Books: From the Land of Shadows : Look Forward in Mild Irritation |
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Anthony Burgess in 1978

1985 by Anthony Burgess (Hutchinson, London, and Little Brown, Boston)

Anthony Burgess has words the way the be-bop saxophonists used to have notes — in scads. With him as with them, you have to hear something slow before you can make up your mind. Nothing Like the Sun and the Enderby books prove that Burgess is as clever as he seems. His utopian satires, of which 1985 is yet another, mainly just seem clever. At a generous estimate there are half a dozen ideas in each of them.

1985, which could just as well have been called Look Forward in Mild Irritation, avowedly exaggerates trends already visible in present-day Britain. The unions are in control, everyone is on strike, children learn nothing in school, and the whole place is overrun with Arabs. Readers will have no trouble recognising the reality behind the exaggeration. Britain is certainly a bit like that. So why exaggerate? To point out the obvious? A better reason for concocting this kind of fantasy is to expose what is not obvious — in a word, to analyse. Burgess himself is given to saying that this is one of the things serious writers can do that science fiction writers cannot do.

A good case can be made for Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell as having struck deeper than the science fiction writers. The case does not look quite so strong to anyone who has actually read reasonably widely among the science fiction writers, but let us suppose for the moment that it is watertight. The question remains whether Burgess can be enrolled along with Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell. The Wanting Seed, for example, hammers its theme — overpopulation — with no more subtlety than the best science fiction writers of the 1950s were wont to employ, and a good deal less invention. The world is short of food; England is urbanised from end to end; infanticide is officially encouraged; wars are arranged in order to kill people off.

All these ideas were handled at least as vigorously by science fiction writers. Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, in The Space Merchants, showed a world so crowded that whole families in New York were sleeping on the stairs of skyscrapers. The main source of food was an enormous hunk of protein called Chicken Little, who could be kept from engulfing her attendants only by an ultrasonic whistle. Most of the other effects in the book were comparably striking.

Pohl and Kornbluth come to mind again when you consider A Clockwork Orange, the book for which Burgess — to his understandable dismay — is best known. A handy transitional primer for anyone learning Russian, in other respects it is a bit thin. Burgess makes a good ethical point when he says that the state has no right to extirpate the impulse towards violence. But it is hard to see why he is so determined to link the impulse towards violence with the aesthetic impulse, unless he suffers, as so many other writers do, from the delusion that the arts are really rather a dangerous occupation. Presumably the connection in the hero’s head between mayhem and music was what led Stanley Kubrick to find the text such an inspiration. Hence the world was regaled with profound images of Malcolm McDowell jumping up and down on people’s chests to the accompaniment of an invisible orchestra.

It is a moot point whether Burgess is saying much about human psychology when he so connects the destructive element with the creative impulse. What is certain is that he is not saying much about politics. Nothing in A Clockwork Orange is very fully worked out. There is only half a paragraph of blurred hints to tell you why the young marauders speak a mixture of English and Russian. Has Britain been invaded recently? Apparently not. Something called ‘propaganda’, presumably of the left-wing variety, is vaguely gestured towards as being responsible for this hybrid speech. But even when we leave the possible causes aside, and just examine the language itself, how could so basic a word as ‘thing’ have been replaced by the Russian word without other, equally basic, words being replaced as well?

In Gladiator at Law, which ranks alongside The Space Merchants among the novels they collaborated on during the 1950s, Pohl and Kornbluth treated some of the same themes that cropped up later in A Clockwork Orange. There were even squads of marauding children talking a special language. But the important point is that the authors did their best to cut deep. Pohl and Kornbluth weren’t just the American version of Soviet Russia’s Ilf and Petrov. They were far more dissatisfied with capitalism than Ilf and Petrov ever were with communism. Gladiator at Law still stands today as a sharp reminder of what modern society can be like for those who run out of credit. At the time it was prophetic.

Compared with an artist like Burgess, of course, none of the science fiction scriveners could write at all. In science fiction circles the standard of literary style was set by Ray Bradbury. But science fiction still achieved better results in the line of utopian satire than is commonly assumed, and often precisely because it was obliged to eschew, or could not attain to, such literary luxuries as character and atmosphere. Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano is a better book than anything he wrote in his later incarnation as a serious writer. First-rate science fiction was, and remains, more interesting than second-rate art. Burgess is right to think that Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell go deeper than science fiction, but his opinion ought not to receive automatic assent. It is far from certain that he knows quite why they do.

The first half of 1985, before the fiction starts, is a long factual essay about Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Burgess establishes with marvellous thoroughness that he has misunderstood Orwell. Burgess knows all there is to know about Britain in 1948, when Nineteen Eighty-Four was completed. He evokes the country’s atmosphere of rationing and frustration in all its pathetic detail. He also knows a lot about Orwell’s personal circumstances at that time. But he knows very little about Orwell’s mind if he thinks that Nineteen Eighty-Four is mainly concerned with Britain in 1948.

By now it is a critical commonplace that the canteen of the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four was modelled on the BBC’s. But Burgess, with his strangely obtuse conviction that novels are more about ‘sense data’ than about ideas (as if, in any kind of developed art, there could be any real difference), follows the same tack to absurd lengths, finding 1948 equivalents for almost everything in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He makes some useful points, but he just doesn’t seem to notice that he ends up sounding like one of those terrible academics who tell you that generations of readers have got it all wrong, and that such-and-such a book was really about something else all the time.

If Burgess needs reminding, perhaps we all need reminding. Nineteen Eighty-Four is not concerned with the sense data of Britain in 1948, but with totalitarianism in the twentieth century. Orwell is trying to show what a totalitarian state is like in its essence. The nightmare had already come true, in the form of the Soviet Union, but it had been widely misunderstood. Orwell’s main aim was to make the nightmare intelligible and hand on an instructive myth. The totalitarian state and its mind and language — to analyse, characterise and combat these things were the main tasks of Orwell’s life.

In the 1930s Orwell had been pre-eminently the man who saw that it wasn’t enough to be antifascist, you had to be anti-totalitarian. Saying so, he put himself beyond the pale of the British left and indeed the left the world over. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were books written to help change world opinion. To a large extent they did. Orwell was thus a writer and thinker of global consequence. He had his weaknesses, but it makes no sense to belittle his range of concern. Yet that is exactly what Burgess seems bent on doing.

Perhaps Burgess just doesn’t get it. His introductory essay, well argued though it sometimes is, reinforces the impression one had formed some time ago that for Burgess the world’s ills are conceived of as a set of irritants aimed principally at his own person. Burgess sees himself, no doubt rightly, as an individualist. He thinks that if there were less government there would be fewer bureaucratic agencies devoting themselves to making his life less bearable by introducing such soulless novelties as decimal coinage. A few years ago, when he was still living in Italy, Burgess wrote articles for British newspapers saying that the British ought to be more like the Italians, who had learned how to live with chaos. This was before the sudden popularity of kidnapping and terrorism suggested that Italy needed a lot less chaos than it was getting.

The novel 1985 itself chugs along determinedly enough, although you could hardly call its progress inexorable. The hero’s name is Bev Jones. ‘Bev’ stems from such names as Beveridge, Bevin, and Bevan — all of them denoting left-wing collectivism of one shade or another. ‘Jones’ is probably there as a conscious substitute for Orwell’s Smith, with the additional consideration that Jack Jones is currently the most famous of the British trades union leaders, and a powerfully boring man he is too. Britain’s other name is Tucland, from TUC: Trades Union Congress. I only wish that Burgess’s handling of these details could have been less tedious than my summary of them.

The firemen being on strike, Bev’s wife burns to death. He goes on the vengeance trail — a variation on the standard exploratory voyage common to most utopian satires. On the way he meets the same breed of cultivated muggers already made familiar to us by A Clockwork Orange. This idea is no more convincing now than it was then, but at least it retains something of its original verve. The muggers are the liveliest characters in the book. They sit at the back of the class reading bootleg copies of Latin classics while their dumber contemporaries lap up the daily doses of sociology and WE (Workers’ English, plus a nod to Zamyatin). There is something touching about the way Burgess goes on being convinced that this is a point worth making.

Daring to work when he should be on strike (the films The Angry Silence and I’m All Right Jack were based on the same idea), Bev is stripped of his union card and descends to the lower depths. Eventually he is sent away for re-education. Sex is allowed at the rehabilitation centre, as in We — another bow to Zamyatin. The publishers’ names allocated to some of the minor characters perhaps constitute a nod to Bulgakov, who used composers’ names in Master and Margarita. Bing Crosby is several times referred to as ‘Saint Bing’ — a weak idea. In Brave New World it makes some kind of sense that Henry Ford is remembered as Our Ford. But why would Tucland canonise Bing Crosby? Or, granted that it would canonise him, why would it not canonise a lot of other entertainers along with him? If the point is not worth following up, it was not worth raising in the first place.

Burgess would probably like 1985 to be thought of as a teeming grab-bag of ideas. In fact it is a scrap heap. The first requirement of any fantasy is that it should hang together. If the questions you ask of it yield contradictory answers, it evaporates. Burgess extrapolates current left-wing tendencies without extrapolating current right-wing tendencies, or even mentioning them. If all those Arabs came in, what happened to the National Front? One is forced to the conclusion that the fiction is fragmentary because, for Burgess, reality is fragmentary. He doesn’t see politics as anything coherent. Instead he sees it as a lot of different inconveniences ganging up on him.

In the introductory essay there is a revealing remark about Zamyatin. Burgess says that We was not written about any contemporary state. But it was. We was a prophetic book not because Zamyatin gazed into a crystal ball but because he saw the likely consequences of what people were thinking in the first years of the Soviet Union. That is why we think Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell better than the science fiction writers — because they trace conditions back to sources in the mind. For all their direct engagement, they are contemplative writers, capable, at their best, of bringing reason to bear even on their own instincts. Burgess is less like them, and more like the science fiction writers, than he might be willing to allow.

The science fiction writers, no matter how brilliantly inventive, were never strong on self-examination. Like most second-rate artists, they wrote to express their prejudices, not to explore them. Stories by Pohl and Kornbluth usually came out right in the end. After however prolonged a struggle, the hero emerged healthy out of the rotten system, ready to reform it or start afresh on another planet. Among the science fiction writers there was no real difference between the satirists and the celebrants, so there was no good reason for preferring the former to the latter. Indeed the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, whose politics were largely indistinguishable from those of John Wayne, attacked the consumer society more effectively from the right than the satirists from the left. His Starship Troopers and The Puppet Masters, quite apart from their unarguable virtues as adventure stories, have the additional quality of representing the authoritarian instinct in its purest form and thereby helping us to comprehend it.

But it rarely occurred to Heinlein, or to any other science fiction writer, that his instincts should be his subject. Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell all knew, to varying degrees, that the nightmare state had its embryonic counterpart in the impulse to order within their own souls. They were worried men. Without calling Burgess conceited, it is still fair to say that he has few such doubts. Perhaps his surging abundance of verbal talent gives him too great a reason to feel unique. He is an individualist by instinct — a valuable trait in a personality, but a limited viewpoint from which to criticise a whole society.

1985 sounds like the same union-bashing gone in for by all those members of the British managerial class who are convinced that their entrepreneurial flair is being stifled. It seldom crosses their minds that they, too, are part of the problem. Solipsistic without being self-searching, Burgess shares the same irritable conviction that he knows how things should be. 1985 is a yelp of annoyance, already out of date before it is published. Nineteen Eighty-Four, a minatory illumination of the darkest propensities in human nature, will be pertinent forever.

New York Review of Books, 1978