George Orwell left London for Catalonia on December 22nd 1936. He fled Barcelona in fear for his and his wife Eileen’s life six months later, hastily across the French border at Perpignan, through France by train, “away from the mountain and the vine, back to the meadow and the elm”, and was back in the family home in Wallington by the first week of July 1937.
He returned a changed man. Not just, as Fenner Brockway, general secretary of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) observed, “far more mature as a socialist”. Nor simply having seen first hand the brutal early military realisation of the “wave of revolutionary feeling” that, recalling in 1944, he felt sweeping over every detail of life in Europe at the time. The abject bitterness of Orwell’s experiences in and immediately after leaving Spain – the fatal betrayal of his militia by Stalinist Communist forces; the helpless witnessing of comrades imprisoned, tortured and murdered; the capitulation to Soviet propaganda, and subsequent personal defamations, by elements of the British left – affected him in the most profound way possible.
He returned a man shocked into truth and steeled as a writer facing those truths. And though it would be many years before he would put them to paper, many of the sinister realities forced upon Orwell in Spain would resurface in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Bernard Crick wonders whether one bitter incident in particular – the apparent ‘confession’ by Orwell’s comrade in arms F. A. Frankfort (Frank Frankford), that the P.O.U.M. had been fighting for not against the Spanish fascists – was a grain destined to grow. “Could this specifically,” Crick writes in George Orwell: A Life, “as well as the Moscow trials generally, have given Orwell the idea for the bizarre and pathetic confessions of the animals in Animal Farm?”
If by the time he returned from Spain, as Crick believes, “most of Orwell’s formative experiences were over” and the seeds of the two great dystopian novels were indeed sown, it is fitting that 1936 is the year in which Dorian Lynskey begins his new ‘biography’ of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was the year in which Orwell himself said that “history stopped”; in The Ministry of Truth Lynskey adds that “history stopped, and Nineteen Eighty-Four began”.
Speaking at a recent event at renowned radical bookshop Five Leaves, in Nottingham, Lynskey agreed that Spain was a “turning point” for Orwell. As far as it can ever be truly surmised, by starting at this point of the novel’s conception, he explained, his new book offers a different angle for the reader. “I wanted to do it the other way around,” he told the audience. “I like to focus on the part of their life when they do their great writing. It’s easy to get lost in research. I wanted to bring Ninety Eighty-Four home to the reader.”
The Ministry of Truth doesn’t claim to be a complete biography of Orwell. But it does attempt to chart the life of his most famous novel, from conception to the modern day, decades past the point Orwell had succumbed to the illness that so blighted and dragged out the writing of it. In the years in between Catalonia and Jura [where he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four], Orwell grew steadily in stature as a public literary figure. With that profile came renown, much praise and – perhaps inevitably, given his tendency for truculence and “intellectual brutality” – many opponents.
Of the high-profile clashes Orwell became involved with in his career, Lynskey is particularly interested in a bitter literary tête-à-tête with War of the Worlds author H. G. Wells, setting aside a whole fascinating chapter to it. He recounts a fierce exchange between the two writers, on one of the few occasions when they met in person, at Orwell’s Abbey Road flat in August 1941. “Two days before dinner,” Lynskey writes, “Wells learned that Orwell had published an essay about him in Cyril Connolly’s magazine Horizon and procured a copy. ‘Wells, Hitler and the World State’ did not fill him with delight”.
One of the sharpest ironies of Orwell’s life is that after the punishing process of writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, a fearsome vision of a potential future, he scarcely had a future himself. And he was acutely aware that this was probably the case. Leaving Barnhill [the farmhouse in Jura] for the last time, he wrote to his close friend, Observer editor David Astor that “Everything is flourishing here except me”.
Even so, Lynskey notes in The Ministry of Truth, Orwell maintained a fierce schedule of work while he was on the island: “He typed it himself at the punishing rate of around four thousand words a day, seven days a week, propped up in bed for as long as he could bear in between bouts of fever and bloody coughing fits.”
He would only see another 227 days after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, almost all in miserable health. “He never lived in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Lynskey said at Five Leaves. But Nineteen Eighty-Four has lived on in the world – well into the 21st century, yet another generation is hearing the warning bells from this great dystopian novel.
The second half of The Ministry of Truth explores how this has happened, tracing Nineteen Eighty-Four’s passage through the collective cultural consciousness. Orwell coined the phrase “Cold War”, and this is where Lynskey begins, taking the reader through the 1950s when the novel was first received and began to pervade the wider culture. (In December 1954 seven million people in Briton watched the first two-hour adaptation of the book, on the BBC).
Later the music journalist in Lynskey loves to tell the story of David Bowie’s traumatic visit to Soviet Russia in 1973. During the return leg Bowie told Roy Hollingsworth from Melody Maker “I’ve seen life and I think I know who’s controlling this damned world. And after what I’ve seen of the state of this world, I’ve never been so damned scared in my life”. Soon after this Bowie began work on a musical adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which would form the basis of the album Diamond Dog, released in 1974.
Having traced Nineteen Eighty-Four’s life right through to the modern day, The Ministry of Truth ends, perhaps fittingly, with one of the novel’s first reviews – written while Orwell was still alive. The 1949 review, in Life, Lynskey says, “correctly identified the essence of Orwell’s message”, that to guard objective truth against self-serving mendacious minds who try to pervert it, is the highest calling of a writer. The Ministry of Truth goes a long way to showing how, and why, that is still so essential today.
This review first appeared on the website of the George Orwell Society