Century-old Russian novel is said to have inspired ‘1984’


A mathematician who hates imaginary numbers – “Get √ − 1 out of me!” He shouts – D-503 is the golden boy of the One State. He looks longingly at the Integral, comparing his machinations to a ballet. “Why is this dance beautiful? ” he writes. “Answer: because the movements are not free. The deeper teaching of this dance lies in its absolute aesthetic slavery, its ideal of non-freedom. But the Integral’s steel blades soon find a romantic rival for D-503’s ailments. One day, during one of the state-sanctioned personal hours, he walks around and meets I-330, a woman with sharp teeth and angular eyebrows, whose resemblance to a right angle seems to do it to him. He describes her as “slender, sharp, supple and stubborn, like a whip”.

In no time, the I-330 takes him stealthily to the House of Antiquity, a museum of ancient times filled with the ephemera of the ancients: books, candlesticks, “rows of furniture in epileptic disarray, impossible to integrate into An equation “. Later, she surprises him by wearing something other than the prescribed uniform, “an ancient dress – thin as paper, saffron yellow: a thousand times more devilish than if she hadn’t worn anything at all”. In no time, it’s clear: I-330 is a rebel, part of a secret group that seeks to overthrow the One State and bring back the days of alcohol, Scriabin, and unsanctioned poetry. by the state.

Zamiatin was born in Lebedyan, Russia, in 1884. He joined the Bolshevik Party early on and participated in the Revolution of 1905, for which he was imprisoned and exiled to the provinces. After a visit to England (supervising the construction of icebreakers), he returned to Russia in 1917 and witnessed the October Revolution closely. Euphoric, he throws himself headlong into the work of the party, sits on the boards of directors of literary organizations and gives lectures on the art of fiction. He also became a prominent literary critic, and his biggest pet peeve was the influence of Taylorism – a 19th-century American philosophy of efficiency – on a new movement of worker-writers called Proletkult. Their main supporter was the writer Alexander Bogdanov, whose novel “The Red Star” (1908) was about a scientist and a revolutionary who goes to Mars and finds a perfect socialist society based on technology and ruthless efficiency. Proletkult’s writers were also too eager, Zamiatine thought, to play the role of court poets, and for an increasingly censored court. In a 1921 essay titled “I’m Afraid” (translated by Mirra Ginsburg), he wrote: “True literature can only exist where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy officials, but by fools. , hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics. “

“Us” has the distinction of being the first novel officially banned in the Soviet Union. Glavlit, the Soviet body responsible for literary censorship, was established in 1922, just a year after Zamiatin finished work on the book. Just before it was banned, he sent a copy overseas, and so “We” was first published not in Russian but in English (in a translation by Gregory Zilboorg), by the American publisher Dutton in 1924. Problems arose when extracts appeared in Russian. in an emigrant diary in Prague. To protect Zamiatine, the publisher insisted that these were retranslations and not – importantly – an original version that the author could have provided for overseas distribution after the ban. . The Soviets erred on the side of mistrust, as was their custom. Zamiatine quickly fell out of favor and was unable to publish any of his new work. In 1931, he appealed directly to Stalin to let him go abroad, on condition that he returned “as soon as it was possible in Russia to serve the great ideas of literature without grinding his teeth in front of the little men ”. It was arranged for Zamiatine and his wife to move to Paris, where he lived until his death from a heart attack in 1937.

In 1946, George Orwell got his hands on the English translation of “We” and reviewed it in The Tribune. “As far as I can tell,” he wrote, “this is not a top-notch book, but it is certainly an unusual book. Orwell’s enthusiasm led to a timely reissue in 1952. In the aftermath of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, “Us” struck readers as eerily prophetic. The same is true now. In a foreword to this new edition, Margaret Atwood writes: “The show trials and mass purges of Stalin would not take place for a decade. plan.”

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