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The enduring relevance of George Orwell’s 1984

Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth manages, against all odds, to find many original points to make about the dystopian classic.

Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth appears at a time when George Orwell is getting an unusual amount of attention. This year is, of course, an anniversary year: 1984 turned 70 in June. But it is the recent authoritarian turns and challenges to democracy in Europe and the US, above all, that have infused the novel with a political currency it hasn’t enjoyed since the end of the Cold War.

Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t just Orwell’s best-known book; it’s also his most studied and written about. Yet Lynskey manages, against all odds, to find many original points to make about the dystopian classic that introduced terms such as “memory hole”, “newspeak”, and “Big Brother” into our political lexicon.

This is partly owing to Lynskey’s background as a music critic. His first book, 33 Revolutions Per Minute, was a celebrated work about protest songs by figures as varied as Billie Holiday and Billy Bragg. It is only natural then that Lynskey devotes a chapter of Ministry of Truth to David Bowie’s song “1984” and the rock opera about a soul-crushing authoritarian setting that the songwriter set out to create during his 1970s Berlin phase but never finished.

Lynskey’s background in musical criticism also leads to a highly original intervention in the ongoing debate over how authors influence one another. This has long been a contentious subject with respect to Orwell. Before composing 1984, Orwell claimed that Aldous Huxley’s classic satire warning of the dangers of hedonism and materialism, Brave New World (1932), essentially plagiarised Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a Soviet science fiction novel published in the 1920s. Critics later raised their eyebrows at how much Orwell’s own account of a conformist-mad land, which was published in 1949, owed to both of those earlier works.

Instead of trying to establish clear lineages and settle disputes over originality, Lynskey – who devotes a stimulating chapter to Zamyatin – approaches these dystopian visions the way that some musicologists handle folk songs: as entities that are modified so promiscuously when taken up by different figures that they become collectively created.

Ministry of Truth also has new things to say about Orwell the man, who was born Eric Blair in India in 1903, and went on to attend Eton (where he was taught by Huxley), and was still known by that name when he returned to Asia in his late teens to serve as a colonial policeman in Burma. After heading back to England, he began to publish non-fiction works, such Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), under the pen name of George Orwell. (Lynskey links the choice to the river Orwell in Suffolk, describing Blair’s selection as a “quintessentially English name” that “squeezed out” several alternatives such as “H Lewis Allways” – a “good job, too,” he notes, as “Allwaysian would not have been a graceful adjective.”)

It was as Orwell that he wrote several novels (of which 1984 was his last), the novella Animal Farm (1945), and a staggeringly large number of reviews, commentaries and essays (some of which, such as “The Politics of the English Language” and “Shooting an Elephant”, are now considered classics). His was perhaps the most famous nom de plume of any Western author of the past century, and one of the few authorial sobriquets from any period to evolve into an adjective. Thanks largely to 1984, “Orwellian” joined the ranks of “Dickensian” and “Shakespearean”, as well as “Kafkaesque” – with which it has much more in common – as a readily understood term.

For the most part, however, Ministry of Truth focuses on 1984 itself, charting its conception, gestation, birth, life and afterlife.

While the timing of a book’s birth is clear, pinpointing the moment of conception is usually a matter of interpretation. With 1984, some authors, such as Emma Larkin in Finding George Orwell in Burma (2004), point to Orwell’s time as a policeman in Asia. Christopher Hitchens, perhaps puckishly, suggested that it was worth going back even earlier in the author’s life: English public schools, he argued, could instil a hatred of authoritarianism in a sensitive youth. Lynskey joins other commentators in rushing through Orwell’s early years and seeing his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War as pivotal. In Spain, he felt distaste for both the far right and some groups within the left. This left him both a committed socialist (a fact sometimes overlooked by his critics on the left) and a determined foe of Stalinism (something that revealed itself most clearly in Animal Farm), and generated his deep interest in dictatorship that eventually led him to write 1984.

The part of Ministry of Truth given over to the book’s gestation can be divided into several parts. The first finds the book’s concerns taking shape in the author’s mind, partly through reading non-fiction works on authoritarian systems; then comes the actual writing of 1984; and finally its publication, a birth of sorts. Lynskey provides a detailed account of the book’s gestation period, noting such things as the books that engaged the author’s attention during the Second World War. Some lively anecdotes here involve dinners: Orwell relished being in the company of people he both admired but also found fault with, liking a good argument in person as much as he did skewering works in the review sections of Tribune or the New Statesman. HG Wells, who dined with the author and his wife, Eileen, was perhaps the most famous writer Orwell admired but would later take to task in person and in print.

The final period of gestation is the time after Eileen’s death, when Orwell moved between London and the Scottish island of Jura. Accompanying him during much of this period was his second wife, Sonia, and his and Eileen’s adopted son, Richard Blair. Here Lynskey largely sticks to the conventional wisdom on the book’s creation but gives it a new twist. He stresses the importance of the war, for example, in increasing Orwell’s concern about totalitarianism and his alertness to the power of propaganda, and the influence critiques of Stalinism had on him. Lynskey does, though, make a spirited and convincing attack on the familiar notion that the darkness of 1984 reflects a sense of impending doom brought on by the progression of the tuberculosis that in 1950 would kill Orwell. Building on close analysis of archival records, Lynskey offers a picture of a man more fired up than fatalistic. And he lived long enough to see his book’s publication, first positive reviews and even its first dramatisation: a radio play featuring David Niven. He did not, however, live long enough to witness the earliest phase of 1984’s fascinating afterlife, which now, 70 years on, is by no means over.

Just how unusual has the book’s life been? It has inspired not just Bowie and Niven, but multiple live theatre and filmed interpretations, and multiple print spin-offs and sequels (two called simply 1985). It provided fodder for one of the most discussed and replayed Super Bowl advertisements of all time: the launch of Apple’s Macintosh computer, which featured the now laughable claim that the rule of Big Brother would be impossible in an age when ordinary people had access to personal computers. The book also, and perhaps now most famously, provides the title for the surveillance reality television series that has been a hit in numerous countries across the world.

Nor is the spread of that Big Brother franchise the only relatively recent phenomenon that speaks to 1984’s enduring international influence. In Thailand, protesters incorporated the novel into symbolic acts of dissent. In 2014, after the military regime banned all gatherings of five or more people, groups of no more than four would pop up across Bangkok holding copies of 1984 to express their disdain for that Big Brother-like limit on speech and assembly. A few years earlier, a bookstore-cum-café named after the novel opened in Shanghai. When I first visited the “1984 Bookstore” in the early 2010s, its most eye-catching features included piles of its namesake novel in varied languages and the words “Big Brother is Watching You” painted on a wall in big lettering made to look like the work of a graffiti artist.

These examples point to the geographical limits of Lynskey’s purview. He makes only glancing references to settings outside of Europe and North America, even though there is much to be said about the book’s reception in other parts of the world. Indeed, while Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 may be the best-known work in a non-Western language that owes a clear debt to Orwell’s book, it is not the only one: Chan Koongchung’s The Fat Years (2009) imagines a country in which everyone has forgotten a year when something dramatic happened, and has been hailed as a Chinese counterpart to 1984.

In a passing comment about China, Lynskey suggests that 1984 is not openly for sale there. Indeed, there are times when censors sweep the Chinese internet clear of all references to “Orwell”, “Animal Farm”, “1984” and related words from search results. In fact, this is done selectively, at moments of tension (as in early 2018 when term limits were scrapped so that Xi Jinping, who has overseen the tightening of Big Brother-like controls, would not be limited to ten years in power) when people draw specific parallels between Orwell’s works and Chinese leaders or policies. Though only underground copies of Orwell circulated in China during some parts of the last century, for decades now you have been able to buy Chinese-language editions of 1984 and Animal Farm in many Beijing bookstores.

Asia could get a look-in in a future edition of The Ministry of Truth if Lynskey studies John Rodden’s forthcoming Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy. Here, the longtime Orwell scholar suggests that, thanks partly to literary pilgrimages to Eric Blair’s India and Myanmar, one promising avenue for future Orwell studies lies in paying closer attention to Asian themes.

But Lynskey does so much so well that it is perhaps unfair to make too much of his shortchanging that continent. If he does update his book, however, there will most likely be new and unexpected angles to bring in, since the life of 1984 has always been full of surprises. As Lynskey notes, the meaning of Orwell’s prophecies has seemed clear at various points in the past (the archetypal Big Brother leader in the popular imagination was once named Joseph Stalin rather than Kim Jong-un; the vehicle that amplified the reach of newspeak was once television broadcasts not social media feeds), but then: “History moved on like sunlight passing through a room, and threw different shadows.”

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is the author (with Maura Cunningham) of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press)

 

The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984
Dorian Lynskey
Picador, 368pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy