A new book about the novel examines its relevance in the age of fake news and Trump
December 1948. A man sits at a typewriter, in bed, on a remote island, fighting to complete the book that means more to him than any other. He is terribly ill. The book will be finished and, a year or so later, so will the man.
January 2017. Another man stands before a crowd, which is not as large as he would like, in Washington DC, taking the oath of office as the 45th president of the United States of America. His press secretary says that it was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration period both in person and around the globe. Asked to justify such a preposterous lie, the presidents adviser describes the statement as alternative facts. Over the next four days, US sales of the dead mans book will rocket by almost 10,000%, making it a No 1 bestseller.
When George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Fourwas published in the United Kingdom on 8 June 1949, in the heart of the 20th century, one critic wondered how such a timely book could possibly exert the same power over generations to come. Thirty-five years later, when the present caught up with Orwells future and the world was not the nightmare he had described, commentators again predicted that its popularity would wane. Another 35 years have elapsed since then, and Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the book we turn to when truth is mutilated, when language is distorted, when power is abused, when we want to know how bad things can get. It is still, in the words of Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, an apocalyptical codex of our worst fears.
Nineteen Eighty-Four has not just sold tens of millions of copies it has infiltrated the consciousness of countless people who have never read it. The phrases and concepts that Orwell minted have become essential fixtures of political language, still potent after decades of use and misuse: newspeak, Big Brother, the thought police, Room 101, the two minutes hate, doublethink, unperson, memory hole, telescreen, 2+2=5 and the ministry of truth. Its title came to define a calendar year, while the word Orwellian has turned the authors own name into a capacious synonym for everything he hated and feared.
It has been adapted for cinema, television, radio, theatre, opera and ballet and has influenced novels, films, plays, television shows, comic books, albums, advertisements, speeches, election campaigns and uprisings. People have spent years in jail just for reading it. No work of literary fiction from the past century approaches its cultural ubiquity while retaining its weight. Dissenting voices such as Milan Kundera and Harold Bloom have argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four is actually a bad novel, with thin characters, humdrum prose and an implausible plot, but even they couldnt gainsay its importance.
A novel that has been claimed by socialists, conservatives, anarchists, liberals, Catholics and libertarians of every description cannot be, as Kundera alleged, merely political thought disguised as a novel. Orwells famously translucent prose conceals a world of complexity. Normally thought of as a dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four is also, to varying and debatable degrees, a satire, a prophecy, a warning, a political thesis, a work of science fiction, a spy thriller, a psychological horror, a gothic nightmare, a postmodern text and a love story. Most people read it when theyre young and feel bruised by it it offers more suffering and less reassurance than any other standard high-school text but dont feel compelled to rediscover it in adulthood. Thats a shame. It is far richer and stranger than you remember.