The book that inspired 1984 and Brave New World

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Clarence Brown

we_yevgeni_zamyatinSo, I finally read the book that inspired Orwell’s 1984 (my brief write-up here).  Many other dystopian novels have similarities, including Huxley’s Brave New World (my review here) although Huxley said he was inspired by HG Wells, as was Zamyatin himself.

We wasn’t published in Russian in Russia until 1988, well over sixty years after it was written. Its first publication was in English in 1924 – it had been banned in Russia and had to be smuggled out to the West. Zamyatin was a marine engineer by training, and according to Wikipedia, he oversaw ice-breaker construction for the Imperial Russian Navy during WWI. Based in Newcastle in the UK, he saw large scale collective labour working in the Tyne shipyards.  He drew on these experiences, plus those of the Russian Revolutions in his writing.  In 1931, he appealed directly to Stalin to leave the country, and surprisingly was allowed to go, joining his wife in Paris where he worked with film director Jean Renoir, dying in poverty in 1937, aged 53.

The translation I read by American, Clarence Brown, was published in 1993 – the first English translation from Zamyatin’s original manuscript, rather than from an edited MS.  The other translation freely available in the UK is a 2007 one by Natasha Randall.  I’ve briefly compared the opening chapters (thanks to Amazon’s look inside feature), and think I prefer Brown’s – it’s slightly less modern, more of its time, post WWI, making my vision of the story itself more Fritz Lang than Ridley Scott.  But enough of this, let’s look at the book…

I, D-503, builder of the INTEGRAL, I am only one of the mathematicians of OneState. My pen, accustomed to figures, is powerless to create the music of assonance and rhyme. I shall attempt nothing more than to note down what I see, what I think – or, to be more exact, what we think (that’s right: we; and let this WE be the exact title of these records). But this, surely, will be a derivative of our life, of the mathematically perfect life of OneState, and if that is so, then won’t this be, of its own accord, whatever I may wish, an epic? It will; I believe and I know that it will.

In OneState, everyone has a number rather than a name – men are odd, prefixed by consonants, women even, prefixed by vowels. D-503 is 120 days away from what will be the biggest achievement of life – sending the first INTEGRAL ship into space.  His life is ruled by numbers. He believes fervently in the mathematics of happiness as determined by The Benefactor, and policed by the Guardians.

I’ll be completely honest with you: Even we haven’t yet solved the problem of happiness with 100 percent accuracy. Twice a day – from 16:00 to 17:00 and again from 21:00 to 22:00 – the single mighty organism breaks down into its individual cells. These are the Personal Hours, as established by the Table. During these hours you’ll see that some are in their rooms with the blinds modestly lowered; others are walking along the avenue in step with the brass beat of the March; still others, like me at this moment, will be at their desks. But I firmly believe – let them call me idealist and dreamer – but I firmly believe that, sooner or later, one day, we’ll find a place for even these hours in the general formula. One day all 846,400 seconds will be on the Table of Hours.

D-503 lives in his glass cube of a house, only lowering the blinds with permission when his assigned beloved O-90 brings her pink ticket round during Personal Hour,  and D-503 is genuinely fond of O, who is short and rounded, and looks forward to her visits.  Life goes on, unquestioningly, until …

One day during the March, D-503 and O are joined by a sharp faced woman I-330 who tells D to come and see her in Auditorium 112. D is perturbed but when an order arrives, he has to obey, and this is the beginning of the turning upside-down of his entire world.

Yes, I-330 is part of the revolution, and to his annoyance, D finds himself reassigned to her – and she teases him, plants the seeds of ferment in his brain, and he is hooked.  She shows him how it used to be, before the big green glass wall went up, via the ‘Ancient House’ – the only relic and museum, and there are no pink tickets needed there.

… it’s also clear that what I felt yesterday, that stupid “dissolving in the universe,” if you take it to its limits, is death. Because that’s exactly what death is – the fullest possible dissolving of myself into the universe. Hence, if we let L stand for love and D for death, then L=f(D), ie, love and death …
Yes, that’s it, that’s it. That’s why I’m afraid of I-330, why I fight against her, why I don’t want … But why do those two exist side by side in me: I don’t want and I want? That’s just what’s so horrible: What I want again is that blissful death of yesterday. What’s so horrible is that even now, when the logical function has been integrated, when it’s obvious that it contains, as a hidden component, death itself, I still want her, my lips, my arms, my chest, every millimeter of me wants her ….

D raves like a madman, recklessly driven by I-330: he lusts, he rants, he gets paranoid, does whatever she wants, yet still the logician in him misses order – he’s not good at entropy, and he misses O – he thought he was ‘happy before …  I won’t tell you how it develops, there are two possible endings – but which one?

I was really glad to have read this novel.  It is – was truly ground-breaking. Plotwise, those of us who’ve read the classic dystopias that came after We, the aforementioned 1984 and Brave New World in particular will not find anything new.  It’s a shame in a way, that it tends to get read after those, for they are both more instantly readable in comparison; D-503’s demented ravings during the second half of We are quite hard to follow at times, but they also make him human and a memorable character.

D-503 is a learned man, his diaries are full of references to ancient philosophers and the like, and late in the book when he is summoned before The Benefactor, the biblical take of their debate is quite fascinating.  Zamyatin’s vision is remarkably prescient – not only a satire of Stalin’s Russia, but with the glass wall and an informer on every corner it could be Berlin.

Most interesting for me were the discussions on the nature of happiness. Can it really be reduced to an equation?  Can you truly be happy in a world lacking imagination?

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, trans Clarence Brown (Penguin Classics 1993)
We: Introduction by Will Self by Yevgeny Zamyatin, trans Natasha Randall (Vintage 2003)

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16 thoughts on “The book that inspired 1984 and Brave New World

  1. I have the Clarence Brown translation too, which is the one I read, and I liked it very much – as you say, it should read like Fritz Lang! However, I also have the recent Hugh Aplin translation which I want to try as I loved the book very much and I’m finding I get a lot nowadays out of reading different translations. Glad you enjoyed it!

    • I’m a distinct beginner in the business of comparing translations! It’s hard to know where to go – and Amazon reviews go by title, mixing translations. I have Aplin’s trans of Bulgakov’s Young Doctors Notebook – so I shall definitely try that soon.

  2. There was a time I wanted to read all dystopia novels I could get. I read 1984, Brave New World, and Handmaid’s Tale. thanks for this, I will be glad to read this one too.

  3. I’m pleased I read this one, but I think a lot of it went over my head. It’s the sort of book that would benefit from being studied in a class full of people.

    I agree about the happiness discussion. It was the best thing about this book. It is really hard to know whether we’d be happy in a world without imagination if we didn’t know anything else. I suspect most people would end up doing so at some point. I can’t imagine a way to stop people thinking would ever work totally.

    • I’m glad I did a little reading around Zamyatin beyond the notes with the book which were mainly concerning the translation. I thought it interesting that he saw the Tyne shipyards all working happily together and essentially extended that to form a whole life which bumbled along. It is a great one for discussion though, as are 1984 and BNW.

  4. This is interesting, as I found We much more readable than Brave New World – I had the Natasha Randall translation though, which could have made a difference. In any case it’s one of my favourites, and one I think deserves a much wider audience.

    • Absolutely. I loved reading it, but those few chapters where he couldn’t make his mind up and the Integral was launching were difficult to follow. I’d recommend it to any fan of dystopias as one of the daddys of the genre.

  5. I loved 1984 and Brave New World when I read them in high school, but I didn’t know they were inspired by this book. Sounds like a really interesting part of the dystopian cannon!

  6. “D-503′s demented ravings during the second half of We are quite hard to follow at times” – oh, absolutely. I quickly lost track of what he was trying to say, and what Zamyatin was trying to say through him. Very interesting book I’m glad to have read, but personally I wouldn’t say I really liked it…

    • I tend to agree – I did really like parts of it though – especially the beginning and the end. … the demented ravings in the middle didn’t do it for me. But like you, I’m very glad to have read the book! 😉

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