli, Hi! Bye! Love, John”).  

So this isn’t a collection of letters in the usual sense. To make up for that, the book is sumptuously designed. It’s beautiful to hold and look at. It even smells good. With a few exceptions, each letter or note is photographically reproduced, and flanked by a typed transcription of its contents. Davies provides generous chunks of background information between exhibits, so that the book almost qualifies as an illustrated biography.

The more revealing letters raise the usual question. How much about the private lives of our favourite artists do we really want to know? In Lennon’s case this question becomes especially pointed. Without doubt the man wrote some of the most sublime songs in pop history. But behind the scenes, the avatar of peace and love often went out of his way to be verbally cruel. Reading his letters, you need to keep Lennon’s virtues as an artist firmly in mind, perhaps by playing his records in the background. If you don’t, there’s a risk you’ll end up not liking him very much at all.   

Lennon had a flair for acrimony. When the Beatles broke up, he and Paul had their famously bitter public feud. The Letters confirm one’s suspicion that the bitterness and aggression lay almost entirely on John’s side: he was the Mike Tyson to Paul’s startled Holyfield.

When Paul released his solo album Ram, John thought he heard some sly digs at himself and Yoko in some of the lyrics. He retaliated with the viciously unsubtle “How Do You Sleep?” (“Those freaks was right when they said you was dead ...”). After Paul voiced some relatively mild objections to that song in the pages of Melody Maker, Lennon replied with an open letter in which he proposed that it was typically dull of the “conservative” McCartney to take the lyrics “so literally.” Apparently they were meant to be funny. People were often misreading Lennon’s tone, but it never seemed to strike him that this might be his fault rather than theirs.

In his private letters to the McCartneys, John was even less inclined to be nice. Linda, writing to Lennon in 1971, upbraided him for quitting the Beatles without telling the press. John replied that others, including Paul, had persuaded him to stay silent. “So get that into your petty little perversion of a mind, Mrs McCartney – the cunts asked me to keep quiet about it.”

Adept at detecting insults, Lennon always had an alarmingly deep well of venom to draw on in reply. In 1971, the Beatles’ genial former producer, George Martin, made the mistake of short-changing John on some songwriting credits during an interview. Naturally, the man who urged the world to “imagine no possessions” was not about to let that slide.  

“When people ask me questions about ‘What did George Martin really do for you?’” Lennon wrote to Martin, “I have only one answer, ‘What does he do now?’ … It’s not a put down, it’s the truth.” For good measure, Lennon took a swipe at the obscure band Martin was currently producing. “By the way, I hope Seatrain is a good substitute for the Beatles.”

Lennon knew how to wound. No doubt this talent was linked to his having been deeply wounded himself, back in his early childhood. Raised by his selfless Aunt Mimi, John always felt that his bohemian mother, Julia, had coldly abandoned him. He grew up thin-skinned but cocksure: a good combination for a rock-and-roller, but bad news for people who encountered him on an off day.

In 1971, a well-meaning fan sent him a pamphlet about Christianity. John shocked the poor guy by not only writing back, but by giving him both barrels. “Why don’t you Jesus Freaks get off people’s backs … Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know. Your peace of mind doesn’t show in your neurotic letter, son … Peace off!”

Naturally it didn’t occur to Lennon that the same critique, minus the word “Jesus”, was uncannily applicable to his own spiritual stances. Lennon was no stranger to proclaiming, very loudly, that he had all the answers to life's ultimate questions. But if his restless leaping from one mystical fad to another ever brought him peace of mind, it didn’t show.

In 1968, he declared that the key to “Absolute Bliss” lay in India, at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. When the Maharishi proved to be human, Lennon took his revenge with a song: the White Album’s “Sexy Sadie.” “You made a fool of everyone …” As usual, Lennon’s blame radar pointed strictly outwards: he declined to explore the possibility that submitting himself to teachings of the bearded one had been a foolish act in the first place.  

After that it was primal scream therapy. (“I think this is the last trip,” he wrote to Pete Townshend.) This gave Lennon pseudo-scientific licence to scream at his aging loved ones and then not quite apologise for it. “I seem to remember you being upset by my screaming at Mimi …?” he wrote to a cousin in 1975. “Well she and I are both well over that. I hope you are too.” Take it or leave it, mate.    

On the artistic front, the screaming craze did give us the remarkable, howl-drenched “Mother.” But did meditation or primal yodelling change John’s personality one little bit? By the mid-seventies he’d done a lot of both, and he was still carrying a lot of rage. Estranged from Yoko, he drunkenly and violently disgraced himself in an L.A. nightclub. When the musician Todd Rundgren chipped him for that in an interview, Lennon again proved himself the master of the malevolent public retort. “Turd Runtgreen … I think that the real reason you’re mad at me is cause I didn’t know who you were at the Rainbow.”    

Lennon finally found contentment via the least revolutionary of paths. He became a househusband in New York, with Yoko and their son Sean. At this point the letters mellow. There are cosy domestic memos and notes for the maid. “Milk (3 cartons.) Oranges. Grapenuts (not flakes) …” On the page after that, Lennon fires off a searing complaint against injustice and oppression – to his dry cleaner. “What is your excuse for turning my brand new white shirt yellow?”

In 1980 Lennon delivered the Double Fantasy album. “Starting Over,” “Beautiful Boy,” “Watching the Wheels” – the songs were mellowing too. As an artist, he was far from finished. Three weeks after the album’s release he was shot dead.

Lennon could be a charming and decent man, but his personal virtues rarely come across in his letters. In mere prose, he lacked the talent to access the less cranky aspects of his personality. He needed melody and lyrics to do that. Lennon was only human, but he was also the only human who wrote “Imagine”. That’s the thing to remember about him. Give him a guitar and he had the power to persuade you, for the length of a song, that anything was possible.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Real Horrorshow

A Clockwork Orange: The Restored Text by Anthony Burgess 

Originally published in the Weekend Australian, October 6-7, 2012

“The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate.” As Anthony Burgess neared the end of his life, that was how he felt about A Clockwork Orange. After all, he’d written more than fifty other books, some of which were clearly more substantial. He also resented the notoriety of the film: he didn’t like being thought of as the mere supplier of Stanley Kubrick’s raw material. And he worried that the novel was too preachy: its moral lesson, he admitted, stuck out “like a sore thumb.” 

But almost twenty years after its author’s death, Burgess’s rogue child still has an irrepressible life of its own. Having just turned fifty, it has been re-issued in a sumptuous, radiantly orange anniversary edition. The restored text doesn’t differ radically from the familiar Penguin version, but it has been generously bulked out with essays, interviews, and other birthday goodies, including a new Foreword by Martin Amis. 

Burgess wrote the novel in 1961, when violent gangs, composed of now quaint-seeming ruffians like the mods and rockers, were raising hell in Britain’s streets. The book imagines a British future in which marauding thugs wholly own the night. Our narrator is a fifteen-year-old hooligan named Alex, who spends the first third of the book indulging in abominable acts of mayhem. He orchestrates the gang-rape of a woman in the presence of her husband, then leaves both of them “bloody and torn and making noises.” He drugs and rapes a pair of ten-year-old girls. Finally he beats an old woman to death, at which point the law at last catches up with him. 

All this hasn’t lost the power to appal, and let’s hope it never does. But Burgess has a structural reason for stressing the depth of Alex’s depravity. He wants to compare and contrast it with the morality of the State’s response. After two years in prison – the “barry place” – Alex volunteers to be the guinea pig for a radical government programme: the now-famous aversion therapy, during which he is forced to watch atrocity films with his eyes clipped open, while chemical injections render him sick to the stomach. After two weeks of this, the very thought of inflicting violence makes him nauseous. Pronouncing him cured, the government puts him back on the streets. 

The suggestion is that Alex’s cure is even worse than his misdeeds. Burgess was no lover of violence: during the war his pregnant wife had been brutally attacked by a gang of G.I. deserters, and had suffered a miscarriage. But Burgess was equally alarmed by talk that behavioural conditioning might soon be used to pacify Britain’s ultra-violent young. An old-school Catholic, Burgess believed in original sin. People, he thought, had a built-in tendency to do wicked things. But they also had the God-given gift of free will, which let them choose good over evil. “When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man,” says Alex’s chaplain, who is speaking for Burgess himself. When Alex is stripped of his free will and forced to be good, he becomes something less than human. He is a machine masquerading as an organism: a clockwork orange, in fact. 

But Burgess's novel has not endured because of its theological arguments. What keeps it alive is its weirdly timeless language. Burgess wanted Alex to narrate the book in a teenager's idiom, but knew the slang of the early sixties would sound improbably dated in a novel set in the future. So he boldly invented a whole new dialect. It happened that Burgess was relearning Russian at the time, so he threw a heavy dose of Russian loan-words into the mix, along with dollops of boisterous rhyming slang and heightened English. Instead of saying “good”, Alex says “horrorshow” – a corruption of the Russian khorosho. Instead of “head” he says “gulliver,” as in: “I … cracked her a fine fair tolchock on the gulliver and that shut her up real horrorshow and lovely”. To write a novel full of sentences like that was a brazen gamble. Either people would chuck the book across the room, or they would surrender to the charm of its sound. 

For fifty years now, more than enough readers have reacted to the book in the second way. Hauled forward by the verve of Alex’s lingo, you pick up most of his meanings as you go. In case you don’t, this new edition has a glossary at the back. Burgess hated the idea of providing one: he wanted his novel about the dangers of brainwashing to brainwash its readers “into learning minimal Russian.” Kooky as that idea sounds, Burgess had the linguistic talent to pull the trick off. Alex’s language is contagious: as the novel takes hold of you, you find yourself thinking in his words. Burgess’s madcap experiment wound up giving us one of modern fiction’s great first-person narrators. Alex’s voice is as distinctive as Huckleberry Finn’s, Holden Caulfield’s, Alexander Portnoy’s. 

Alex’s supercharged style places what Burgess called “a kind of mist” between the reader and the succession of brutal acts that the book recounts. But Burgess never lets us forget that Alex, beneath all his seductive word-music, is a monster. When Kubrick turned the novel into a movie, he tried to find cinematic substitutes for Alex’s prose-mist: he muffled the violence by using outrageous angles and lenses, and by comically speeding up or slowing down the film. But in places his movie went a troubling step further. It stylised the violence itself, thereby sanitising it. Kubrick’s "Singin’ in the Rain" rape scene looks far more choreographed, and far less nasty, than a rape scene really should. Some critics, including Burgess himself, believed that the film, if it really wanted to denounce violence rather than glamourise it, should have been more violent than it was, not less. 

In the book, Alex’s misty language hides more things than his violence. Important plot turns sneak past us in the haze, and Burgess is suspiciously frugal regarding the details of his imagined future. Exactly why do Alex and his droogs use all those Russian words? Somebody mentions the influence of “propaganda,” but that’s all the information we get. And why does the government, having brainwashed Alex, decide to unbrainwash him? The novel’s explanation seems incomplete. The main thing that seems clear is that Burgess, at this point in the novel, has a structural need for Alex to regain his freedom of moral choice. 

This brings us to the question of the book’s ending. A spoiler alert might be redundant here: the book is fifty years old, and anyway there are grounds for believing that Burgess himself managed to spoil its ending in the first place. The novel’s tough-minded defence of free will demands, you would think, a tough-minded conclusion. If social conditioning is worse than letting villains freely choose evil, it would seem only fair that Alex, restored to his natural condition, should freely choose evil. And at the end of the book’s second-last chapter, that is precisely what Alex does. 

But Burgess believed that a novel, to distinguish itself from a mere fable, had to show moral growth in its protagonist. He therefore added a final chapter in which Alex abruptly matures and renounces violence. Burgess’s first American publisher found this coda unconvincing, and lopped it off. So did Kubrick. Burgess later implied that they were foolish for doing so. But Andrew Biswell, in his valuable introduction to this new edition, reveals that Burgess had his own early qualms about this final chapter. On the typescript he labelled it an “optional epilogue.” 

He was right to doubt its value. He wanted his novel to be more than just a fable, but the artificiality of that last chapter proves that a fable is what the book fundamentally is – a brilliantly written fable, but a fable nonetheless. And maybe the novel says scarier things about violence than Burgess really wanted it to. By the time he wanted Alex to grow up and change his ways, it was too late. The character had acquired a vivid life of his own. The novel had slipped out of its author’s control. Words have a way of doing that, even when generated by a master – or, perhaps, especially then.