At Last The 1984 Show
Sales of the George Orwell novel have unsurprisingly risen in the last few months, along with Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and other grim dystopian novels, most of which saw the rise of totalitarian states, but in entirely the wrong way; nobody imagined that we’d reach it with our own complicity, via votes.
Growing up in sixties suburban London was rather like lying in tepid bathwater for several years. Into this pleasant, sleepy complacency fell ‘1984’, a book that entrapped me for life. I was on the cusp of adolescence, reading voraciously, gradually testing the limits of my smug world, and bought ‘1984’, but as we were still fifteen years away from the novel’s date I naively assumed it would provide futuristic rocket adventures.
Heinemann were careful not to label Orwell’s novel SF but printed it as part of ‘The Modern Novel Series’, a catch-all collection that included LP Hartley and Somerset Maughan. The blank green and white cover hid any indication of the book’s content. I skipped the deadening introduction by Stephen Spender and arrived at the first line;
‘It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
Unable to access any notion of the concept ‘dystopia’, the blunt, angry prose hit me like a bucket of cold water in the face.
Rearrange the title date and you have the year of publication, and the key to the book’s style. There’s hardly a page of 1984 that doesn’t reflect the cadging gruesomeness of wartime life, from the ever-present smell of old mats and boiled cabbage to the cigarettes that lose their contents if held upright. Although I didn’t grow up with these deprivations, they could be sensed through my mother and father, who had been worn down by them. Pleasures were small and hard-won; pain and complaint came more easily.
My parents had lost their teenaged years in the war. They emerged in a dazed state of disillusionment, but for many the effect must have been akin to O’Brien contemptuously twisting a rotten tooth out of Winston Smith’s mouth. ‘Your kind is extinct,’ says O’Brien, ‘we are the inheritors.’
Few future visions had ever been able to build their foundations so solidly in the recent past, or been told with such fury. Orwell’s novel stands accused of being too preachy, too schematic, not a testament to the human spirit. What we tend to forget is that it is first and foremost an extraordinarily well-constructed piece of fiction, tense, terrifying and above all, visceral.
For Winston Smith, the sheer effort of breaking state laws seems so exhausting as to be hardly worth it. We know from the outset that the struggle won’t equal the prize, because there is no prize. The future has already arrived. In this sense 1984 feels shockingly modern, the ultimate slacker’s novel. No wonder it was best filmed as Terry Gilliam’s freewheeling ‘Brazil’ rather than in faithful adaptation.
Perhaps this is why I’ve always thought of it as a survival manual, in the same way that JG Ballard showed how we only find hope when we truly believe that all hope has gone. It remains on my bedroom bookshelf less as a book than a toolbox.