Rather than give you my list of recommended reads all at once this summer, I’ve asked some other authors and readers to share their recommendations with you. They won’t all be this summer, either, because it’s good to read all year.
Our first book response is of George Orwell’s 1984 by the poet Marie Marshall. Check out her blog here to get near-daily doses of her absolute magic with language.
(1949, Secker & Warburg, London; subsequently Penguin)
I have selected for your summer reading what must seem like a bleak, joyless, and pessimistic read. Moreover, it is the only work by a male writer from my shortlist, which included Harper Lee, Marilyn French, and Isabel Allende. However, if you have never read Nineteen Eighty-Four, you have missed the greatest political satire of the twentieth century. I’m using the term broadly but properly – satire is not necessarily supposed to make one laugh, and this book certainly won’t. Orwell once said that ‘The four great motives for writing prose are sheer egoism, esthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose’ and that ‘all art is propaganda’. In a novel which, superficially, is futuristic in the time when it was written, Orwell imagines a world where every political reality he witnessed in his life is taken to an awful, logical extreme. With the exception of a few items of technology, included in the story to reinforce its futuristic mis-en-scène, every aspect of politics and sociology in ‘Oceania’ and ‘Airstrip One’ in particular is based closely on something he has seen first-hand in wartime Britain or in revolutionary Barcelona after the Stalinist takeover, or by arms-length observation of the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, and changing attitudes to them in ‘the West’.
The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a minor functionary within the ‘Ingsoc’ Party machine. He is not a mindless devotee of the Party, however, as there is a nagging doubt in the back of his mind that he can’t find the right words or mind-pictures to express. This state of mind is a dangerous one, as it represents ‘thought crime’ – treason without utterance or action but merely by concept, the ultimate political crime. The focalized narrative traces his covert attempts to find out what life was like before the revolution that changed Britain forever, and to find some way of articulating his opposition, even in an ineffectual way such as cursing ‘Big Brother’, the Party figurehead, by writing ‘Down with Big Brother’ over and over again in a notebook, like a naughty schoolboy writing lines. Winston is diverted by Julia, a young woman who, although superficially an enthusiastic Party member, secretly subverts the system with her predatory sexuality. They become lovers and enjoy some respite from the tedium and deprivation of everyday life, until their eventual, inevitable capture and torture by the ‘Thought Police’. Winston’s interrogation is harrowing, and his eventual epiphany tragic.
On its publication, Nineteen Eighty-Four was seized on by the right as a condemnation of communism. Never has a point been so surely missed! Yes the term ‘Ingsoc’ is a contraction of ‘English Socialism’, and yes the Party represents itself as ‘socialist’, but against their own rhetoric the Party ‘rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it does so in the name of Socialism’ (my emphasis). Orwell never repudiated his own socialism, having fought in a socialist militia during the Spanish Civil War. His true target in the novel is the betrayal of those principles for which he fought. Winston Smith’s interrogator puts it succinctly and cogently:
The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. 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 persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
Those last three words – didn’t I hear Cersei Lannister quote them in Game of Thrones? Now that is what I call a legacy! With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and the rehabilitation of the People’s Republic of China to state-sponsored capitalism, the twenty-first century world is very different from Orwell’s perceived three power-blocs. However, drill down into the principles of wielding power in neo-liberal capitalism, and in the politics, propagandizing, and ultra-patriotism of the more powerful nation-states today, and you will see that the object of power is still power. And in that fact lies the persuasiveness and continuing relevance of this novel.
There are long passages of Nineteen Eighty-Four that take the reader out of the narrative. Mainly they are supposed sections of an anti-Party book written by the Trotsky-like Emmanuel Goldstein. In these passages reside Orwell’s most direct instrumentalism, his analysis of power; in the narrative the effect of power is shown, in the Goldstein passages the realities of power are explained. Don’t skip them.
One of the most interesting inventions of the novel is ‘Newspeak’, the simplified English with which the Party hopes to obliterate the basis of dissenting thought. Ironically it is based on Orwell’s own ideas for clarifying English usage, but in creating Newspeak he took away his own safeguards. As an invented lexicon it has probably never been bettered in fiction. Only Anthony Burgess’s ‘nadsat’ slang in A Clockwork Orange (1962) is at all comparable. Before Orwell, only a handful of academics dealing with what is now called ‘semiotics’ or ‘semiology’ appreciated the power of words to shape thought. Other incidental ‘inventions’ include the helicopter gunship and, most importantly, the culture of surveillance. If Orwell could see how tamely we have accepted ubiquitous cameras, the collection of data from every click of the TV remote and keystroke of the computer, satellites and spy-drones, the voluntary electronic-tagging in the GPS chips of our phones and tablets, he would be aghast and wonder why we had not taken his warning to heart. In our case it’s not that we can’t turn off the surveillance that is closest to us, it’s that we have been persuaded to volunteer not to.
Every day we are told what to think and how to think it. In that respect Orwell’s vision is relevant today. Please read this book, I can’t recommend it too highly. If you can’t bear the idea of its obvious didacticism, then read it as the personal tragedy of Winston Smith. It does have qualities that draw a reader into its narrative, and it has one of the most famous opening sentences in fiction.
Alternative choice: If you like good, modern detective fiction, and in particular Scandinavian ‘noir’, start reading the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo. Start with The Bat (1997), which is actually set in Australia, and work your way on from there – you’ll find it compulsive reading.