Orwell, the Man

Boston Review

“It was a bright cold day in April,” said Richard Blair, “and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Blair is seventy-three and the son of George Orwell. To witness him stand at a lectern and read the opening line of his father’s great final novel, 1984, is to experience a sense of completion, an equation solved.

We were in Senate House, now part of the University of London, for 1984 Live. For the first time in the United Kingdom, the book was to be read aloud publicly from start to finish. It had been estimated that it would take sixty or so readers—well-known journalists, academics, actors, activists—thirteen hours, that Orwellian number, to get from the bright cold day to the gin-scented tears.

The event was being staged as part of the University College London Festival of Culture and organized by the Orwell Foundation, a charity celebrating the author’s work and values. Its director, Jean Seaton, explained that the idea had come “last summer, just after Brexit, but before Trump. The world felt dark and full of lies. Still does.”

Since then, 1984 has taken on a strange currency; the electric charge of Orwell’s thinking hums and crackles through the culture. In January the novel topped Amazon’s bestseller list, almost seventy years since it was first published in 1949. Demand began to rise, according to Penguin Random House, shortly after Kellyanne Conway used the expression “alternative facts” to defend Sean Spicer’s claim that Donald Trump had attracted the largest audience ever to witness a presidential inauguration, period. By July 2017 sales had doubled over the same period in 2016. Half a million copies were printed in January alone.

All political moments are Orwellian, but some are more Orwellian than others. Reading 1984 “hurts” right now, according to Jean Seaton, but perhaps there is also something soothing in the recognition that the novel’s darkness looks so much like our own. “It feels like 1984 is here in our faces,” she told me.

George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, wrote the novel between the summer of 1946 and the winter of 1948, mostly on the island of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland, where he had taken a house, moving there from austere post-war London. It tells the story of Winston Smith, a citizen of the state of Oceania, and his attempted rebellion—through sex and love and the written word—against the Party, which observes and controls every aspect of life. The novel has given us familiar concepts such as Big Brother and Room 101. Published in the United Kingdom on June 8, 1949, and five days later in the United States, the reviews at once recognized its significance. Mark Schorer wrote in the New York Times that “no other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fullness.”

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