On 1984 by D.J Taylor REVIEW

A fascinating biography of a novel by an accomplished author.

On 1984 book

Essentially the ordeal that Orwell put himself through to complete this final novel was cathartic…By writing about the terrors that obsessed him, he had got them out of his system. Now, curiously enough, he was at peace.

It was only after I started reading On 1984 that I realised I’d already read D.J Taylor’s award winning other book, Orwell: The Life. I wondered if there was anything this new slim volume could tell me that his seminal work hadn’t, so I was pleased to find that On 1984 reads more like a very extended essay, intricate and in-depth and, above all, very illuminating.

I personally am a big George Orwell fan; in my teens, I collected the fancy Penguin Modern Classic versions of all his books, fiction and non-fiction, and read them voraciously. Something about his bleakly honest style, his dry humour and his politics really spoke to me. Taylor’s On 1984 is a love letter to Orwell’s most famous novel, dissecting its journey from Orwell’s earliest influences to the resonance it has for the world today, up to and including the state of current US politics, and Brexit.

Some of the early influences that Taylor links to the creation of 1984 are a bit tenuous, in the way that I’m sure you could find connections between the life of any author and the things they write about, and it can’t be disproven anymore than it can be proven. However, he doesn’t dwell on these things, just mentions them, which makes them easier to digest. Where he focuses, for example on very well documented evidence that Orwell had a massive rat phobia which surely led to the scene in the Ministry of Truth, the evidence is clear and compelling.

Orwell was extremely ill with the disease that would eventually kill him not long after he finished 1984. Taylor’s most detailed biographical sections of On 1984 come when he is painting a picture of Orwell hunched over a typewriter in his bed in the sanitarium that was supposed to be helping him. Orwell was a man possessed, determined to finish the novel, and the obsessive driven man is the image Taylor wants us to take away.

Where On 1984 is a very strong analysis is where it moves away from the biography and focuses on the wider context of the time. Taylor gives us a very good potted history of the post-Second World War world, not skimping on details but also keeping it relatively brief. If you have any interest in publishing and publishing history, there’s also a lot of detail here that you will probably find as interesting as I do. The last chapter, ‘The Post-Truth World’ is great, and I’d have happily read Taylor analysing recent politics through the lens of Orwell’s 1984 for many more pages. He starts with mentioning North Korea, but then veers to the UK and the USA, with fake news and a consideration of how language changes and can be manipulated. He’s leading us, I think, to the conclusion that Orwell reached himself with 1984 – that the real danger comes in the places that you may not expect it.

Review copy provided

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On 1984 book
Taylor knows his subject inside and out, but his real strength lies in his sharp political observations.