There are novels that stay in our heads forever, no matter how long it is since their first reading. These are the books that have in some way spoken to the unnerving tacit fear that resides at the very heart of our understanding about who we are, who we love, and the world as a whole. And for me, they are also the novels of great prescience, anger and power, voicing real concerns about what is really going on behind the constant venal spin of so-called ‘truths’.
George Orwell’s terrifying, paranoid masterpiece 1984, for instance, was written after he had seen the decimation of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. In his wonderful essay ‘Why I Write’ he says: Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. No one who has read this book can fail to see the comparisons to our lives today — with its themes of nationalism, sexual repression, censorship, surveillance, the dumbing down of the masses, and the theft of culture and free thought. What makes the book a classic is that it speaks to us as clearly as it spoke to someone who first read it back in 1949 (and every decade since.) And what makes the previous sentence so depressing is that very little has really changed — and some would actually argue it has grown much worse.
He did it again with Animal Farm, his 1945 allegorical novel about the corrupting influence of power and greed. Again, we do not have to look too far to see plenty of examples of this theme made real today. Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize nominee The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is also such a book, which (at the time of my first reading) spoke to me directly of the plight of women in Afghanistan during the Taleban’s misogynist reign. To another reader it could just as easily have been describing her own soulless, subjugated marriage. It is a terrifying world for women Atwood has invoked — and yet the awful fact is that women are still placed in equally dangerous, controlled and compromising positions somewhere in today’s world — every single minute of every single day.
But the novel that has lately been uppermost in my mind is Doris Lessing’s 1974 dystopian novel The Memoirs of a Survivor. It is the disturbing story of a woman coming to understand that society as she knows it has completely collapsed and will never be the same again. That while she and her other fellow city-dwellers have gone on blindly ignoring the warning signs, a creeping mass of displaced, angry young people are pillaging their way through the countryside and will soon overtake them. This is a story about social breakdown on a massive and unstoppable scale. ‘Public services cut off, air poisoned, looted buildings standing empty… Normality continues it’s crazy, straight-faced ritual of government announcements, newspapers, appearances maintained…’ Any of this ring a bell?
I think the thing about this book that really stays with me is the utter disbelief and perplexity the central character feels. ‘How can this be happening?’ she thinks. It can’t be real. And yet her world is lurching cloth-eared and blindfolded towards disaster, with people’s lack of attention and laziness — their distracted lack of focus and inability to think and act — the real key to their own downfall and demise.
It seems to me that the biggest problem in this crumbling social democracy of ours is the kind of mind-set Lessing described so chillingly… the old ‘she’ll be right/I’m relaxed about that’ attitude. I fear we will, too late, realise that our lack of social responsibility, compassion and courage has led us to a frightening Orwellian future. So please: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.‘
‘In the Disintergrating City’ Rosemary Dinnage (July 17, 1975) The New York Review of Books.