Zamyatin’s We has generated enormous critical response through the decades. George Orwell reviewed it in 1946, but was limited by the available manuscripts of his day. He read the French version, translated as Nous Autres, and based his comments on that. According to Natasha Randall, the earliest and most reliable manuscript was published in 1952, by Chekhov House. She also mentions in the intro to her translation of We that the Ford Foundation gave indirect support. Ironic, isn’t it?
Orwell was directly influenced by We. He said it was a model for him, and he began writing Nineteen Eight-Four less than a year after reading it. Reading his review, however, makes me think that the French version was not up to par, as he makes no mention of the high quality of the prose, the startling metaphors, the poetics of math and science. He seems to have missed the revolutionary style. Understandable, given the likelihood that the French translation was based upon a less than stellar manuscript.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is also a focus of the review. Comparison and contrast. There is some debate concerning Huxley’s debt to We, but Orwell felt almost certain that he had read it and modeled his book after it. Huxley said no to all of that. Here’s a section from the review that sets the table for the comparison:
The first thing anyone would notice about We is the fact — never pointed out, I believe — that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partly derived from it. Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence. The atmosphere of the two books is similar, and it is roughly speaking the same kind of society that is being described though Huxley’s book shows less political awareness and is more influenced by recent biological and psychological theories.
Orwell goes on to say that the problem of “human nature” is largely resolved in Brave New World but continues to be a driving force of conflict in We. He sees that as a major plus for Zamyatin’s novel:
Zamyatin’s book is on the whole more relevant to our own situation. In spite of education and the vigilance of the Guardians, many of the ancient human instincts are still there. The teller of the story, D-503, who, though a gifted engineer, is a poor conventional creature, a sort of Utopian Billy Brown of London Town, is constantly horrified by the atavistic* impulses which seize upon him. He falls in love (this is a crime, of course) with a certain I-330 who is a member of an underground resistance movement and succeeds for a while in leading him into rebellion. When the rebellion breaks out it appears that the enemies of The Benefactor are in fact fairly numerous, and these people, apart from plotting the overthrow of the State, even indulge, at the moment when their curtains are down, in such vices as smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.
Then there is the matter of the Soviet’s refusal to publish. Orwell talks about many factors, and thinks Zamyatin wasn’t aiming his satire at the Soviets alone. Zamyatin had written scathing indictments of Western style capitalism as well. But there were enough passages in We to set the Soviet guardians on edge. Orwell abridges one:
“Do you realise that what you are suggesting is revolution?”
“Of course, it’s revolution. Why not?”
“Because there can’t be a revolution. Our revolution was the last and there can never be another. Everybody knows that.”
“My dear, you’re a mathematician: tell me, which is the last number?”
“But that’s absurd. Numbers are infinite. There can’t be a last one.”
“Then why do you talk about the last revolution?”
* * * * *
Something Orwell doesn’t discuss, which I find fascinating: Zamyatin’s synesthesia. Like Rimbaud and Kandinsky, Zamyatin may have suffered from, been blessed with, this remarkable condition. He described the way certain letters made him feel, and attached colors, temperatures, and even elements to them. Natasha Randall provides some examples:
L is pale, cold, light blue, liquid, light. R is loud, bright, red, hot, fast. N is tender, snow, sky, night. D or T is stifling, grave, foggy, obscuring, stagnant. M is kind, soft, motherly, sea-like. A is distant, ocean, misty mirage, breadth of scope. O is high, deep, sea-like, bosom. I is close, low, pressing.
Will discuss some of the political implications of Zamyatin’s novel in the near future . . .