Tuesday, 27 May 2008

A Good Review

By way of a return to blogging more sober both of temperament and of blood-alcohol level I though I'd post on Nineteen Eighty Four.

As some of my readers might know this is my favourite book; the first classic I read and a book I still try to read some of every day. I have read it probably ten or eleven times all the way through. Heck, even the title is brilliant. And has inspired David Peace, which can't be a bad thing (anyone who can write AS BRIAN CLOUGH and pull it off, is doing a very good job).

So it was with genuine delight I read a review, from 17 June 1949, in the Spectator, reprinted in this week's rather OTT 180th Anniversary Edition, of this very novel. The review was written by Robert Kee, a man I know not. But here I will use his comments as a springboard for discussion and NOT fisk them, as I think they are essentially right, and an object lesson in how to write a fine review of a profoundly significant book in very few words. I will not quote the whole review, but use excerpts to aid my thinking.

He writes:

...you could hardly care less about Winston Smith. Certainly he has his moments of humanity, though these are not often to be found in rather flat love affair with his co-rebel, Julia.

This is fair comment. The books hardly tries to draw Winston as a man, but this is implicit in the deliberately clumsy name of Winston (Churchill- ie exceptional man) Smith (everyman). Orwell is not attempting, at any stage, to write a psychological-realist novel, or even to put a realish type of character into a situation to explore either human or situation. But this is entirely the point. Winston is not a man ("...you are the last man..."), but a diseased product, like his ulcers, of a uniquely oppressive society, to whom "the German Nazis and the Russian Communists" came close in method, even if neither had the honesty to go the extra philosophical mile. The "spirit of man" Winston later cites does not exist, and he goes under, just like he should, just like they all do.

Winston is not a hero, but Robert Kee is right to look for one. It's just that there ain't any; and Winston is not even a full human being, as these do not exist anymore, such is the oppression. They exist only among the proles; hence Winston cannot make any real contact with them - the scenes with him trying to get something real out of the prole in the pub are suffused with the sense that Winston has no idea how to relate to an old, unideological man, has no means of making a connection, and no genuine inclination to try. He admits failure quickly, and leaves. Winston is the man with no teeth. He is a living and for a while angry denunciation of the entire concept of the "personal as the political", in his desire for a wholly personal sphere uninterrupted by Party slogans: unfortunately it is impossible, and his sexual activity is a deliberate act of rebellion as much as it is of lust, or love, and so he proves the miserable interventionism of the disrespecting slogan he tries to destroy. He has the Party in his cock, to put it crudely. Though having said this, his memories of childhood are stirred as much by his relationship as anything else: Julia does seem to be gradually making him human (though we never learn enough about her to know if it works both ways, the poor cipher).

And Julia - barely drawn at all as a human, except as a vaguely sexist "slut" character of a type which could have come out of any novel of the mid C19-to mid C20; Orwell chooses to draw her rebellion as wholly physical and to give her no intellectual content at all. Is Julia a fantasy, or is she a lazy stereotype? Either way she is hardly a character. We learn absolutely nothing about her Room 101 experience at all except that she "was a textbook case" (O Brien) and that "'I betrayed you,' she said baldly." She hints about somethings they do to you that you can't resist - but that is it. Why is Julia so physical and so inconsequential?

I suspect because Orwell is making a wider point about the debasement of humanity and of the necessary limiting of relationships: but one could also argue because he doesn't give a toss.

To use the technical term.

Kee writes:

...although Nineteen Eighty Four is a parable of humanism, strangely it is not the human beings who count.

Which is precisely the point. There aren't any anymore. They're gone. Even the ones who think they live. It is a case of the narrative style reinforcing the narrative intention. Some critics feel that Orwell just doesn't really do people, which is maybe fair enough, though I think the narrator out of Coming Up For Air is sharply drawn, as are many characters from the essays.

He goes on:

...For this reason [the human beings not counting], strictly as a novel, it must be classed as a failure. But it is not 'strictly a novel.'

This is perhaps the most important aspect to grasp. As Kee writes, it is "novel, satire, and thriller". He is right that the depths of totalitarian regimes hardly come as a surpise to the intelligent reader of 1949 (and it deeply patronising and wrong of us C21 readers, ignorant of these things, to imagine that we know what Orwell meant better than people who in many cases would have survived two world wars). But what Kee misses is that the regime that is ultimately open about its lust for power and its desire for the same is unique. All such regimes pretend, even to themselves, as O Brien points out, that they are doing it for some kind of good, however evil that may be: only the Party is open enough to admit to itself that it does it for power and control. This is precisely the importance of the concepts of blackwhite, crimestop and doublethink. For the Outer Party member they are ways of survival (only by exercising them judiciously do you stay alive), for the Inner Party member they are levers of power (by changing the enemy or the pages of The Times week by week and challenging everyone else to forget that it was ever different, while being able to do it yourself and also to know that you have changed it: "I do not remember it" says O Brien of the photo he has thrown into the fire). Levers which the Inner Party member is fully aware of. And at the same time not aware. Not because it would destroy the edifice of their power, but because it is fun, and because it seems more convincing. Power is power over self, after all, as much as it is power over other selves. Kee also assumes that the novel must necessarily be about humans. But if you were writing a novel where there really weren't any, as we understand the term, you wouldn't need to. You would need to draw relationships in a different way, and give people desires impossible for the British reader to understand through their utter mundaneness: ie the desire to write a diary or to have sex with someone who's not your separated wife. Orwell's task is to render all this extraordinary, even knowingly wrong-but-really-right: it's a damn hard job and he gets it, in my view, because you watch Winston getting totally lost in his diary writing (the account of the cinema visit starts with a carefuly deliberation over the date and ends with no punctuation and with grammar slipping out of control): as he enters a kind of political-panic attack, knowing that every word takes him more inevitably towards death, he knows he must, somehow, get it all out. Because once you've chosen death you might as well do it properly. And oh, it gives so much, intoxicating life: Winston's diary writing is an orgasm of life.

No wonder people like Robert Kee look for a novel they can relate to and don't find it. It's a different world: as genuine a science fiction novel as was ever written. But that's a subject I don't intend to get on to...

Kee's complaint that "[Orwell] suspends the plot for 30 pages of Trotsky-Goldstein-Orwell analysis of contemporary political trends" is well founded and is a major reason why Nineteen Eighty Four is not a novel, just like John Galt's 120 pages of Atlas Shrugged count against it too; but if you are looking for a novel then fuck off and read Lucky Jim or something, because Nineteen Eighty Four is surely intended as everything Kee complains of: it contains all these elements, to be all of humanity in a book about the death of humanity. It crams them in to show the variety of thinking that will be lost: hence it morphs, shifts, adapts its style for "novel, satire and thriller" but never quite sticks to one of these targets and is instead what is was surely intended to be: a passionate account of a world where the only passion is power.

I think this must look like I have fisked Robert Kee's review of June 1949 but that is not my intention. In many ways I think he skewered this brilliant, essential book, in just a couple of hundred words. It's not a novel. If you want a thriller or a love story, or a satire, yeah you might get some of those things. But it doesn't hold up as any of them. Instead it holds up as a mixture of styles, which tries to cram in a vision of a faded but loved humanity while divesting the people and words in it of as much as Orwell can properly get away with. It is a novel, not about people within a totalitarian society, which I think is Kee's fundamental error,but about a world with only totalitarian people in it - a novel about a changed world with changed people.

And we love change. Just love it.

*Edited a little to remove some nonsense in the final paragraph.

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