Thursday, July 22, 2010

A confession

I have never really liked George Orwell's 1984. It is a clever novel, has given the English language new words and the names for two naff TV shows. It is part of our cultural heritage. It has been substantially misread as everything from a savage criticism of the post-war Labour government (which Orwell supported!) to the BBC. Orwell always claimed that all he was doing was projecting contemporary totalitarian trends into a future dystopia - the clichéd Orwellian nightmare - yet this is where my doubts begin.

There is a standard phrase about taking things to their logical conclusion, which I think is wholly misleading. It is usually used to describe taking things to their extreme conclusion, something that can happen certainly, but also something that is not necessarily logical nor even particularly likely. And this is what Orwell's dystopia does.

I have other doubts too. Each time I have read the book the characters do not come to life for me and I find the the depiction of the working classes faintly patronising. However, it is the cynicism and the bleakness of the conclusion that I really dislike. Everyone can be broken, everyone can betray everyone else, everyone can be made to love Big Brother. Power is unlimited, the future is certain - "a boot stamping on a human face - forever".

All this was brought to mind as I have just finished reading another novel, written and published a year before 1984, also the last work of a writer who died shortly after completing it. It too chronicles a story of failed resistance to totalitarianism, this time loosely based on real events and personal experience, but it offers us a completely different conclusion.

Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin is currently a word of mouth best-seller. It is available in a wonderful translation (yes George, I noticed) by Michael Hofmann, allowing both the poetic language of the novel and the use of Berlin street argot to become accessible to English readers. It has the odd clunky bit of plotting and the usual awkward contrivances of the novel. At first, it reads almost as if it is a detective thriller before becoming an essay on morality and the human personality. Yet the book is compulsive, disturbing and, in its way, beautiful.

Fallada's main themes are the resistance to the Nazis by people of all classes, collaboration by people of all classes, and the enthusiastic sadism of the true believer, again drawn from all classes. Centring on the inhabitants of one apartment block in a working class district of Berlin, it deals with low life opportunists, Nazi apparatchiks, those torn between their private lives and a sense of disgust at the crimes of the regime and the all-pervading fear that keeps people quiescent. The action by the main protagonists fails, as was always utterly inevitable, but this is the crucial difference between Fallada and Orwell, they are not broken. They do not come to love Hitler.

And from the disgust of ordinary people like these, a new society can emerge after the inevitable defeat of tyranny. For where Orwell offers us a vision of perpetual power, Fallada gives us one of perpetual resistance. Resistance that will, one day, end the darkness and overcome fear.

At the end of the book he writes of,, invincible life, life always triumphing over humiliation and tears, over misery and death.
Orwell's bleak warning is countered by Fallada's bitter, painful, realistic and fully human hope.

There is one final irony. Fallada invested his hope of the rebirth of an anti-fascist Germany in the Soviet occupied East. He died in 1947 so did not see one totalitarianism morph into another. But then that too, in its turn, has fallen. I think history is on the side of Fallada. And with events elsewhere threatening a surrender to cynicism, it may be time to remember and support the resistance and hope offered by the lives ordinary people.


Anton Deque said...

Agreed Peter. '1984' is an excellent example of what Orwell himself called "Good Bad Books". I am also not much taken with "Animal Farm" either. Orwell's only long work which I would willingly re-read is "Homage to Catalonia". His novels are weak and by degrees defeatist. The contrast between these novels and his best short journalism – the stuff he wrote to pay the rent – is striking. An amirer of long standing, I have come to deplore that strange streak in him that could not value what others did for him – especially women. Eileen O'Shaughnessy (buried less than half a mile from where I am typing this) is a case in point. Orwell may well have been "deeply cut up by her [sudden] death" (Muggeridge) but there is precious little evidence of this in his writing that I know. O'Shaughnessy had courageously refused to give the Communist secret police any details of Orwell's whereabouts in Barcelona in 1936; in '1984' Orwell has Julia and Winston betray each other rather than face their demons. 'Everyone betrays everyone else' was a lie within his own experience.

George S said...

Just picked this up, Peter. I have yet to read the Fallada, which is embarrassing as I was doing a gig with Michael a couple of weeks ago after not having seen him for two or three years. He is an absolutely outstanding translator.

I suppose all utopian / dystopian novels are going to wear a bit thin after a while. They are necessarily programmatic and the ideas tend to take over from the characters. I think the world of 1984 would be recognised by a lot of Eastern Europeans in the Fifties, so credit to Orwell for that. The book remained samizdat in Hungary until after 1989, and that must mean something too. Perhaps we forget the Stalinist model a little too quickly. It seems like a bad dream on another planet. 1984 is very much a product of it.

The terrible betrayal at the end of 1984 had happened several times over in real life, with others if not with O'Shaughnessy. I am not sure if the book's dynamic would have worked with a more heroic ending in any case. Once you wind a clock up it keeps going.

Which is, you might argue, the problem with the book.

The Plump said...

It is worth reading George as the book is much more complex than the picture I painted. I think that Orwell's picture of betrayal is limited, not in so much as that it happens and that people can be broken, but that it is permanent, inevitable and consists of more than informing or confessing, but marks a complete acceptance of the legitimacy of power, a mental conversion and rejection of resistance.

Fallada is much more subtle and probably closer to reality, though with some awkward and less credible transitions. As you say, it wasn't a conscious attempt to create a dystopia but to write of the experience of living under the Nazi regime.

And it is a wonderful translation.

Shuggy said...

It is worth reading George as the book is much more complex than the picture I painted.

It is - yet it isn't. At base Orwell argues that fear and self-preservation are the strongest of human impulses. It's a fundamentally depressing view of the human condition that is too glooomy even for me to accept. There's one observation in the book that stayed with me, for some reason. It's when Winston is on a train traveling to see Julia and he sees a woman clearing a blocked pipe with coat-hanger wire in the freezing cold. He observes - and I paraphrase - that while some would argue that the lack of contrary experience would mean she was oblivious to the dismal nature of her sitz im leben, the look on her face suggested otherwise. I know he attempted to deal with this sense of the intrinsic banality of suffering but it is perhaps this he failed to carry to its 'logical conclusion'?

The Plump said...


I was suggesting that it was the Fallada book that was more subtle than I described.

The bit of 1984 that you remember is one of the bits that I always remember too. It is pure Orwell as it is an outsider's observation. I find that in all his writing he looks at everything from the outside, with perception and analysis, but without empathy. This makes him a brilliant essayist and polemicist, but only a moderate novelist.