Mid-Century Dystopia, Part 2: Nineteen Eighty-Four

1984

Nineteen Eight-Four marks the third famous classic to disappoint me in recent years.  Along with The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, it would have been left unfinished early on, except for its mammoth legacy and the feeling that I ought to read it.  It’s possible I lack the maturity or life experience to appreciate these books – I leave that open as an explanation.  But for the time being, I’ll express my unpopular opinion, which isn’t without basis.  (For my personal dystopian literature criteria, see part 1.)

England, Except Not England

Winston Smith, our very Britishly named protagonist, resides in England of the 1980s.  Now called “Airstrip One,” England is a mere drop in the empire that is Oceania, and its once-vivid culture has likewise been largely eaten up by the propaganda of the ruling one-party state.  All citizens are expected to revere Big Brother, the vague yet menacing figurehead of the Party, and in so doing are closely monitored by their colleagues, spouses, and even their militarized children.  Regions suffer bombings and other hardships, people are carted away for crimes against the state, and history is rewritten or erased as suits the Party’s agenda.  Winston, as it turns out, is one of the MVPs in this latter business, which becomes very difficult when he starts having serious doubts about what is Truth, both in his personal life and in the life of the nation.

1984mapoftheworld
Map by Peliministeri [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The influence of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany on this novel are hard to miss.  Beyond obvious references such as “comrade,” overalls, and bad food, the structure and stringencies wielded in this society resemble firsthand accounts of life in those two totalitarian states.  The turning of children against their parents made me think of Mao’s China, though that occurred after Orwell’s lifetime.  The trickle-down paranoia affects even the “happy” citizens who are most dedicated to the Party, so they begin to question everything and everyone, including themselves.

There are still remnants of Britishness left, however.  We see it in a scene with a “prole” (proletariat) woman doing her laundry out in the street and singing with a Cockney accent.  It’s the thread of history running through Winston’s fascination with old nursery rhymes and the countryside.  Finally, there is also something distinctly British about O’Brien, the aristrocratic enigma who impresses and fascinates Winston.

Just imagine a Soviet dictatorship in post-war England, and you have the world of 1984.  It’s an awful place.

Anti-Heroes and Déjà Vu

Winston is meant to be the “average guy” in this situation, thrown into a mess just like one of Franz Kafka’s characters.  I guess I have more faith in the average man, because I didn’t find him to be all that average.  He’s what would today be called a stereotypical incel, an unhappily married celibate who has rape fantasies about the first hot woman who catches his attention.  He’s strangely intuitive about certain things, such as knowing he has a past that the Party denies, but he’s also bizarrely stupid and takes risks which, at times, do not make sense, even for a dissenter.  This is the character we have to identify with, or at least to sympathize with on some level, and I found that to be more of a mental stretch than I could muster.

Our other option is Julia, the young woman who passionately reciprocates Winston’s interest, in spite of him being an unattractive middle-aged loser with admittedly violent thoughts towards her.  Julia is a different kind of rebel, fairly reckless and mostly expressing her dissent in the form of black market dealing and sexual escapades (the Party is anti-sex, which Orwell explains but not very convincingly).  After meeting Julia, Winston becomes less risk-averse, to the point he decides to officially join the rebellion – which may or may not exist.

This was all vaguely familiar, reminding me of the plot of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, an earlier Russian novel which Orwell had read.  (Would he have got away with such a similar plot these days?)  I felt Zamyatin did a better job making his characters sympathizable, especially “O,” the abandoned partner (Winston’s wife gets very little treatment here, and none too good).  For what it’s worth, the love affair was also better written in We – in 1984, it seemed quite implausible and awkward.

From Bad to Worst, and Beyond

My biggest issue with the book was the writing itself.  The first part was mostly world-building, which I don’t care for in general.  The second part focused on Winston and Julia’s unlikely relationship, plus Winston’s increasing doubts and acts of “treason.”  The last part was the stuff of bad dreams, detailing everything you did or didn’t want to know about the sadism of the Party.  In the middle, there was also a treatise about the history of the Party and the current political situation, which even I found surprisingly dull.

I don’t care to go into the ending in detail, especially since it involves spoilers, and this is a spoiler-free blog.  For reference, though, this novel joins the list of books that I really, really despise:

  1. The Castle, Franz Kafka
  2. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  3. The Kill, Emile Zola
  4. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

As in, you could not pay me enough to re-read them.  Yes, I feel that strongly.

To wrap it up and be fair, I did find some good quotes, which are worth reading on their own:

It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage. – Ch. 2

There was something subtly wrong with Syme.  There was something he lacked: discretion, aloofness, a sort of saving stupidity.  – Ch. 5

Your worst enemy, he reflected, was your own nervous system.  At any moment the tension inside you was liable to translate itself into some visible symptom. – Ch. 6

Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one. – Ch. 7

The heresy of heresies was common sense.  And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right.  – Ch. 7

What Next?

My next dystopian reading will be Brave New World, which is on my physical to-read shelf.  I also plan to read Jack London’s The Iron Heel.

So far, I’m finding I don’t dislike the genre per se, but am struggling to find a dystopian book that I like (except for Lord of the Flies, which isn’t totally comparable).  Lord of the World was interesting, but ultimately not very compelling.  We was well written but carries some of the same flaws as 1984.

I would like to see a book where the protagonist is neither as perfect as Percy Franklin nor as imperfect as Winston Smith… maybe a Syme who lacks “saving stupidity.”  I want to see some light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s just a speck.  It would be great if the female character were likeable, too.  Make me care about the people at the end of the world.

Mid-Century Dystopia, Part 1: Pan’s Labyrinth

There was no intention on my part to read two dystopian novels at the same time.  I was already in motion to read 1984 – an embarrassingly long-overdue attempt – when I heard a novelization of Pan’s Labyrinth was to be released in July.  I got in the library line quickly (these things go like hot cakes), and soon, with del Toro/Funke’s fantasy horror in one hand and Orwell’s bleak dystopia in the other, made the abrupt leap from “light summer fluff” to “not-sure-if-I’ll-sleep-tonight bedtime stories.”

So… What Were You Thinking!?

1984 requires little introduction.  In Western culture, at least, terms such as Big Brother and doublethink flavor our vocabulary as glib reminders that a British author back in 1948 foretold the existence of increasingly powerful, monolithic, and tech-savvy governments.  We see signs of it everywhere today, from more innocuous instruments such as traffic cameras to the disturbing birth of China’s Social Credit System.  At this point, it is hard to say if the book is still futuristic.

Pan’s Labyrinth, marketed as a dark Alice in Wonderland with a historical backdrop, is a story that’s long piqued my interest. I had some vague awareness of the movie release in 2006, but since I’m highly squeamish and generally avoid R-rated films, it was never a film I had an overwhelming desire to try.  In my college Spanish course, we saw the introduction to the film, with subtitles, and once again, I was curious about the story.  The novelization by YA author Cornelia Funke and the movie’s director, Guillermo del Toro, presented the perfect chance to experience the story without watching gruesome reenactments on the screen.

Battle of the Two Totalitarian States

As mentioned, the settings of both these novels are as bleak as you can imagine.  1984 is Orwell’s picture of England under a North Korean-esque dictatorship, where everyone is trained to march in time to the Party’s tune and anyone who even breathes differently is liquidated and blotted out from history.  Pan’s Labyrinth is set in real-world Franco’s Spain (not unlike Hitler’s Germany, for those unfamiliar with 20th-century Spanish history).  In both novels, the sense of being watched, of being victim to your overlords’ whims and paranoia, and finding a double meaning in the few close relationships you have, overwhelm the reader with a claustrophobic dread that evil is winning and may always win.

I do not enjoy horror for the sake of horror, so if I read a book with violence in it, I look for some deeper meaning to make it worth my time.  I have read a few dystopian works in the past few years – in particular, Lord of the World, We, and Lord of the Flies – and have developed some personal criteria for this genre:

  1. Accuracy to logic and historical or contemporary precedence.  There must be some realism for me to take it seriously.
  2. Depictions of violence which are purposeful (to teach a lesson, to strengthen the character, or as a necessary part of the plot), not gratuitous or purely sensational.
  3. The presence or possibility of salvation, either physical or metaphysical. (My Christian background makes this necessary.)

I was impressed by the writing in both books but disappointed when it came to a serious evaluation of their content, message, and characterizations.  Pan’s Labyrinth held a slight edge (1.5 stars) over 1984 (1 star), so I’ll start by going into that one in a bit more detail.

The Lost Girl and El Capitán

There are two stories going on in Pan’s Labyrinth.  One is the quest of the Faun to find the Underworld King’s long-lost daughter, who vanished many years ago following her fatal curiosity about the over-world.  Second is the plight of poor Ofelia, a bookish child whose widowed mother Carmen marries Captain Vidal, the father of her forthcoming son and one of the most sadistic officers serving under General Franco.  Carmen’s naive hope is that love will conquer all and that Vidal will accept Ofelia as his daughter.  Ofelia knows better…knows in fact that Vidal is a heartless “Wolf,” just like the monsters in the stories she reads.  The Faun gives Ofelia a chance to escape the terrible life awaiting her, but she must do everything he says and face other, less human monsters in the forest.

Blood, blood, blood, and more blood.  Amazon tells me this book is for grades 6-9, but I’m pretty sure twelve-year-old me would have been properly traumatized by the tortures and killings that Vidal relishes in inflicting.  The authors are none too subtle about the sanguine imagery, and at times the references to “blood red” become almost laughable in their frequency.  Other brutalities, such as rape and cannibalism, are alluded to if not depicted, though the authors seem to want you to know they’re coming close to it, over and over again. I have read books about North Korea which treat similar subjects in a more restrained manner.  The way violence was depicted here really felt gratuitous.

There is plenty of magic going on, though the why’s and the how’s are never made quite clear.  You just have to accept what the Faun says.  I find this frustrating, perhaps because I’m used to the magic of Lewis’s Narnia, which is fairly clear-cut and almost logical, or even the supernatural elements in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which carry some sense of purpose and structure.  I had a fair amount of questions by the end of the book which I suppose can never be answered, because other reviewers say the movie and the book are nearly identical in plot.

I will say, I was sympathetic to Ofelia, her friend Mercedes, and Mercedes’s brother Pedro.  I cried a couple of times because the plot was just one bad thing after another, and it is hard to watch a child suffer.  Even the ending, which is vaguely “happy,” seemed cruel.  That is the theme of the book: cruelty is pervasive and there is nobody on earth or in Heaven to help you; suicide is mentioned a couple of times as an escape.  I don’t doubt this as an accurate portrayal of how some people feel in those kinds of situations.  But is that really the whole picture?  If it is, that means evil always wins, and I can’t believe that.

Overall, I felt the concept and protagonists of Pan’s Labyrinth were strong, but the writing and storyline did not hold up for me.  I did appreciate the authors’ ability to create a fairytale-like story with atmosphere and a likeable protagonist.  It was more than I could say for 1984… that review will be coming soon.

The Professor – Charlotte Bronte’s First Novel

CharlotteBrontePortrait
Portrait by J. H. Thompson

First novels can be hit-and-miss, even those of “great authors.”  Nathaniel Hawthorne was so ashamed of Fanshawe he wanted all copies burnt.  Jane Austen’s Love and Friendship, written in her teens, did not (unsurprisingly) carry the depth and drama of her later, famous novels.  Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, is arguably one of the weaker of the four.  While some talented authors debut a masterpiece, it’s as equally likely that their first book is not their best. All of this goes to show that 1) no one is born a great novelist, and 2) it is worthwhile to keep trying, even if your first writing is highly flawed.

The Professor was Charlotte Bronte’s first novel but not published until after her death.  It has a very similar plot to Villette (1853), and it’s best read as a first draft of that superior novel.  Unfortunately, this is still insufficient for enjoying the book, because it’s just not a great story.  It took me several tries over many years to start and continue reading it, and I’ll be completely honest: if it weren’t for me trying to read all the Bronte novels (with just Anne’s Tenant remaining), I don’t think I would have finished The Professor.

Our male protagonist (Bronte’s only one) is William Crimsworth, a young Englishman just recently finished with his education.  He attempts to work for his industrious brother (think Gaskells’s John Thornton, except meaner), which doesn’t pan out, so he goes into the world to seek his fortunes independently.  He ends up teaching English at two schools in Brussels, one of which is a girl’s school.  He falls awkwardly into a love rectangle involving the directors of both schools and one of the students (who is also a teacher, to make it slightly less weird).  Some conflict ensues.

The story is highly uneven and overall uneventful, not a winning combination.  For fans of Villette, there is some interest in seeing the precursors for better characters: William and Frances are like Lucy and Paul, Zoraïde is clearly an early version of Madame Beck, and the minor character Hunsden is not unlike Rochester in his charisma and abrupt manners.  However, you’re left wishing you were re-reading Villette instead, with all its intrigue, mystery, and surrealism.  The Professor, by contrast, is very careful and stolid and utterly boring.

In addition to the lackluster plot, Crimsworth is a rather irritating narrator.  One doesn’t feel quite comfortable in his romance with his female student, and apart from that, his prejudice against Catholicism and various nationalities is rampant throughout the book.  (There is some of this in Villette, though less, if I remember correctly.)  It really shows how even within one race of people, there can be many deep divisions.

In the end, I can only recommend The Professor to Bronte completionists.  It is probably for the best that it was rejected by publishers, because Jane Eyre came next, bringing with it a dynamic female narrator that was to carry forward to Villette, the refined novelization of Charlotte’s own experience in Brussels.  Those of us trying to write our own stories can look at this as an example of why not to give up, and also of how our characters, given enough time, will evolve and mature just as we do.

February Reviews – Lightning Round!

Tender Is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald – (no rating)
Biggest disappointment of the year so far; did not finish.
The Atlas of Beauty – Mihaela Noroc – 3 stars
An interesting library book.  Somewhat repetitive; would’ve 
preferred less social-political commentary.
Embers – Sándor Márai – 4 stars
Surprisingly great!  European history buffs will appreciate
 this ruminating novel.  Full review here.
Poetry of the First World War – ed. Marcus Clapham – 3 stars
Not an easy or pretty read, but a sobering one.  More thoughts here.
Moonflower – Jade Nicole Beals – 4 stars
 Poems of peace and introspection; this was a refreshing read.
Anthem – Ayn Rand – 2 stars
Great concept, so-so execution.  Full review here.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote – 1 star
Writing style on point, story not my cuppa.  More thoughts here.

This has not been the month for in-depth, written reviews, and I’m feeling a bit sheepish about that.  Work has been so busy; I’ve gone from one big project to the next, which is great but takes a toll on the reading energies.  Here’s to hoping March will be a little easier!

The Sound and the Fury: Meeting Faulkner

TheFaulknerPortable
Faulkner’s portable typewriter – Gary Bridgman
[GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Every so often (e.g. while watching Jeopardy!), I get a reality check and remember there are so many classics I haven’t yet read.  As with geography, there are whole regions of classics that are entirely unfamiliar to me, or only half-explored.  This year I’ve taken a step in the right direction by reading an author brand-new to me, and that author is William Faulkner.

Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is one of his most beloved novels, and it seemed like a good choice for a newbie.  The story describes the decaying fortunes of the Compson family, once prestigious Southern landowners who now live in dwindling esteem in the 1920s.  What they have left to their name is essentially a whole lot of problems: a sickly, haughty mother, an aloof father, and four children with varying degrees of affection for each other and their parents.  Intermingled with these character sketches is a twisted and troubling drama of hatred, violence, abuse, and racial prejudice.  In Faulkner’s signature style, The Sound and the Fury is a stream of the characters’ thoughts, their perceptions of each other and society, and the bitterness that manifests itself in how they react to adversities.  As you might imagine, what has such a rough beginning does not end well.

I wanted to like this novel very much, but there was little in it I could really appreciate.  Apart from the writing style, which was indeed effective in its “impressionistic” portrayal of people and events, the book left me disappointed.  I have nothing against depressing novels – Russian literature, for example – it’s just that I like to either connect to the characters or get a great message from a book. 

For more specifics, you can hear me talk a bit more about the characters in my latest podcast episode, First Impressions – William Faulkner.  Other than that… have you read anything by Faulkner?  If so, let me know which book(s) you recommend.  I still have Light in August on my shelf, which I plan to read at some point.