“The Ministry of Truth. A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984” by Dorian Lynskey (published by Picador)

Before and after the clocks struck thirteen

When “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was published in the UK on June 8, 1949, the titular year was still 35 years in the future, far enough away, presumably, not to worry author George Orwell and his publisher about catching up and passing the scary date. With another 35 years passed, writer Dorian Lynskey began to explore how the powerfully prophetic novel of a dystopian future has remained relevant to this day, still the work to turn to when truth is mutilated, language is distorted, power is abused and we want to know how bad things can get.
1. February 2021 14:09

Lynskey, a knowledgeable person on music, film, books and politics, describes “Nineteen Eighty-Four” as the first persuasive study of the totalitarian mindset, though as such it isn’t a non-fiction work but a tale. This last and longest of Orwell’s six novels is part thriller, part love story, part essay, part satire and part postmodern exploration of what happens when the truth ceases to function.  It is also an augury, a caution and a psychological horror.

Recent example, a hint of worse to come: when Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States in January 2017, his press secretary said it was the “largest audience ever to witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe”. Asked to justify such a preposterous lie, disproved by photographs, the president’s adviser described the statement as “alternative facts”. So, welcome to “fake news”, Trump-style.

Orwell’s book, which begins with the line “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”, calls this sort of thing “doublethink”, which is hypocrisy but with a twist. Rather than choosing to disregard a contradiction in your opinion, if you are doublethinking you are deliberately forgetting that the contradiction is there. And then there are the Thought Police who fight “thoughtcrime” and enforce the “correct ways” to think.

Add the expressions Big Brother (is watching you), Room 101, unperson, Two Minutes Hate, memory hole, 2+2 = 5, the Ministry of Truth and Newspeak, and we have the nightmare Orwellian world where the proles are controlled by power, propaganda, surveillance and organised deceit. Three totalitarian super-states rule the world, with endless war.

Lynskey’s “The Ministry of Truth”, subtitled as a biography of a book, investigates how Orwell came to write “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and explores its continuing influence today, on culture and language. The novel was the culmination of Orwell’s career as an unrelenting writer who examined political ideas in fiction and in essays and reviews. He died aged 46 of tuberculosis on January 21, 1950.

Lynskey says Orwell’s career is unusual in that most people start at the end, in 1949, and work backwards. Before “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in 1949 and “Animal Farm” in 1945 he had written four novels and three works of non-fiction, but only “The Road to Wigan Pier” had sold in significant numbers and none had yielded enough royalties to survive as a full-time author.

In fact, it is pointed out, most of his books and journalism for the British Broadcasting Corporation and various newspapers and magazines would likely have fallen out of print if not for the two deathless late masterpieces about the psychology and practice of totalitarianism.

“The Ministry of Truth” biography shows how Orwell’s earlier work is essential to understanding “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, the culmination of ideas he had been turning over in his mind throughout his working life. “Animal Farm”, subtitled a “Fairy Tale”, turns Russian history between 1917 and 1943 into a farmyard allegory with which even a 10-year-old can sympathise. All animals are equal but some are more equal than others, remember.

In his first four novels (“Burmese Days”, “Coming Up for Air”, “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” and “A Clergyman’s Daughter”), we see the recurring story of an unhappy individual who rebels against a stifling social orthodoxy – imperialism, religion, capitalism, suburbia – and winds up thoroughly defeated, albeit less violently than Winston Smith who struggles with the inevitable in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Something in Orwell, Lynskey says, was drawn to failure.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” became a phenomenon on publication and remains one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century. Lynskey investigates Orwell’s influences, from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War to classic utopian and dystopian fiction. He also examines the phenomenon the book has become, and how the ways it has been read have changed over time.

For instance, Orwell’s life is traced from his decision to fight fascism and defend “common decency” in Spain in 1936, aged 33 and where he first became acutely politically conscious. There is a detailed look at Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s book “We”, a dystopian novel from the early 1920s. “Nineteen Eighty-Four” has similar elements of plot, characters and conclusion to “We”.

Aldous Huxley’s “ Brave New World”, published in 1932, and works by the forward-looking H.G. Wells (1866-1946), who predicted space travel, tanks, electric trains, wind and water power,  identity cards, poison gas, the Channel tunnel and atom bombs, were also crucial influences on “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in India on June 25, 1903, where his father was a mid-ranking civil servant. As a boy of humble origins he won a scholarship to Eton but was a mediocre student and known as a “Bolshie”. From there he joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, where from 1922-27 he saw how members of the ruling class were corrupted by their abuse of power in a despotic system that pretended to be noble.

Orwell grew to dislike intellectuals and he developed a distrust of any form of oppression. His first book, “Down and Out in Paris and London”, in 1933, recounted his experiences slumming as a tramp and a dishwasher, so as to experience the life of the truly disadvantaged.

A bullet in the throat ended Orwell’s Spanish experience as a heroic defender of democracy, and he returned to England with the knowledge that while the fascists had behaved just as appallingly as he thought they would, the ruthlessness and dishonesty of the communists/Stalinism shocked him.

Orwell became a liberal-minded, radical journalist and was well-versed in utopian literature. He reviewed a book by a Russian Jew, Eugene Lyons, that gave an account of Stalin’s efforts to complete the first Five Year Plan in just four years, where Orwell’s attention was instantly riveted by the 2+2 = 5 formula, which he appropriated. And he took note of Edward Bellamy’s novel “Looking Backward 2000-1887”, and its observation that socialism was a tremendous product with terrible salesmen.

Lynskey looks at several other books that dream of hopeful times but Orwell had seen too much to be an idealist. Orwell was a pacifist until the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 changed his mind. For him, even an imperialist England was better than a totalitarian alliance.

And so on to “Nineteen Eighty-Four” with Orwell’s reading and experiences feeding into his book about the cult of personality; the rewriting of history; the obliteration of freedom of speech; the contempt for objective truth; the echoes of the Spanish Inquisition; the arbitrary arrests, denunciations and forced confessions; above all the suffocating climate of suspicion, self-censorship and fear.

Part Two of Lynskey’s book goes post-1949/”Nineteen Eighty-Four” and looks at the uses and misuses of Orwell, from power without restraint in China to the cold war, David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” LP, Margaret Atwood’s book “The Handmaid’s Tale”, McCarthyism, screen adaptations, toxic Trumpism, Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil” and more.

Lynskey wraps up with a chapter-by-chapter précis of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. There are people who haven’t read it. And it doesn’t matter that 1984, the year, passed without the doom seen in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, the book. Orwell said, very firmly, that it was not a prophecy: “I do not believe that the kind of society which I described necessarily will arrive, but I believe… that something resembling it could arrive.”

By definition, says Lynskey in his exhaustive study, a country in which you are free to read “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is not the country described in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

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