It's hard to think of a novel that's permeated our lives as thoroughly as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, published 60 years ago this month. Even people who haven't read it know its buzzwords and phrases - thoughtcrime, doublethink, Newspeak, Room 101, the Thought Police. One in particular has been ubiquitous since 2000, when a certain reality TV show was first transmitted. You wonder what the man who coined it would have made of Big Brother; whether he would have seen, in the public vitriol directed at the late Jade Goody over the "Shilpa Shetty incident" (UK Celebrity Big Brother 2007), parallels with the Two-Minute Hates during which citizens of Airstrip One (as Britain is known in the book) scream abuse at footage of the political dissident Emmanuel Goldstein. Some novels take a while to find an audience. Nineteen Eighty-Four found it immediately. Within a year of publication it had sold 50,000 hardback copies in the UK; many more in the US. Most contemporary critics praised it. VS Pritchett wrote in the New Statesman: "Nineteen Eighty-Four goes through the reader like an east wind, cracking the skin, opening the sores... I do not think I have read a novel more frightening and depressing." Film, TV and stage adaptations followed. Broadcast live, the BBC's 1954 version generated such controversy - a woman was rumoured to have died from fear while watching it - that its content was debated in Parliament. David Bowie's Diamond Dogs album from 1974 would have been Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Musical had the Orwell estate not denied Bowie the rights. There's even an online comic version. So great has the book's impact been that in many ways it resists criticism. But not all Orwell fans approve of the long shadow it and its companion piece Animal Farm cast over the Orwell corpus. It is, some complain, as if the high-voiced Old Etonian never wrote Homage to Catalonia or Down and Out in Paris and London, or the great mass of essays on subjects as diverse as London pubs and making the perfect cup of tea that he churned out for magazines such as Tribune and Polemic. "Nineteen Eighty-Four is prefigured by the earlier books," says DJ Taylor, whose biography Orwell: The Life won a Whitbread Award in 2003, "and to an extent it's simply another version of those books - all about rebellions that fail; full of self-pity and obsessed with the idea of failure." Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up for Air (1939) - the novels Taylor has in mind - are bleak, misanthropic and heavily autobiographical. It isn't hard to see wheezing, emaciated Winston Smith, the hero (if that's the word) of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in their respective protagonists Gordon Comstock, a frustrated bookshop assistant, and George Bowling, an insurance inspector transfixed by his memories of a vanishing rural England. ("We're all dead people in a dead world," Gordon tells his girlfriend, echoing Smith's famous remark: "We are the dead.") Some novelists, especially, go out of their way to put Nineteen Eighty-Four in its place; to lump it in with other, more generic "dystopia" novels by writers like Orwell's childhood hero HG Wells. In his introduction to Harvill Secker's 60th anniversary edition, Robert Harris recognises the novel's genius, but damns it with faint praise all the same. "Nineteen Eighty-Four functions as an extremely proficient piece of popular entertainment," he writes, concluding that Orwell "was probably a better journalist and essayist than he was a novelist". (Ironically, one of the novels that may have influenced Nineteen Eighty-Four is Murray Constantine's 1937 Swastika Night, about a future totalitarian society ruled by Nazis. Readers of Harris's fine debut novel ,Fatherland, will be familiar with the set-up.) For Taylor, this snarkiness is triggered by frustration with the book's unassailability. "Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm transcend all debate about whether or not they're any good, and that irritates novelists," he says. "They hang in the air like symbolic dust clouds. Nineteen Eighty-Four has a sort of nightmarish, lurid quality which is very compelling. But Orwell's sophisticated London friends, people like Malcolm Muggeridge and Anthony Powell, weren't all that impressed by it. They thought parts of it were quite funny, especially the rats in Room 101. As it happens, Orwell was genuinely terrified of rats: for him they were, as they are for Winston, the worst thing in the world." The novel's fever-dream atmosphere, which Harris also notes, is a consequence of the extraordinary conditions under which it was written. Orwell was already seriously ill with the tuberculosis that would kill him when, in early 1946, he planned a retreat from the distractions of London and his life as a jobbing journalist to the remote Hebridean island of Jura. Psychologically, too, he was fragile - grieving for his wife, Eileen, who had died the year before, under anaesthetic while undergoing a hysterectomy. Barnhill, the cottage Orwell moved into with his sister Avril and adopted son Richard, is located in the far north of Jura, seven miles off the nearest public road along an unmade track that, even today, can only be negotiated on foot or by 4x4. (You can rent it if you're feeling brave: see www.theisleofjura.co.uk.) There was no phone or electricity. Post was delivered once a week. The temperate climate was better for Orwell's health than London's notorious smog, but he neutralised its benefits by getting soaked in violent rainstorms and on an ill-fated boating expedition to the nearby Corryvreckan whirlpool which nearly cost him his life. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1947 Orwell made good progress on Nineteen Eighty-Four, but in December a chest specialist arrived from Glasgow and insisted he be hospitalised. It would be another year before the manuscript was finished. But even then there were problems. The typescript was so messy with corrections and marginalia that it was intelligible only to its author - and he was too weak to type up a fair copy. Yet type it he did, propped up in bed, smoking endless cheap, hand-rolled cigarettes while a paraffin heater struggled to keep the room warm. Orwell never intended Nineteen Eighty-Four as an explicit prophecy. "I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive," he wrote, "but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive." So has it? Certainly, Britain has a culture of surveillance - CCTV, mobile phones and of course the internet, which despite its seemingly limitless freedoms is really a gigantic spying machine. Social networking is sounding the death knell of privacy. (In the book, two-way telescreens have been installed in the homes of every Party member and in every public place. They blast out propaganda but also monitor their viewers as they go about their business.) Newspeak's cloudy legacy pollutes the media, although the linguistic contraction that Winston's colleague Syme, editor of the official Newspeak dictionary, anticipates when he observes that "It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words" hasn't really happened. On the contrary, language, particularly corporate and military language, has expanded in an evil blossoming of vagueness and euphemism. For at least one young novelist, this aspect - Newspeak and its pre-empting of Noam Chomsky's theories about the way language can be used to "manufacture consent" - is the most fascinating aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four. James Miller's Lost Boys, a chilling dystopia novel that links the mass disappearance of children with our misadventures in Iraq, came out last year and pulled off the Orwellian trick of being both addictive and geopolitically prescient. "Nineteen Eighty-Four was a great influence on me," Miller admits, "especially the way language is manipulated using Newspeak to limit the ability to articulate dissent. Can we rebel if we don't have the words to express our rebellion? That, along with the perpetual surveillance and state of endless normalised war, is its most chilling insight." For me, the little textural details are the most revealing: that Winston Smith's world is one where a pen is "an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures"; where people howl with delight while watching unthinkably violent films; where bad, formulaic novels written by machines are the only ones on offer; where a National Lottery with a "weekly payout of enormous prizes" is "the one event to which the proles paid serious attention". Is Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell's greatest novel? In some ways, says DJ Taylor, "but if he'd lived longer I think it would have been better. It feels unfinished to me." (Orwell knew his days were numbered and rushed the final draft. He died on Jan 21, 1950 when an artery burst in his lungs.) James Miller admits that, while he loves the book, he prefers Orwell's non-fictional account of fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia: "It's probably because I read it more recently. (I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager.) Homage to Catalonia is about the whole anarchist-socialist possibility of the Spanish Civil War. You really get the sense that history might have taken a very different direction but for the crushing tyrannies of fascism and Stalinism. I'm really interested in unfulfilled historical possibilities that could have offered genuine alternatives and how they were crushed by more reactionary forces." An aspect that's often overlooked in discussions of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the intensity of the doomed romance between Winston and the woman who eventually betrays him, Julia. Like Winston, Julia works in the Ministry of Truth, but in the Fiction Department, where she repairs the novel-writing machines: "She was a bold-looking girl of about twenty-seven, with thick dark hair, a freckled face and swift, athletic movements." Winston hates her at first for her seeming loyalty to the Party, but one day she presses into his hand a note containing the words "I love you". Orwell's charged account of Winston and Julia's relationship, conducted in the countryside where they believe it to be telescreen-free, may be the reason the book is so popular with teenagers. Nineteen Eighty-Four would have had a particular resonance for its post-war readers. As its title, an inversion of the year most of it was written, suggests, it was as much about the present as the future - a London pocked with bombcraters, full of grimy tenements reeking of boiled cabbage. The extraordinary thing, reading it today, is that it never feels as if its subject is the past. Perhaps this is the hallmark of all great fiction?
Updated: June 15, 2009 04:00 AM