Nineteen Eighty Four
I read this in early summer this year while on holiday in the Balkans, mostly by train, and discovering the coast of southern Montenegro. I was reading it for probably the fourth time, having first read it when I was about twelve or thirteen. The introduction to the edition I was reading was by Thomas Pynchon, a writer I once tried and failed to read, and who quotes Orwell from 1946 "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 hass been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I know it.". Pynchon goes on, "Orwell in 1948 understood that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism [sic] had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not yet even come into its own" - how right he was. And how surprised Orwell would (perhaps) have been to see the support for clerical fascism on the left that we see today. But maybe not.
At the start of the book Winston Smith sees "torn paper in spirals" eddying down the street in the wind. Very rare now, even on a windy day and in the most litter-strewn street, but clearly commonplace in 1940s London, which is the setting for this book, whatever its pretended provenance. And my early memories of my 1950s childhood in outer London include there being scraps of paper on the street and blowing along the pavements. You never see that now. It has gone the way of white dog poo
I remain utterly unconvinced by the scenario of this book, masterpiece though it may well be. But on this reading it struck me that the book is first and foremost about memory. If there is no way to go back and check on what you thought you knew, because history is constantly being rewritten, then what do you actually know, what do you really remember? Nowadays newspapers change their websites, take down or change stories you know you saw but can never find again, and change content by way of "correction", exactly as Winston Smith did for a living. But at the same time, Facebook updates are there for ever. The plot has a glass paperweight as a McGuffin. I suppose it doesn't matter why.
Always be careful of technology when you write. When. O'Brien turns off the tele-screen (p. 219) there is a "sharp snap" which is the sound I remember appliances used to make when being switched off, but only up until the 1970s - by the 80s they no longer did. The mention of that sound anchors you in postwar austerity Britain, which lasted until the adulthood of this boomer. But maybe that is no bad thing.
There is so much in this book which reads false. The world of the book is fought over by three great powers, the UK is "Air Strip One" and is a small fiefdom of one of those powers, so why should "Ingsoc (English Socialism) be an important world ideology? It's a bit like "Eurocommunism" - who remembers that now?
A couple of quotes I thought worth repeating - "All past oligarchies have fallen from power either because they ossified or because they grew soft. Either they became stupid and arrogant, failed to adjust themselves to changing circumstances, and were overthrown; or they became liberal and cowardly, made concessions when they should have used force, and once again they were overthrown" (p. 268). In my experience it is a little of both for most.
"Power is not a means, it. Is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship - the object of power is power." (p. 324). Which of course is what always happens.
But, aside from all that, the book's alleged premise "the future is with the proles" is of course utter bollocks. Which does not stop the book being a masterpiece. The chapters in which torture takes place are almost unbearable reading. And what I suspect has never been done since (readers may correct me) is the portrayal of someone AFTER the torture, brainwashing, call it what you will, who daily expects a bullet in the back of the neck. And the torture meted out to him is that, er, the bullet is never fired. Winston Smith is left alive, self-medicating with alcohol and, allegedly, he has learned to love Big Brother.
Always go back to Orwell. Whose real name of course was Blair.