Book Of A Lifetime: Nineteen Eighty-Four, By George Orwell
Friday 26 February 2010
Growing up in Sixties suburban London was rather like lying in tepid bathwater for several years. Into this sleepy complacency fell Nineteen Eighty-Four, 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 it in the Popular Book Centre Greenwich, a seedy secondhand shop with a nice line in top-shelf smut. As we were still 15 years away from the novel's date, I naively assumed it would provide futuristic rocket adventures.
Heinemann printed it as part of the Modern Novel Series, a catch-all collection that included LP Hartley and Somerset Maugham. The blank green-and-white cover hid any indication of the 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 as I was to access any notion of "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 style. There's hardly a page of Nineteen Eighty-Four 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, 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. 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 Nineteen Eighty-Four feels shockingly modern, the ultimate slacker's novel. No wonder it was best filmed as Brazil rather than in a 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 a book than a toolbox.
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