One Hand Clapping (novel)

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One Hand Clapping
First UK edition
Author Anthony Burgess (as Joseph Kell)
Cover artist Charles Gorham (UK edition)
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf (US)
Peter Davies (UK)
Publication date
Media type Print
Pages 214 pp

One Hand Clapping is a 1961 work by Anthony Burgess published originally under the pseudonym Joseph Kell in the UK.

The novel was intended as an indictment of what Burgess saw as the degradation of contemporary Western education and culture.

Burgess deliberately toned down his trademark love of vocabulary for the novel, which among other things lampoons the British television host Hughie Green. The entire vocabulary in One Hand Clapping amounts to approximately 800 words.

Francis Coppola has acquired the movie rights.[citation needed]


The line, "Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?" is a traditional Zen koan, and the novel takes its title from this. Burgess explained the title as follows: "The clasped hands of marriage have been reduced [by the novel's end] to a single hand. Yet it claps."

The phrase One Hand Clapping if translated literally into the Malay language means "Bertepuk sebelah tangan", which usually means unrequited love (when used in context of a relationship or romantic feelings). The English saying "It takes two to tango" gives the same connotation as "Bertepuk sebelah tangan".

Another Anthony Burgess novel, Enemy in The Blanket is also a literal translation of a Malay proverb ("Musuh Dalam Selimut").


Howard has an unusual talent: he has a photographic memory. He uses his talent to enter, and win, a mega-money TV quiz show.

He then discloses another gift: he is clairvoyant and can predict racing results. He gambles his winnings on race horses and the couple become extremely wealthy and travel the world, staying in luxury hotels.

On their return, however, Howard, disgusted by the corruption of the world they have seen - and troubled by prophetic glimpses of a coming decline in civilisation - declares that they must commit suicide together by barbiturates.

Janet resists, killing Howard with a coal hammer. Janet flees with the remainder of their money, to begin a new life abroad, taking her husband with her in a chest.


Janet Shirley - The narrator and point of view through which the reader sees the novel. She introduces herself as "Janet Shirley, née Barnes ... just gone twenty-three." Burgess portrays her voice using a spartan vocabulary.

Howard Shirley - Aged 27 and the husband of Janet. At the novel's opening, he is working at a used car dealership. He is an average man living an average life in Britain.