And so we approach the end of Burgess’s extensive writing career and his surprisingly prolific foray into invented languages in his literature. I promised at the outset that we’d end up with Nazi Newspeak, and we shall.
Anthony Burgess’s curious compendium novel, The End of the World News, did not emerge until 1982, though most of its contents had been created in some form during the late 1970s. A tripartite narrative, it features the story of the dying Sigmund Freud, alongside a musical version of Leon Trotsky’s visit to New York. All of this is hastily glued together via a frame narrative which leads out of a disaster movie scenario in which an asteroid is set to collide with Earth. If this sounds like three separate stories that don’t belong together, that’s because they don’t.
All three were developed separately for TV and cinema projects which did not ultimately come to fruition and, never one to waste work, Burgess salvaged the lot for The End of the World News. Paul Wake has done sterling work untangling the Puma SF narrative from the other material, and this has now been published in its own right as Burgess’s lost third SF novel as part of Manchester University Press’s Irwell Series of Burgess’s works.
Despite the presence of a science fictional frame narrative there is only the slightest hint of an invented language, however. This comes in a single brief paragraph and seems to reprise the Hebrew hybrid slang he had intended for Man of Nazareth, adding to it elements from other projects which had occupied him during the 1970s. Here is the passage in full:
“Underprivileged Teutprot youth picked quarrels with privileged blacks and browns and blackbrowns, jeering and provoking in their underprivileged argot: ‘A sniff in the kortevar, that what you crying for, yeled? A prert up the cull, a prang on the dumpendebat?’”
“Dumpendebat” derives from the hymn ‘Stabat Mater’, and means “while it/he was hanging”, but accrued the slang meaning of ‘penis’ during the Middle Ages, and is an unlikely term of use among the disaffected youth of the near future, though Burgess was ever inventive in the slang he attributed to youth gangs. (‘Dumpendebat’ also appears in ABBA ABBA). Burgess’s perennial favourite “Yeled”, the word for boy in Hebrew, replaces droog here. Kortevar is Danish for ‘short-term’ or ‘short-lived’, and cull likely derives from the French ‘cul’ which has a vulgar street usage. Prert, though unidentified, suggests some sort of assault in this context, probably sexual in nature.
Burgess clearly relished the enrichment that macaronics offer in the creation of invented slangs, and while it is unlikely that such diverse and obscure components would ever organically come together in ‘underprivileged’ youth dialect, he painstakingly placed these elements in a tight syntax and context to aid comprehension by the reader.
As in A Clockwork Orange, these exotic lexical imports are legitimised by both the sheer otherness of this alien and debased underclass, and by the underlying standard English structure upon which the vocabulary is suspended.
Burgess has acknowledged the implausibility of this lineage of educated teen yobs. In a review of Kenneth Hudson’s The Language of the Teenage Revolution, he noted that “[a] major characteristic of our young is their rejection of literature. Their vocabulary is not fed by the past, which has no meaning for them…” Burgess reiterated this opinion in the 1987 BBC documentary Burgess at 70.
In his review of Hudson’s book, he went on to state, following Halliday, that “[t]he language of the young is really an ‘anti-language’ – defined as ‘the special language of people who choose to be outside society’. It is, if you like, a secret code, and its users are always aware of the attempts of the established world outside to break the code.” In Halliday’s term, it is an anti-language.
With the exception of the reprise of Burgess’s mock-Aramaic in Kingdom of the Wicked, and of the mock-Elizabethan language of Nothing Like The Sun in A Dead Man in Deptford, Burgess’s later years did not feature the language inventiveness which he had indulged during the 1970s in particular. However, in the same year that Quest for Fire hit the screens, his own masterpiece, the epic Earthly Powers, which he had been writing for nearly a decade, was finally published. The story of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of an ageing gay writer, Kenneth Toomey, Earthly Powers narrowly failed to win the Booker Prize and is considered by many to be Burgess’s finest and most substantial fiction.
Midway through its lengthy narrative, Toomey finds himself heading for Nazi Germany to meet with Jakob Strehler, the winner of the 1935 Nobel prize for literature. As Earthly Powers is a kind of alternative history, and Toomey is recollecting it from his dotage and is hence an unreliable narrator, it will come as no surprise to learn that no such prize was awarded in 1935. Strehler is entirely fictional (no less so than Toomey) in a narrative otherwise jammed with depictions of real-life people and events, and especially writers.
Incidentally, Strehler allegedly won the Nobel for a novel called Vaterdag, or ‘Father’s Day’, in which “the language of the narrator is full of rare slang and Slav loanwords and neologisms”, very like A Clockwork Orange. In August 1939, the same month as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Toomey pleads with Strehler, whose son he has been harbouring in Britain, to come with him to safety.
However, Strehler wishes to finish the project he is currently working on first. This is a translation of a poem “of about a thousand lines, Latin hexameters, the title Vindobona”, which Strehler tells us is Latin for Vienna. The poem is by “a Latin author called Frambosius” (which means raspberry), who is according to Strehler a pseudonym for “Wilhelm Fahirot of Klagenfurt”, who died in 1427.
The obscure medieval poem (which like Frambosius, Strehler and Toomey does not actually exist) turns out to be “a remarkable prophecy” in which human-sized rats flood into Austria from the North and occupy it. “Their flag is of four legs stylized on a black ground,” says Strehler. “Those who will grow whiskers and glue on long tails and walk like beasts are accepted into the community of rats. The king rat is called Adolphus.”
Strehler refuses to go with Toomey as he has 100 lines yet to translate. He is at a place in the poem where the “king rat Adolphus is enforcing the teaching of the rat language in human schools.” Strehler, or Toomey, or Burgess does not give us an example of the rat language because he, or he, or he does not need to. We are informed solely that “It has a very limited vocabulary.”
To put it another way, Burgess’s last foray into the world of invented languages, apart from his swansong with mock-Elizabethan, is in some ways the most audacious despite not actually involving inventing a language himself. Instead he has co-opted perhaps the most famous invented literary language of them all, Orwell’s Newspeak, and blown a raspberry at the Nazis by way of an imaginary author, a non-existent Nobel prizewinner, and a phantom Medieval poet.
And that’s how you get from from Nadsat to Nazi Newspeak via Aliens, Stone Age man, Jesus Christ, William Shakespeare, Roman sonnets, Trade Unions, Aussie rhyming slang, Medieval Latin blasphemy, and the Sicilian dialect, if you’re Anthony Burgess.