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“History stopped,” Lynskey writes, “and Nineteen Eighty-Four began.”of 1984—the dying man’s race against time to finish his novel in a remote cottage on the Isle of Jura, off Scotland—will be familiar to many Orwell readers.One of Lynskey’s contributions is to destroy the notion that its terrifying vision can be attributed to, and in some way disregarded as, the death wish of a tuberculosis patient.
I was too young and historically ignorant to understand where 1984 came from and exactly what it was warning against. In my 20s, I discovered Orwell’s essays and nonfiction books and reread them so many times that my copies started to disintegrate, but I didn’t go back to 1984.
Since high school, I’d lived through another decade of the 20th century, including the calendar year of the title, and I assumed I already “knew” the book. Read: Teaching ‘1984’ in 2016So when I recently read the novel again, I wasn’t prepared for its power.
You have to clear away what you think you know, all the terminology and iconography and cultural spin-offs, to grasp the original genius and lasting greatness of 1984.
It is both a profound political essay and a shocking, heartbreaking work of art. The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, by the British music critic Dorian Lynskey, makes a rich and compelling case for the novel as the summation of Orwell’s entire body of work and a master key to understanding the modern world.
“History stopped in 1936,” he later told his friend Arthur Koestler, who knew exactly what Orwell meant.
After Spain, just about everything he wrote and read led to the creation of his final masterpiece.It has acquired something of the smothering ubiquity of Big Brother himself: 1984 is watching you.With the arrival of the year 1984, the cultural appropriations rose to a deafening level.The book was published in 1949, when Orwell was dying of tuberculosis, but Lynskey dates its biographical sources back more than a decade to Orwell’s months in Spain as a volunteer on the republican side of the country’s civil war.His introduction to totalitarianism came in Barcelona, when agents of the Soviet Union created an elaborate lie to discredit Trotskyists in the Spanish government as fascist spies.The struggle to claim 1984 began immediately upon publication, with a battle over its political meaning.Conservative American reviewers concluded that Orwell’s main target wasn’t just the Soviet Union but the left generally.According to Lynskey, “Nothing in Orwell’s life and work supports a diagnosis of despair.”Lynskey traces the literary genesis of 1984 to the utopian fictions of the optimistic 19th century—Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888); the sci-fi novels of H. Wells, which Orwell read as a boy—and their dystopian successors in the 20th, including the Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).The most interesting pages in The Ministry of Truth are Lynskey’s account of the novel’s afterlife.My local bookstore set up a totalitarian-themed table and placed the new books alongside 1984.They pointed back to the 20th century—if it happened in Germany, it could happen here—and warned readers how easily democracies collapse.