What a difference a decade makes. In 1940 George Orwell published his eighth book, the essay collection Inside the Whale, but when the Nazis in the same year drew up a list of Britons to be arrested after the planned invasion, his name wasn't included. It was, observes Dorian Lynskey in his superb new book, ‘a kind of snub'. By the time Orwell died in January 1950, however, he was being acclaimed around the Western world as one of the great defenders of democracy and liberty, and had just been adjudged, for the first time, worthy of an entry in Who's Who.
Much of the acclaim then was in recognition of his novel Animal Farm, but in the years since, Orwell's popularity has increasingly rested on his final work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, published the summer before he died. It was an instant hit, selling a quarter of a million copies in its first six months, and it's never gone away. Current estimates say worldwide sales exceed thirty million, and it has returned periodically to the top of the bestseller lists here and in America, most recently following the election of Donald Trump. In an era of fake news and alternative facts, of populisms that come in varying shades of left, right and green, Orwell's message remains relevant: the real division in politics is between freedom and totalitarianism.
The imagery of Nineteen Eighty-Four has outgrown the book itself. ‘I hadn't read Nineteen Eighty-Four,' said the director Terry Gilliam when making his film Brazil (1985), ‘but we all know what it is.' One might think that overfamiliarity with Newspeak, Big Brother, the Thought Police and all the other Orwellian paraphernalia would over time have dulled the book's impact. But its power remains: in China, the communist government – which, like the novel, is celebrating its seventieth birthday this year – is striving to ensure that mention of its existence doesn't sneak into the country via the internet.
Lynskey's biography of the book expertly locates Nineteen Eighty-Four in the context of Orwell's life, evoking the drab deprivations of 1940s Britain. But it's even better when it explores the universality of the story. ‘Utopian fiction is a genre,' Lynskey points out, adding that ‘anti-utopian narratives have the flexibility and portability of myths'. So the antecedents and the offspring of Nineteen Eighty-Four occupy almost as much space in this book as the novel itself. In a wonderfully wide-ranging survey, we travel from Lenin to The Lego Movie, from Jack London to Judge Dredd. What emerges is a recognition that humanity needs the fear of catastrophe as much as it needs the dream of salvation. That used to be the territory of religion, of course, but when Christianity's influence began to fade, H G Wells and others were ready with scientific and political versions of both.