Zamyatin and Huxley through Orwell’s eyes

In Freedom and Happiness (The Orwell Foundation), Orwell writes about Zamyatin‘s We and Huxley’s Brave New World.

Orwell finds that Huxley’s novel must have been “derived” from Zamyatin’s and that Zamyatin’s view is more pertinent to our times. We is not a metaphorical novel about a totalitarian dictatorship. Zamyatin did not target any particular country, even though while living in Britain he had written a satire on British life, The Islanders. We is a novel about “the implied aims of industrial civilisation”. (FREEDOM AND HAPPINESS (REVIEW OF ‘WE’ BY YEVGENY ZAMYATIN) George Orwell)

Gleb Struve comments that, in his view, Zamyatin did have “in mind” both the Soviet Union and “the dominant spirit of our machine age” (GLEB STRUVE ON WE AND ZAMYATIN, published by the Orwell Foundation), however Struve does not appear to be citing anything in support of his view. It may be that Struve, as a Russian emigre, expressed his own frustrations and missed Zamyatin’s larger point.

Written in 1923, Zamyatin’s story takes place in the 26th century. Approximately 100 years passed after the time of writing, and we still have about 400 years to go until we reach Zamytin’s imagined times. Orwell read the story in 1946.

Orwell’s words “the implied aims of industrial civilisation” could be rephrased as ‘a possible and likely trajectory of its progression’, and we have now made some progress along this trajectory. In the interview that follows below, James K. Galbraith offers a concise and clear overview of some of the socio-economic developments since Zamyatin’s times and the evolution of the science of economics accompanying these developments; the discussion highlights how close we have been to the path that may well lead to Zamyatin’s predicted state and provides a practical, economist’s perspective to the artist’s vision.

We recommend Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s retelling of it in his brief Freedom and Happiness.

We is set in the aftermath of a 200-year war in a regimented society where people are identified by number (the novel’s narrator is D-503) ruled over by a figure called the Benefactor.

Nature is held at bay behind a Green Wall and everyone is snooped on by ‘Guardians’, their task made easy because everyone lives in glass houses.

Individuality is sublimated to the greater good, ‘I’ has given way to ‘We’ and transgressors risk being liquidated by the Benefactor’s ‘Machine’.

Written in 1920-21, We was first published in an English translation in America in 1924.

A suggestion in the novel by 1-330, an alluring female rebel, that there can be no final, definitive revolution was seized on by George Orwell when he reviewed the French edition of We in 1946 (three years before Nineteen Eighty-Four was published).

“It is easy to see why the book was refused publication,” wrote Orwell, who expressed delight at having got hold of a copy “at last”.

Prof Saunders, who kindly gave me a print-out of the review, says of the man named on the plaque: “Don’t underestimate Zamyatin.

“He’s one of the very major 20th Century Russian writers. His oeuvre is not enormous. He died quite young and he struggled in Soviet times.

“He was in the Soviet Union until 1931 and at the end of his life he was trying to write another novel that was to be called Attila.

“This was the guy who more or less destroyed the western Roman Empire. I assume this has something to do with Zamyatin’s view of the Soviet Union.”

Zamyatin supported the Bolsheviks in the first Russian revolution of 1905 but later became critical of them, according to Prof Saunders.

“But he wasn’t a right winger and he left the country on a Soviet passport after writing to Stalin, saying ‘Let me out’. Stalin said yes.

“The Soviets had kicked out a lot of intellectuals on something known as the ‘philosophy steamer’ in 1922 and Zamyatin had been a candidate for expulsion at that time. It’s a bit unclear.”

Crystal clear, apparently, is that when Zamyatin was whiling away his last years in Paris he wouldn’t have been pining for Newcastle.

“He hated Newcastle,” asserts Prof Saunders, citing the letters he sent to his wife in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) and the two short stories he wrote while in England which clearly anticipate We.

“Zamyatin really didn’t like the formality of Jesmond in 1916,” says Prof Saunders.

He lampoons the vicar’s daily routine – “a timetable for the consumption of food; a timetable for days of penance (two a week); a timetable for the use of fresh air…”

He derides the identical houses, old and smoke-blackened but with the stone steps “scrubbed to a dazzling whiteness”.

And he has little time for the people, such as the strolling Sunday morning gentlemen “who were of course manufactured at a factory in Jesmond”.

One character in Islanders, Lady Campbell, is portrayed “most offensively”, says Prof Saunders, “with an image of her lips moving like worms”.

He believes she must have been based on Lady Marjory Noble (nee Campbell), 88-year-old widow of Sir Andrew Noble, partner in Armstrong Whitworth and resident of Jesmond Dene House.

“I think it’s likely – they did this with other visiting ship buyers – that she had him round for some ghastly tea party.

“I think Zamyatin must have been a rather conflicted engineer because his day job consisted of precise measurements and drawings. That was his work but it wasn’t how he wanted to be.”

It’s interesting to think that the dystopian We might have been inspired as much by life in Jesmond as life in that vast country of 11 time zones.

Many people in Britain come to Zamyatin these days through the Orwell connection but Prof Saunders believes both owe a debt to HG Wells, of whom Zamyatin was an admirer.

It took a long time to get the plaque put up at 19 Sanderson Road.

Prof Saunders says the campaign was started in 1984 by Alan Myers, an admired translator of Russian literature and a proud Geordie exiled down south, and supported by Joseph Brodsky, the poet and Nobel laureate who settled in America after being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972.

It finally appeared in 2002 and has intrigued people ever since.

Jesmond and a dystopian masterpiece

Image source: a portrait by Boris Kustodiev