Review: ‘1984’ is about the past and the present (not the future)

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Dorian Lynskey attempts to explain “what Orwell’s book actually is, how it came to be written, and how it has shaped the world” in The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. But his discussion of Orwell’s life is familiar from many biographies. The literary sources of his novel are also familiar from a number of critical studies, and Orwell’s reputation and influence are well known from John Rodden’s two books.

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The Ministry of Truthby Dorian Lynskey

Doubleday, 368p $28.95

Orwell would have hated the protest of counterculture rock stars (Lynskey’s hobby horse), who crudely stole Orwell’s ideas about Big Brother in their revolt against paternal authority. Lynskey undermines the significance of Orwell’s “influence” on popular culture by admitting that “Nineteen Eighty-Four has become a vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future” and by quoting Paul Johnson’s observation that since everyone “hijacks the wretched man for every conceivable political purpose, the net result is almost exactly nil.”

Lynskey denies that Nineteen Eighty-Four was influenced by Orwell’s serious illness. But he contradicts himself by stating that Orwell’s health declined dramatically when he was writing the novel and that Winston Smith “embodies Orwell’s horror at his own physical decay.” Lynskey unconvincingly tries to rehabilitate Orwell’s wife, Sonia. But she had rejected Orwell when he was well, did not visit him at his farmhouse on the island of Jura or in his Scottish hospital, did not type his manuscript, married him on his deathbed, was drinking with friends the night he died and then became the rich widow of a famous writer.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a nightmare vision of the future but a concrete portrayal of the present and the past.

Lynskey does not realize that Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a nightmare vision of the future but a concrete portrayal of the present and the past and that its great originality comes more from a synthesis of familiar material than from any prophetic or imaginary speculations. Lynskey claims that Orwell “did not lose faith in the future” and that his novel is not “devoid of hope.” But O’Brien definitively asserts that in 1984 punishment, like Hell, is permanent: “a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.” Winston Smith says, “If there is hope, it lies in the proles,” but the proles are so ignorant and oppressed that they have no will to revolt and (Lynskey concedes) “have immense power but fail to use it.”

Despite its faults, this could be a useful introduction to Orwell’s novel. But readers who already know a lot about Orwell do not need it.

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