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'Ministry of Truth' review: Lively history of Orwell's '1984' by Dorian Lynskey

Eddie Albert on the set of a 1953

Eddie Albert on the set of a 1953 TV production of "1984." George Orwell's book has been a cultural touchstone for 70 years now. Credit: Getty Images / The LIFE Picture Collection / Allan Grant

THE MINISTRY OF TRUTH: The Biography of George Orwell's '1984,' by Dorian Lynskey. Doubleday, 355 pp., $28.95.

In early 2017, Americans did something they’re not generally inclined to do: They binged on literary fiction. As Donald Trump’s inauguration approached — and after his lackeys spun its attendance figures to outsize proportions — dystopian novels sold as if the end truly were nigh. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood’s 1985 tale of a nation of oppressed women, shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. Close on its heels was “It Can’t Happen Here,” Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel about an American dictatorship. And George Orwell’s 1949 cautionary tale about totalitarianism, “1984,” saw a 9,500 percent increase in sales.

Were we all preparing for the future, or just soothing our consciences, telling ourselves things aren’t that bad? In “The Ministry of Truth,” his history of Orwell’s novel, Dorian Lynskey shows how readers have used “1984” to suit different purposes. Sometimes the novel has spoken to fear of McCarthyite persecution; sometimes “Orwellian” just meant we were talking about which personal computer to buy. Regardless, the book’s coinages — “thought police,” “memory hole,” “Big Brother” — have become a shorthand for our fear of being manipulated, and the book itself is the one “we turn to when truth is mutilated, language is distorted, power is abused, and we want to know how bad things get,” Lynskey writes.

Because “1984” has been manipulated a lot too, Lynskey’s book is a helpful reminder that the British novelist wrote it with very particular concerns. A brief stint fighting in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 exposed Orwell to the cruelties of fascism, but it also left him disillusioned about Soviet Communism, which he found rife with duplicity. His firsthand experience with two virulent strains of totalitarianism lit up his mind as a both a political commentator and a literary critic. In the early 20th century, readers were under the sway of utopian novels like Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” and H.G. Wells’ “The Sleeper Awakes,” which imagined hygienically well-ordered future societies. Fans were seduced by visions of an ever-perfecting humanity; Orwell feared promotion of “unanimous obedience to a one-party state that will last forever.”

Orwell’s deftly merged his concerns about both politics and the utopian novel into a pair of classics: 1945’s “Animal Farm,” his acid satire of Stalinism, and “1984,” a tale of Winston Smith’s attempt to escape society’s watchful eyes only to fall under its boot heel. (If you haven’t read it in a while, give it another go---its blunt prose and sustained mood of escalating fear are still chilling.) Both novels are classroom staples now, but were dangerous statements then. Poet T.S. Eliot, then an editor at Faber & Faber, passed on “Animal Farm,” stating that it didn’t offer “the right point to view from which to criticize the political situation at the present time.” The success of both books proved how deeply Orwell had tapped into our fears, but he was too ill to relish his success, dying less than a year after “1984” was published.

The first part of “The Ministry of Truth,” which addresses the creation of “1984,” is lively literary history — if it feels overstuffed with biographical sketches of Bellamy, Wells, and Yevgeny Zamyatin (who wrote the “1984” precursor “We”), it contextualizes Orwell’s art in a valuable way, encompassing both his life and his library. The book’s second part, concerning the book’s afterlife, is a quirkier and more skippable work of cultural history, as patchwork as the ways people have responded to Orwell. The CIA secretly funded an animated film version of “Animal Farm”; Apple’s famous TV ad introducing the Macintosh computer exploited Big Brother imagery to attack competitors; David Bowie, for reasons vague even to himself, dreamed of mounting a musical of “1984.” And, of course, we’re now all but drowning in dystopian novels, though these days Big Brother more closely resembles an algorithm than Josef Stalin.

The novel, Lynskey writes, has “become a vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future.” This makes the afterlife of “1984” feel a little shabby, if not irrelevant — Lynskey has more to say about the novel in the context of Bowie and “The Lego Movie” than, say, North Korea. As for the current moment, Lynskey argues that “Donald Trump is no Big Brother. … He has the cruelty and power hunger of a dictator, but not the discipline, intellect or ideology.” Perhaps. But if the novel is, as Lynskey suggests, a verse in a folk song we keep on singing, we’ll have to keep sorting out whether it’s a call to action or a comforting, familiar tune.

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