What book killed George Orwell?
March 17, 2016
SO THE GOVERNMENT is spying on you. I read that somewhere.
So the government is stealing your emails. Read that, too.
So the government is keeping tabs on your phone calls. It’s in the news.
Sounds Osrwellian. That’s what the news reporters say.
Big Brother is Watching.
Maybe George Orwell was right, they whisper.
Did anyone ever have any doubts? Maybe this is 1984. Maybe it just came three decades later than anyone expected.
Readers of great literature, teachers of great literature, and critics of great literature have believed for years that George Orwell, back during the 1940s, glimpsed the future, discovered a dystopian world, realized that Totalitarianism was the most foreboding consequence facing humanity, and spread his fears on a piece of paper.
He described his work as “a Utopia written in the form of a novel.” It would be one of the most significant books produced in the twentieth century. It would be translated into sixty-five languages. It would sell millions of copies.
It was the book that killed George Orwell.
Orwell was obsessed with the conspiracy of a totalitarian government rising up from the ashes of World War II to rule England, rule the world, rule his life. Part of the inspiration for 1984, he once said, came from a meeting that Allied leaders had in Tehran in 1944.
There was Stalin.
He feared they were consciously plotting to divide the world, then fight to determine who would control it all.
George Orwell was a sad little man. But a brilliant writer.
He was possessed with his own demons. But he was a genius and fascinated by the relationship between morality and language.
He had already achieved major literary success with the publication of Animal Farm, a political satire originally rejected by an agent who said British readers would never buy a book filled with animal stories.
But George Orwell lived in a bleak world. He had endured the bombing of London. He had survived a world war. A troubled ife in the wartime ruins of the city created a constant mood of random terror and a constant fear that the next bomb would be looking for him.
His flat had been wrecked. His was a threadbare existence. He had a wife and a child. His wife died under anesthesia during a routine operation while Orwell was on assignment with a magazine. Her death haunted him and grieved him, and he would never quite recover.
Most of all, Orwell was afraid of the future that his imagination envisioned. He heard the demons in his head. His health was bad. The winter of 1946-47, was one of the coldest ever, and he found that post-war Britain to be even darker, more dreadful, and more foreboding than wartime Britain. He grew even more morose, a man who, his agent said, thrived on self-inflicted adversity.
George Orwell retired to a wild and isolated landscape in Scotland to begin writing a novel that had tempted and taunted him for years. As he once pointed out, “Every serious work I have written since the Spanish Civil War in 1936 was written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and democratic socialism.
Now his story would be told on a grand scale.
He hated the process.
Orwell wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom he can neither resist or understand. For all one knows, that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality.”
Then he wrote the words that became known as the famous Orwellian coda: “Good prose is like a window pane.”
He sat down and wrote the first line of the novel: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Through the window pain, he could see the bleak landscape of 1984.
His world in Scotland was simple. And primitive. Cold. In the midst of a bitter winter, he had no electricity, and Orwell lived by chain-smoking black shag tobacco in roll-up cigarettes.
He coughed all the time.
He was spitting blood.
He looked cadaverous.
Just before Christmas of 1947, Orwell collapsed with “inflammation of the lungs.” The diagnosis frightened him even more. He was suffering from tuberculosis, and there was no cure for TB. But he couldn’t stop. He couldn’t recuperate. He had a novel to finish.
As he wrote his publisher: “I have got so used to writing in bed that I think I prefer it, though, of course, it’s awkward to type there. I am just struggling with the last stages of this bloody book about the possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn’t conclusive.”
The struggle ended in December of 1948 with the publication of 1984. He thought about calling the novel The Last Man in Europe. His publisher decided on 1984. He thought it was more commercial, and he was right. He called it “among the most terrifying books I have read.” He was right again.
By January of 1950, George Orwell was dead.
The ordeal had taken its toll.
Orwell would never have to face the world he was afraid to face. He gave his life for a book that gave the world such ominous words as Big Brother, thoughtcrime, newspeak, and doublethink.
And now, as Orwell had predicted and maybe even envisioned, we live in an uncomfortable world filled with conspiracy rumors about Big Brother, thoughtcrimes, newspeak, and doublethink.
It may be new to us, but we all remember who created the world long before, some say, it came to exist. Within twenty-four hours after the story broke on the alleged NSA’s spying scandal, the sales for George Orwell’s 1984 had surged seven thousand percent.