In 2019 I was commissioned to review two new books about George Orwell for the Literary Review. One of them, by Dorian Lynskey, was very good; the other, by John Rodden, was very, very bad. Maybe the publisher realised just how bad it was, because they postponed publication, and the second half of my review was cut. I haven’t read the book that eventually emerged, and have no intention of doing so – I feel I’ve suffered enough – so possibly it’s better than the version they sent out for review, and my comments below are unfair. But they did send it for review. And they should be ashamed of having done so.
Dorian Lynskey, The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 (Picador, 2019)
John Rodden, Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy (Princeton University Press, 2020)
What a difference a decade makes. In 1940 George Orwell published his eighth book, the essay collection Inside the Whale, but when the Nazis drew up a list that year of political and cultural Britons to be arrested after the forthcoming invasion, his name wasn’t included. It was, observes Dorian Lynskey in his superb new study, ‘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 Animal Farm, but in the years since, Orwell’s status as the most popular intellectual of the 20th century has rested increasingly 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 (his publishers had reckoned that if they couldn’t shift 15,000 copies they ‘ought to be shot’), and it’s never gone away. Current estimates say worldwide sales exceed 30 million, and it has returned periodically to the top of the bestsellers lists here and in America, most recently when the election of Donald Trump made its message seem urgent again. In an era of fake news and alternative facts, of populisms that come in varying shades of Left, Right and Green, Orwell’s analysis remains relevant: the real division is between freedom and totalitarianism.
The imagery reaches beyond the book: ‘I hadn’t read Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ said director Terry Gilliam, when making his film Brazil (1985), ‘but we all know what it is.’ That suggests a risk that over-familiarity with Newspeak, Big Brother, the Thought Police and all the other Orwellian paraphernalia might have dulled the impact. But the power of his words remains: in China, the communist government – which, like the novel, is celebrating its 70th 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 politics and 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 argues, adding that ‘anti-utopian narratives have the flexibility and portability of myths.’ So the antecedents and the offspring occupy almost as much space as the novel itself. In a wonderfully wide-ranging survey, we travel from Lenin to The Lego Movie, Jack London to Judge Dredd. What emerges is a recognition that humanity needs a fear of catastrophe as much as it needs the dream of salvation. These 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, though. One of the factors in its longevity is that it has virtually nothing to say about science and technology at all, so that it hasn’t been dated by inaccurate predictions. It’s not really very concerned with politics in any conventional sense either, much less so than Animal Farm, where the means of production loom large. O’Brien says 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, lie and fantasy are indistinguishable, reaches far beyond politics, resonating at a deep, human level; it is literally as well as metaphorically nightmarish.
Despite all the trappings, the central tale is of an individual rebelling against the restrictions of society and being crushed into conformity. It was the same theme as Orwell’s 1930s novels, 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 our sense of self-significance and the size of creation. 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 Left and Right, by socialists, anarchists and opponents of political correctness, and by advertisers and corporations 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 canonized – or burnt at the stake!’ reported his 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 being a splendid introduction to Orwell. It’s also full of delightful details: the first use of the word ‘Orwellian’ was Mary McCarthy describing fashion magazine Flair, while the CIA-funded animation of Animal Farm (1954) was promoted in Britain with the tagline ‘Pig Brother is watching you’.
John Rodden’s book, by contrast, is shabby, giving every appearance of some odds and ends being thrown together in the hope of catching anniversary sales. It is riddled with repetitions. Orwell is quoted as saying that he originally ‘wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings’. And then the same line is quoted again. And again. We’re told three times that George Orwell was 6 feet 2 inches tall, and that he took a size-12 shoe. Sometimes the repetitions come in battalions: we’ve already heard about Orwell being converted to socialism by the Spanish Civil War long before we’re told it twice on the same page.
There are also woeful errors. A long section – reading like nothing so much as a job application letter – bemoans the lack of a scholarly introduction to most editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and offers Rodden’s own vision of the perfect publication. One of the ‘facts’ he says should be noted is that the Ministry of Truth building was based on Broadcasting House; no, the model was Senate House. Nor was the Independent Labour Party ‘a radical offshoot of the Labour Party’ – it was founded first.
The repetitions and errors are not even consistent. The 1954 BBC adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four is credited as ‘the single most important historical event that transmogrified the writer Orwell into the spectre “Orwell”,’ but how many people actually saw the two broadcasts? There was ‘a total of almost 14 million viewers,’ Rodden says, amending that two pages later to ‘more than 15 million Britons’. More distressingly, the screenwriter Nigel Kneale is credited as the director (he wasn’t, that was Rudolph Cartier) and has his name misspelled as Keale into the bargain.
The whole volume is rambling, unstructured, seemingly unrevised and far too self-absorbed (why should you or I care what another academic wrote of Rodden’s thoughts about Christopher Hollis’s book on Orwell?). And the writing has some horrible moments for someone who’s claiming Orwell as ‘England’s Prose Laureate’: neologisms such as ‘statusphere’ and repeated invocations of the muse Clio grate badly, to say nothing of lines such as ‘The whirligig of fame is a whirling dervish’.