(Published in the Business Standard, June 5, 2007)
In the late 1940s, George Orwell battled sickness almost constantly, often spending months on end in the hospital. Illness, for him, was a curious creative trigger: he did some of his best work in the worst physical health.
By 1947, he was writing to his literary agent: “”I have been vy unwell & intend to stay in bed for some weeks & try & get right again…I have finished the rough draft of my novel, so I ought to get the book done by abt May or June… I can’t work in my present state – constant high temperature etc’.”
It was worth the wait; reading Orwell’s manuscript, his publisher Warburg, of the legendary firm Secker & Warburg, said bluntly: “This is the most terrifying book I have ever read.”
According to a survey conducted this week, the public believes that it is this book, a work published in 1948 about 1984, that most clearly defines the 20th century.
1984 was an instant success in the post-world war decades; the enthusiasm for the book peaked, as you would guess, in the year 1984. The novel remains one of the most haunting works of 20th century writing. It is accepted as a classic work of science fiction, prophetic in Orwell’s notions of ‘Big Brother’, Newspeak and Doublethink.
Reading it today as ‘the Definitive Novel of the 20th Century’ is a curious experience. My memories of the book centre around Winston’s resentment of Big Brother. Most readers of 1984 will recollect Winston’s brief, despairing grab at freedom through a forbidden love affair, and his eventual betrayal of the woman he loves. Many more will know the phrase ‘Big Brother is watching you’, especially in the age of reality television where this has been taken all too literally, and in the 21st century, everyone over the age of 12 can identify the shifty, glib, meaningless phrases of Newspeak without difficulty.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” the first paragraph of 1984 begins. “Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.”
Orwell wasn’t describing a future world here, but the reality of post-war England. It was a grimy place, where the lifts didn’t work, where a “fruity voice” on the broadcasting service would read out a list of figures that had something to do with pig-iron production, where the houses were mean and ramshackle.
This is the point where, in Chapter One, Orwell made the first connection that would place 1984 in the category of the brilliant rather than the merely brilliantly effective. The most prized object in Winston’s apartment is “a peculiarly beautiful book”, with leaves of “smooth creamy paper, yellowed with age”. You can still hear the wistful longing of the deprived post-war writer in that description, hungering for notebooks that were short in supply by 1947, when Orwell was hard at work on his novel. But there was more. Winston intends to keep a diary in his precious notebook—in a world where keeping a diary is a subversive act, and where “even with nothing written in it”, the notebook is “a compromising possession”.
This is where Orwell had come to grips with the real dilemma of the 20th century. Many of the other books on the list of definitive 20th century novels cover one or another aspect of the last hundred years. J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye has gained notoriety as the preferred reading of the stalkers and lone, mad gunslingers of our world, but it remains one of the best analyses of the dissociation and loneliness endemic to the 20th century. Anne Frank’s Diary, the reflections of a young Jewish girl coming of age in hiding in Nazi Germany, only to die in the concentration camps, is one of the classic, and most moving, documents of the 20th century.
But no other writer captures Orwell’s sense of what is really precious, and threatened, in the 20th century—the idea of privacy. Orwell understood more than most, and earlier than all of us, how the information age would play out. He understood that personal privacy, the right to our own secret beliefs, would be the first to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency. In the 1940s, it was easy to see how this century would be dingy, grimy, even ugly. It was harder to see how relentless the chatter and roar of the information age would be. Or to visualize a world where personal privacy and the ancient right to the self counted for nothing.
Orwell saw this before almost any of the other great writers of his time did, and for that reason alone, 1984 deserves to stand as the iconic work of the 20th century.