Profiling a novel: On the 70th anniversary of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’


As endeavours in biography-writing, books about novels are particularly intriguing — the takeaway is usually much more, and sometimes much removed, from the original text. They are not simply aids to reading and understanding the novel in question — for that, an annotated text would perhaps do just as well. As the recently published, The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by London-based writer Dorian Lynskey shows, at their best they provide the reader with a specific vantage point to return to the novel.

And surveying some biographies of novels, this becomes quite clear. Peter Hopkirk’s Quest for Kim: In Search of Kipling’s Great Game located the biography of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim in the geographical landscape — trying to see if he can find the 3.25 a.m. train from Lahore to Ambala as mentioned in the book (he can’t); barrelling down the Grand Trunk Road; searching for Lurgan Sahib’s curio shop in Shimla; basically, finding echoes of Kipling’s story in a present-day (almost) journey.

Nudging us

In Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, Michael Gorra, an American professor of literature, too heeds the geography of The Portrait of a Lady. But the key to reading the classic and the writer’s mind in this case lies in understating the structure of the novel and restlessness of James and his revisions of the drafts (“he lived in a world of second thoughts”).

In The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham foregrounds the fight against censorship. Ulysses was, by some reckonings, the best novel of the 20th century. But it was a heroic fight against censorship that brought it to readers, with Sylvia Beach of Paris’s Shakespeare and Company taking on censorship by publishing it, and Random House subsequently legally challenging the seizure of the book by the U.S. customs.

In a sense, Casey Cep’s debut, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, published this year, is the biography of a novel that was never written. In the 1970s, Lee had reportedly been working on a book based on a series of murders in Alabama, but, by all accounts, never wrote it.

Furious Hours tracks the details of the murders and the times, nudging us to think of the book that could have been in Lee’s writing — it also loops us back to To Kill a Mockingbird, to try to understand afresh why Lee did not publish a subsequent book. (Though sometimes construed as a sequel to Mockingbird, and published in 2015, Go Set a Watchman was, in effect, a lost pre-Mockingbird draft.)

Orwell’s message

Now, for his part, Lynskey does not limit his biography of Nineteen Eighty-Four to Orwell’s life and times and the writing of the novel, which was published 70 years ago. Certainly, he tracks how Orwell’s ideas developed, starting with his decision to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and tracing the arc to his work on the book in Jura in the Scottish Hebrides in the late 1940s, by now suffering from tuberculosis. To appreciate the novel is to get a measure of its resonance today. As Lynskey reminds the reader right in the beginning, within days of Donald Trump taking the oath of office as President of the U.S. in January 2017, sales of the book rocketed by almost 10,000%, and it became the number one bestseller in that country. Nineteen Eighty-Four, he suggests, illuminates our times as much as our times illuminate the classic.

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