1984 – George Orwell (Book Review)

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After much delay I finally got around to reading the famous “1984” – perhaps it following so closely after Shades of Grey is somewhat telling, but nonetheless it had been on my reading list far too long:

Nineteen Eighty-Four revealed George Orwell as one of the twentieth century’s greatest mythmakers. While the totalitarian system that provoked him into writing it has since passed into oblivion, his harrowing cautionary tale of a man trapped in a political nightmare has had the opposite fate: its relevance and power to disturb our complacency seem to grow decade by decade. In Winston Smith’s desperate struggle to free himself from an all-encompassing, malevolent state, Orwell zeroed in on tendencies apparent in every modern society, and made vivid the universal predicament of the individual.

It is likely that you have heard of this book: in a dystopian reality, there are now 3 major world powers – one of these being Oceania, ruled by The Party and their political head: Big Brother.

Within this state, people believe what they are told and think only what the party allow, or else face punishment from the Thought Police. Winston secretly has anti-Party thoughts, however, and with the similar thinking Julia, begins seeking revolution.

The story is sometimes a difficult one, and I read one person describe it as “an essay”, which I get – many chapters feel like the characters are decoration to something Orwell really wants you to understand. That being said, there certainly is a plot, the conclusion of which will have you squirming.

What is interesting about this book, and is surely intentional, is that it reflects much of society as it began changing and certainly some ideologies held highly now. Not least among this we would recognise as the post-modern thought that somehow we should no longer fight for the reconciliation of subjective thought and external truth, but that we decide what truth is – if we all agree that 2+2=5, then it must. This is something Winston argues against vehemently, and I with him – we don’t determine our external reality, simply because we don’t like it.

As news is fabricated and reports constructed in order for the thoughtless mass to believe anything, the struggle in the society where “Big Brother is watching” is surely a terrifying one. The ending left me feeling a little defeated, and it certainly had an impact.

If this is a classic you have been delaying reading, it may be worth your time. Be prepared though as it isn’t particularly light reading!

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Mary – Vladimir Nabokov (Book Review)

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Mary was Nabokov’s first novel, and was quite difficult for me to get a copy of. After months of thinking I was going to have to pay up to £25 for a used copy, I found one new for £4.

Ganin, a Russian emigre is living in a hostel with other Russians who have left due to the communist uprising. Living a fairly mundane life with people he didn’t necessarily like, Ganin learns that his neighbour’s wife, Mary, is coming to visit; a woman Ganin has a romantic history with.

I left the plot relatively short as this is a short book, being only just over 100 pages (my copy anyway). The book touches on topics such as past love, and often gives honest views into how realistic relationships work: whether it be ups and downs, or looking back and longing for what the relationship once was but failed to maintain to be.

The book also surprisingly has solipsistic themes, and with Mary not even being physically present in the story, it is interesting to learn so much of character who, in a sense, doesn’t speak for herself, but through the opinions other’s have of her.

The book is Nabokov’s first and not his best, but definite evidence of the wordplay he was to master is present in a lot of the descriptions.

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (Book Review)

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A few people have claimed this book as their favourite from the 20th century, such as Daniel Radcliffe and Steven Fry, which is quite the claim considering the books I have read from then. I thought it worth a go, being a Russian author and all…

In the 1930’s, Satan, under the guise of a magician, walks the streets of Moscow with his three pals: Azzezelo, Koroviev, and Behemoth – the talking cat. Observing the Russian people, and causing a lot of trouble for the aristocracy, the Devil and his friends settle into Flat 50.

Meanwhile, an author of a book about the life of Pontius Pilate, calling himself the Master, is in a mental asylum, longing for his married mistress, Margarita; who herself longs to leave her husband she regards as boring, for the author of what she considers a masterpiece.

And throughout this is the story of Pontius Pilate on the days surrounding the crucifixion, his dealings with Jesus (Yeshua), Judas, Matthew, and his mysterious head bodyguard. All the while detesting the city of Jerusalem, and seeking the sleep which evades him.

At first I was hesitant to read the book, having heard that a fictitious version of Jesus appeared in it who, for the most part, acts a bit bewildered as to the claims against him – frankly, he’s portrayed as a simpleton – albeit still the Christ. This, with me being a Christian and the book being potentially offensive to the faith, made me cautious. There are few reasons why this may not be so though, which I address first for the sake of others in my position:

Firstly, the stories told are from the point of view of the Master, and Satan himself (who even in the novel is hardly a reliable source of truth), and are therefore fictitious even in the fiction.

Secondly, Jesus is still revealed as telling the Truth, as he is shown eternal throughout.

And thirdly, the book has strong themes of repentance throughout, which I may touch on later.

That aside: the book was fairly good. I wouldn’t go as far as saying one of my favourites, but nonetheless recommendable. The characters are certainly unique (if not bizarre), and there were some genuinely funny moments throughout.

The descriptive prose is well done, and much of it graphic to the point of breaking through even my 21st century sensitised reactions – the descriptions of Pilates torment due to lack of sleep made me incredibly thankful that I could sleep without trouble.

The stories are much more like fairy-tales than ordinary classical fiction, and are therefore somewhat bordering magical realism(?).

Now to be annoying; the drawbacks: firstly I felt that morality was often too simplified in the novel. Though there were some moments that felt real (which I won’t share due to spoilers) often the portrayal of good and evil were far too separated, unlike the usual mix in each man.

Secondly, the portrayal of the devil was quite cartoon-y, and the ‘antics’ him and his friends got up to seemed somewhat childish. Unless this novel is viewed as a somewhat jovial book – which it certainly has elements of – this could seem quite tedious. It was also hinted at that he is somewhat in charge of the souls of the damned, which is a particular misconception that I can’t help but allow to irk me.

Thirdly, the purpose of the book, should it have been a satire of communism in Russian, was somewhat hard to grasp and hold onto, though that may be perhaps due to ignorance on my part: was the devil, who caused so much trouble for the Russian citizens, a characterised Stalin? I’m not sure.

Overall, however, it wasn’t a bad read, and I’m open for someone to point out something I missed. I’m of the school of hermeneutics that assumes that the authors intent is the true meaning, so sources from Bulgakov that I’m unaware of, perhaps…

It does leave me thinking what I would publicly put forward as my favourite book of the 20th century, however. I’d be interested to hear some people’s thoughts.