Seventy years ago the publication of George Orwell’s “1984” transformed our intellectual landscape. His depiction of Oceania, a repressive surveillance state based on ever-changing official truths. He gave names to the unsettling political realities that had been occurring for decades: “Newspeak,” "Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “The Memory Hole,” and “thoughtcrime.” A lifetime later Orwell’s novel still speaks to us. In January 2017 after President Donald Trump's adviser Kellyanne Conway defended demonstrably false statements by then White House spokesman Sean Spicer with the remark “he gave alternative facts,” “1984” rose to the top of Amazon’s U.S. bestseller list.
In The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, Dorian Lynskey, a longtime contributor to The Guardian and the author of “33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day,” attempts an intellectual and artistic exploration of the origins of “1984” and its remarkable life as a cultural touchstone. Unfortunately, despite some key insights and the wealth of history in its pages, this book is not what Orwell’s last and most famous novel deserves. “The Ministry of Truth” is a superficial, scattered account of the authors and books that provided a context for “1984” and the events that helped make Orwell the artist who could write it, with none of the depth that Orwell, his times, or the novel deserve.
Lynskey commands an impressive knowledge of the literary culture of the period, which he puts on full display to provide a sense of the artistic cross-pollination that helped Orwell write his dystopian novel. However Lynskey’s passages on pre-“1984” authors and speculative fiction will try the reader’s patience with their length and on occasion their irrelevance. He devotes an entire chapter to the life and work of Edward Bellamy, whose 1888 novel “Looking Backward: 2000–1887” depicted a United States in the year 2000 that had been transformed into a socialist utopia. However culturally important “Looking Backward” was (it was an international bestseller) it’s difficult to imagine the impact it could have had on Orwell. As Lynskey admits, “there is not a single reference to Edward Bellamy” in any of Orwell’s writing. For a man who wrote about and discussed books extensively throughout his life, it’s a telling omission.
The chapter on H.G. Wells begins promisingly – Orwell read Wells avidly as a young man, and a short story he wrote during his teens clearly bears Wells’ stamp – but it veers off track into a mini-biography of Wells, following him into his bitter later years, when political leaders consistently ignored his grand plans for humanity’s betterment. And while many of the authors Lynskey writes about are certainly relevant to an understanding of Orwell, particularly Aldous Huxley and the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin, many chapters of “The Ministry of Truth” bombard the reader with so many writers and book titles (even Ayn Rand is mentioned at one point) it’s overwhelming and confusing.
Lynskey would have done better to write in more detail about the lived experiences that provided Orwell with material for “1984.” He states repeatedly that the atmosphere of political terror that gripped Barcelona in the spring of 1937 was the basis for the atmosphere of suspicion and denunciation that pervades Oceania, but his account of Orwell’s time in Barcelona is little more than a chronicle of events, despite providing every indication that people wrote about the human toll of living in such circumstances.
Another disappointing aspect of Lynskey’s book is his refusal to discuss at any length wartime rationing and its effect on the British psyche. He devotes at most 8 sentences to the subject, skirting any engagement with a reality that must have profoundly influenced Orwell in his writing of “1984.” For Oceania is not just a world of pervasive lies and emotional and intellectual repression. It’s also a world of physical deprivation: of bad food and frayed clothes, where fresh fruit and real chocolate are almost unimaginable luxuries. It’s impossible to believe the hardships of life in 1940s Britain weren’t central to the creation of Orwell’s masterpiece.
The failures of “The Ministry of Truth” are doubly frustrating because Lynskey is clearly a talented writer. His chapters on “1984’s” life after Orwell’s death – its appropriation across the political spectrum, the adaptations for stage and screen, and its importance to artists such as David Bowie and Terry Gilliam – are fascinating. And the parallels he draws between the propaganda of Oceania and the alternative realities created by the Trump administration are truly chilling.
Unfortunately the better parts of “The Ministry of Truth” aren’t enough to redeem its flaws. Anyone inclined to observe the anniversary of the publication of “1984” would do better to re-read the novel itself.