What a difference a decade makes. In 1940 George Orwell published his eighth book, the essay collection Inside the Whale, but when the Nazis in the same year drew up a list of Britons to be arrested after the planned invasion, his name wasn’t included. It was, observes Dorian Lynskey in his superb new book, ‘a kind of snub’. By the time Orwell died in January 1950, however, he was being acclaimed around the Western world as one of the great defenders of democracy and liberty, and had just been adjudged, for the first time, worthy of an entry in Who’s Who.
Much of the acclaim then was in recognition of his novel Animal Farm, but in the years since, Orwell’s popularity has increasingly rested on his final work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, published the summer before he died. It was an instant hit, selling a quarter of a million copies in its first six months, and it’s never gone away. Current estimates say worldwide sales exceed thirty million, and it has returned periodically to the top of the bestseller lists here and in America, most recently following the election of Donald Trump. In an era of fake news and alternative facts, of populisms that come in varying shades of left, right and green, Orwell’s message remains relevant: the real division in politics is between freedom and totalitarianism.
The imagery of Nineteen Eighty-Four has outgrown the book itself. ‘I hadn’t read Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ said the director Terry Gilliam when making his film Brazil (1985), ‘but we all know what it is.’ One might think that overfamiliarity with Newspeak, Big Brother, the Thought Police and all the other Orwellian paraphernalia would over time have dulled the book’s impact. But its power remains: in China, the communist government – which, like the novel, is celebrating its seventieth birthday this year – is striving to ensure that mention of its existence doesn’t sneak into the country via the internet.
Lynskey’s biography of the book expertly locates Nineteen Eighty-Four in the context of Orwell’s life, evoking the drab deprivations of 1940s Britain. But it’s even better when it explores the universality of the story. ‘Utopian fiction is a genre,’ Lynskey points out, adding that ‘anti-utopian narratives have the flexibility and portability of myths’. So the antecedents and the offspring of Nineteen Eighty-Four occupy almost as much space in this book as the novel itself. In a wonderfully wide-ranging survey, we travel from Lenin to The Lego Movie, from Jack London to Judge Dredd. What emerges is a recognition that humanity needs the fear of catastrophe as much as it needs the dream of salvation. That used to be the territory of religion, of course, but when Christianity’s influence began to fade, H G Wells and others were ready with scientific and political versions of both.
Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn’t quite fit into any of these categories, though. One of the reasons for its longevity is that it has virtually nothing to say about science and technology at all, with the result that it hasn’t been dated by inaccurate predictions. It’s not really very concerned with politics in any conventional sense either, certainly much less so than Animal Farm, where the means of production loom large. O’Brien says that the Party ‘is interested solely in power’, and the same is true of the novel. As Lynskey points out, ‘Orwell was more interested in psychology than in systems’, and the psychology of power doesn’t change. Nor does the psychology of terror. The haze of ambiguity that swirls around Airstrip One, where truth, lies and fantasy are indistinguishable, reaches far beyond politics, resonating at a deep human level.
Despite all the dystopian trappings, the central tale is of an individual rebelling against the restrictions of society and being crushed into conformity. The same theme can be found in Orwell’s novels of the 1930s, transformed here by a greater literary craft and by the size of the irresistible machine facing the doomed hero. It’s an elemental fable. Nineteen Eighty-Four articulates the disparity between the sense we have of our own significance and the size of creation as a whole. Or, possibly, it represents the experience of adolescence – which may be why it’s always been popular in the world of rock’n’roll.
Indeed it’s been popular almost everywhere, except in totalitarian circles. Orwell’s work has been claimed by politicians of both the Left and the Right, by socialists, anarchists and opponents of political correctness, and by corporations and advertisers with whom he would have had no truck. The very diversity is tribute to the potency of the myth. In the process, the man himself has been somewhat lost, elevated to the level of a secular saint who spoke the truth. But even in his lifetime that perception was to be heard: ‘He is transparently honest, incapable of subterfuge, and in early days he would have been canonised – or burnt at the stake!’ reported a BBC superior in the early 1940s. ‘Either fate he would have sustained with stoical courage.’
Lynskey’s is a magnificent piece of work, an informed, intelligent and hugely readable history of past futures as well as a splendid introduction to Orwell. It’s also full of delightful details: the first use of the word ‘Orwellian’ came when Mary McCarthy deployed it to describe the fashion magazine Flair, while the CIA-funded animation of Animal Farm, released in 1954, was promoted in Britain with the tag line ‘Pig Brother is watching you’.