The Century-Old Russian Novel Said to Have Inspired ‘1984’

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From The New York Times:

My book critic origin story is that I was nearly kicked out of A.P. English for not liking George Orwell’s “1984.” I found the prose stilted (I vaguely recall an invective I launched against his similes) and the overall project didactic. Of all things to be didactic about, I said — totalitarianism. How original — not liking totalitarianism; I mean it just sounds bad. My teacher was aghast (she loved his similes). I had to be transferred to another class.

Born on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the translator Bela Shayevich outright refused to read “1984”: “I had no interest in a book routinely deployed as a vaccine against communism. I was born in the Soviet Union: I didn’t need to hear it from an Englishman.” It was for this reason that she had not read the Russian science-fiction novel that is said to have inspired “1984” — WE (Ecco, paper, $16.99), by Yevgeny Zamyatin — now out in her translation.

When asked to take on “We,” Shayevich — best known for translating “Secondhand Time,” by the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich — was surprised to learn that Zamyatin, and Orwell for that matter, was a committed socialist and, most important, a wickedly fun writer. Shayevich describes his style as emblematic of a “jagged and ruthlessly fat-free early Soviet aesthetic.” Though there have been numerous excellent translations of “We,” Shayevich’s best preserves the experimental qualities of Zamyatin’s writing. She subtly conveys from the Russian the jumpy texture that the narrator’s voice takes on as he becomes a kind of jammed robot, ecstatically malfunctioning as he falls in love with a sleek femme fatale, a rogue individualist with a “name” to match: I-330.

Set 1,000 years in the future, “We” transports us to an authoritarian society called the One State that is governed by technological efficiency and an enforced suppression of individual identity. The novel is the diary of D-503 (citizens of the One State have numbers, not names), lead engineer of a spaceship called Integral set to travel into outer space to rescue “unfamiliar beings on alien planets who may yet live in savage states of freedom.” The residents of the One State don identical gray uniforms and listen to machine-generated music: “A musicometer,” D-503 tells us, “can produce three sonatas an hour.” Monogamy is a vestige of ancient times (a.k.a. our times), and sex is arranged through a bureaucratic system involving pink tickets. “He’s registered to me today,” interjects D-503’s girlfriend O-90 when she sees him chatting with another woman.

A mathematician who hates imaginary numbers — “Get √−1 out of me!” he shrieks — D-503 is the golden boy of the One State.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

2 thoughts on “The Century-Old Russian Novel Said to Have Inspired ‘1984’”

  1. Those of us who’ve actually done serious work with Orwell’s writings, and read We in our then-halting-and-now-too-rusty-to-rely-upon grasp of its original language, sneer at every claim (like Ms Wilson’s) that there’s a single source for anything in Orwell’s writings after he made his way to Wigan Pier. But we get drowned out because “it’s an allegory” and “it’s inspired solely by this particular thing” are easy-to-write short essays that neglect Orwell’s own numerous letters, essays, and radio presentations objecting to precisely that. We was an influence on 1984; it was and could have been no more than that, as Orwell didn’t encounter it until several years after his first scribblings that became critical elements of 1984. All one needs to do is read Orwell’s early-WWII letters from his period as a BBC-employed radio propagandist. Even that’s not the most revealing; his essays “The Lion and the Unicorn” and “Shooting an Elephant” point toward 1984 even more than “Politics and the English Language” and “The Prevention of Literature” do.

    • To at least some extent, everything an author has read has a miniscule effect on what an author writes, even if the author reads something and thinks, “That is the worst book I have ever read.”

      As PG recalls first grade reading (no kindergarten was available), the first sentence he ever read was, “See Jane run!” (He’s not certain about the explanation point.”

      This was from a series of Dick and Jane readers.

      Per Wikipedia: “These readers were used in classrooms in the United States and in other English-speaking countries for nearly four decades, reaching the height of their popularity in the 1950s, when 80 percent of first-grade students in the United States used them.”

      The fact that I remember (or think I remember) that sentence indicates that it may have influenced many other sentences I have written since.

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