Tag Archives: 1940s

NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR – George Orwell (1949)

0EE75B7A-A9C1-438A-9FDD-B6AE90F61276I can understand the cultural significance of this book – it’s so significant I don’t need to explain to you what this book is about: you know.

That might be one of the reasons I felt this to be utterly boring: I don’t think I learned a thing, it all felt so familiar, generic even.

Because of its central place in the Western literary canon, my feelings about 1984 are hard to parse. Might I have loved this if I hadn’t known so much about it? If I’d read it when it first came out?

I’m not so sure. It felt like Orwell was preaching the entire time, and I generally don’t like MESSAGE literature. I didn’t like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t feel fully realistic either.

Another issue: I didn’t buy Orwell’s future world. It seemed so binary – everything in service of Orwell’s didactics. I missed the path towards the state of affairs described: such a path would be complex & interesting, but Orwell basically reduces the Ingsoc state system to a bad boogeyman, and the motivations of the characters that installed and sustain this system aren’t really explored. Indeed: I missed a certain kind of depth.

I know I’m in a minority position. The cultural norm is to like books that are against totalitarianism: over 4 million ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.19 average. Most dissident voices on Goodreads – the one and two star reviews – say the same: not enough story, too much essay, bland characters, heavy-handed exposition, a cartoon villain.

That said: what Orwell does extremely well is illustrate blatant lies as a powerful political method.


ps – For those of you who don’t read the comments, somebody posted a link to a 1984 review Isaac Asimov wrote in 1980. Asimov is highly critical, and raises interesting points. Definitely worth your time.

His text is here: http://www.newworker.org/ncptrory/1984.htm or here https://redsails.org/asimov-on-1984/.

Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.


DE VOORSTAD GROEIT – Louis Paul Boon (1943)

De Voorstad Groeit (LP Boon) 9e druk 2000This time a post in Dutch, about the debut of Louis Paul Boon, a Flemish author, born in 1912. In 1979 he was invited to the Swedish embassy sometime before the Nobel Prize was awarded, likely to be informed of him winning it, but since he died the day before, he never got it, as Nobel Prizes are only awarded to the living. De Voorstad Groeit translates as The Suburb Grows, and deals with themes of urbanization, poverty and the lives of factory workers somewhere in the first half of the 20th century.

An early French translation by Marcel Defosse was never published, and no other translations exist as far as I know. A shame, because this book remains as powerful and relevant as when it was written. It has been compared to the work of Jon Dos Passos.

Next post will be in English again – probably a review of Bewilderment by Richard Powers.

Hoewel Boon een van onze grootste schrijvers is, en misschien zelfs de grootste romancier, is het grootste deel van zijn omvangrijke oeuvre enkel tweedehands verkrijgbaar. Van dit debuut werden in de loop der jaren ongeveer 82 000 exemplaren verkocht, omnibusuitgaven incluis. Ik las de 9e druk, de zogenaamde wetenschappelijke ‘Werkuitgave’, in 2000 door Querido uitgegeven op vijftienhonderd exemplaren, met achteraan een 40-tal erg interessante bladzijden publicatiehistoriek, receptiegeschiedenis en tekstverantwoording.

Die publicatiehistoriek is opmerkelijk omdat dit boek tijdens de oorlog is uitgegeven, nadat het in 1942 de Leo L. Krynprijs had gekregen – een literaire prijs met o.a. Willem Elsschot in de jury. Dat toont eens te meer ons – of toch op z’n minst mijn – gebrekkig historisch besef aan. Ik had niet gedacht dat tijdens de Duitse bezetting literaire prijzen werden uitgeschreven, of dat Angèle Manteau 3000 expemplaren van dit boek had kunnen of zelfs willen uitgeven – winkelprijs 35 Belgische Frank. Het is zelfs besproken door heel wat (Duitsgezinde) recensenten.

Die Duitsgezinde heren zijn het haast allemaal roerend eens dat De Voorstad Groeit vormelijk en qua taal een ijzersterk boek is en Boon een groot nieuw talent. Enkel over de inhoud twijfelt men: het boek zou te ‘miserabilistisch’ zijn, en daarom als het ware voorbijgestreefd. De Nieuwe Orde kwam er immers aan, en na de oorlog zouden alle problemen van de arbeiders en het volk toch als sneeuw voor de zon verdwijnen?

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SIRIUS – Olaf Stapledon (1944)

SiriusI wrote a 10-page analysis of Last And First Men, Stapledon’s 1930 cult fiction debut. I wasn’t fully convinced by it, but I understood its historical relevance. I didn’t really plan to read another Stapledon title, but I came across Sirius in a second-hand store for 5 euros, and both the cover and the subject appealed to me, so I took my chances.

No 10-page review this time – I’ll try to make it snappy. Unlike Stapledon, who manages to make a mere 188-page novel drag and drag and drag. Not that he doesn’t set a bar for himself – the narrator of the book calls himself a “novelist” trying to “penetrate” into the “essential spirit”.

After all, though a Civil Servant (until the Air Force absorbed me) I am also a novelist; and I am convinced that with imagination and self-criticism one can often penetrate into the essential spirit of events even when the data are superficial.

That “essential spirit” is a bit of a recurring theme. Sirius, the dog with a human intelligence that is our protagonist, likes musing about it. Reading is believing – and I guess this book’s defenders will claim the fact that a dog utters the next quote excuses it. Continue reading