Yevgeny Zamyatin: ‘We’


We is a little known novel that has an impressive pedigree. For a start it is the novel that inspired Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and was inspired by and stands as counterpoint to H.G. Wells’ various attempts at describing his ideal of a scientific utopia. Written in the early 1920’s in Russia when the Bolshevik revolution was at the height of its power, the book was banned only to surface in translation first in New York, then around the world. This is also the book that earned Zamyatin exile from Russia. So, with such an outstanding place in literary history, is there a reason why We is not better known?

Despite the translator claiming in the otherwise excellent introduction to the Penguin Classic’s publication of We that the book is postmodern because it represents the future, it is immediately obvious that this is a modernist novel. The clean lines and crisp prose of the early section of the novel when the protagonist D-503 is a firm believer in the scientific hegemony give way to impressionistic sweeps of the authors linguistic brush. This is, however, no Monet we are dealing with. The sharp dislocations and semi-transparent blurrings of action into ideology bring to mind the technologically inspired paintings of the Vorticist movement, and in their speed and experimentalism conjure the early Italian Futurists. The author’s sympathy clearly falls upon the side of nature and freedom, but the book is mostly concerned with the city and with the human as machine. Indeed, the narrative feels as if it is as much a criticism of Marinetti and Fascism as it is of the namechecked Taylor and Russia’s fledgling Communism.

As a modern reader, the bulk of the novel comes off as a fevered race through the dualism of man. One minute D-503 craves peace and happiness and is willing to surrender himself to something greater in return for a guarantee of this, but the next he revels in emotion, freedom, and the complexity of experience that I-330 opens up for him. He cycles between the two like a man with influenza, hot one moment, cold another, unable to reconcile the two states of being in one body. This is, therefore, a book that should be devoured in one sitting if at all possible in order to heighten the feeling of speed, and to underline the swings between the desire for submission and the desire for freedom that have been so carefully crafted. This novel deserves to be better known outside of SF circles, and whilst it is perhaps not the easiest of reads due to it’s somewhat experimental modernist nature, it is closer to a present day novel than it is to Ulysses, and that alone should convince the wary reader that this is worth their time.

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~ by Snake Oil on October 4, 2011.

5 Responses to “Yevgeny Zamyatin: ‘We’”

  1. A wonderful review of an underrated work! One of the only successful diary structured novels — Orwell ripped it off….

  2. Whilst one has to be careful with such statements, ‘We’ was definitely a bit more than mere inspiration to Orwell. I’d prefer to be more circumspect and say that maybe it was his blueprint for 1984. A blueprint that he followed very closely…

    The diary structure is indeed, very well done, and only really brings itself to the readers attention in a big way when the narrator wraps the diary pages around a steel bar and intends to literally use the narrative as a weapon. This really is fantastic stuff.

  3. Orwell actually accused Huxley of ripping off We!!! That’s the shocker considering the differences in Brave New World and We — thematically similar perhaps but plot wise….

    I dunno — the blueprint is very close — I mean, each of the female main characters have a color differentiation — a sash, a yellow dress…. the similarities are endless.

    But yeah, I’m normally put off by the diary format but We succeeded in virtually every regard…

  4. manonmona reblogged this on Espacio de MANON.

  5. Frankly the novel deserves to be better known “inside” science fiction circles! :) I agree with your thoughts about sitting down and reading it all in one go, or at least not dragging it out. Fortunately it sucked me in so thoroughly that I felt as if I didn’t have a choice, I couldn’t put it down. And although I suspected the kind of ending it would have just because of the place and time in which it was written, it didn’t stop me from feeling agony when D-503 took the path he did.

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