by Noel Malcolm
Electronic Telegraph, Saturday 29 August 1998
In May 1946 George Orwell published an article in Tribune, entitled "Confessions of a Book Reviewer". Picture, he said, that "down-trodden, nerve-racked creature", the professional reviewer, sitting "in a moth-eaten dressing-gown at a rickety table". Bald, varicose-veined and vaguely suicidal, "he is a man of 35, but looks 50".
The arrival of yet another parcel of books fills the poor reviewer with dread. "The prospect of having to read them affects him like the prospect of eating cold ground-rice pudding flavoured with castor oil." Truly, Orwell concluded, book reviewing is "a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job".
Well, I wouldn't quite call it dread, but I did feel a certain trepidation when the huge cardboard box containing the 20 volumes of the new Complete Orwell landed on my doorstep. And my first hasty riffling through some of the 11 volumes that are entirely new (the first nine volumes, containing Orwell's major published works, were originally issued in the late 1980s) did produce an occasional whiff of castor oil: diaries which seemed to consist mainly of Orwell's jottings about the price of eggs, for example, or internal memos and "talks booking forms" from his time at the BBC.
And yet, sitting down several weeks later at my rickety table, scratching my bald head and stroking my varicose veins, the only "confession of a book reviewer" I can now make may sound suspiciously like a boast. Beaten by the clock, I have managed to read only nine of those 11 volumes. But as soon as I have sent off this review, I shall return to my armchair and continue reading the final two. That may give some idea of how highly I rate both the intrinsic interest of this colossal project, and the skill with which its editor, Peter Davison, has carried it off.
The story of Professor Davison's epic struggle to bring out the edition has been told in several recent articles and profiles, and need not be repeated here. (He himself tells it briefly, through audibly gritted teeth, in his introduction to volume 10: "By December 1993, 2,125 of 7,840 pages of text-copy had been set and proofread. The American publishers then gave up. . .", and so on.)
But what has been commented on less widely is the extraordinary nature of the task which Prof Davison had set himself - leaving aside all the additional obstacles to its completion which the world of publishing then threw in his path. Quite simply, he has put together in these 11 new volumes, in strict chronological sequence, every scrap of occasional writing by George Orwell that survives (plus several, so to speak, that do not - writings published in French or German of which the original English texts are now lost).
Every reference has been followed up, almost every name identified. A draft of a postcard to Amabel Williams-Ellis, for example, of which the complete text is "Can you call here any time on Thursday morning?", is preceded by a six-line note describing how and why Mrs Williams-Ellis had contacted Orwell, and followed by a seven-line note explaining who she was.
No detail is too small for the editor's scrutiny. When Orwell gives, at the end of his unpublished pamphlet on "British Cookery", a recipe for plum cake, Prof Davison observes in a lynx-eyed footnote: "Orwell has omitted to mix in the chopped almonds."
Inevitably, some will ask what the point was of printing all those diaries listing the prices of foodstuffs, those reviews of minor novels or those bits and pieces of BBC business ("Dear Professor Buxton, I wonder whether you would care to do a talk for the Indian Section of the BBC on the subject of house-flies. . ."). The answer must be that there are connections between even the dullest things Orwell wrote about and the rest of his mental life. His educational talks for Indians were part of a project, close to his heart, of preparing India for independence: his Mayhew-like interest in what ordinary things cost and how they were made fuelled some of his best journalistic work.
For Orwell was, as this edition demonstrates, a journalist to the very fingertips. Everything he read or saw or heard, from the narrative style of Tolstoy's novels to the captions on seaside postcards, from the rhyming-slang of hop-pickers to the speeches of Communist dictators, was noted as factually as possible and then put to some use - to support an opinion or challenge a prejudice.
The very word "journalism" implies, etymologically, things written on a daily basis. By including all of Orwell's published articles and reviews in a seamless day-by-day sequence of letters, diaries, memos and so on, this edition shows how his ideas developed - or were discarded - in response to things he read and arguments in which he got embroiled. (One admirable feature of this edition is that it reproduces the angry letters which were provoked by Orwell's articles: these include an indignant riposte from Frank Richards, author of the Billy Bunter stories, whom Orwell had accused of promoting class prejudice.)
Above all, this long march down the paper-trail of Orwell's life enables us to see more clearly than ever before the nature of his political development - of what it was that changed in his thinking, and what it was that remained the same.
Orwell was always a man of the Left. His earliest writings were directed against imperialism (in Burma) and class prejudice (in Britain), and he never lost his commitment to a wide-ranging socialist programme, which included the nationalisation of all industries and punitive attacks on all the privileges of the upper class. And yet for the last 13 years of his life he was much more actively engaged in arguing against other people on the Left. It was from those disputes, indeed, that his two most famous works, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, arose.
Through this edition, we can now follow those disputes in full detail. There were, it seems, three controversies that really mattered. The first was the one about the Spanish Civil War in which Orwell got embroiled almost by accident. I say "by accident" because it was as a result of a chance introduction through the ILP (Independent Labour Party) that he happened to join the Trotskyist militia rather than the Communist International Brigade.
His experience of the brutal suppression of that militia by the Communists (as told in Homage to Catalonia) was his first real awakening to the nature of Stalinist politics. This was reinforced by his discovery, when he returned to England, of the wall of silence - or outright lies - with which Moscow-worshipping intellectuals of the Left had surrounded those events in the British media.
The second dispute is less well-known: his fierce debate with the pacifist Left during the early years of the Second World War. His opponents here drew on a doctrine of moral equivalence which the Left had long been nurturing: Nazism was evil, but the hidden Fascism of the capitalist system in Britain was also evil, and therefore it would make little difference which system one lived under.
In articles and letters, with dogged patience but visibly mounting contempt, Orwell hammered home the common-sensical points that needed to be made: that downtrodden British workers could not be equated with labour-camp slaves, that class-snobbery was not on a par with legalised racial subjugation, and so on. This dispute gave him a deeper distaste for the sort of ideological argument in which slogans become a substitute for thought.
And the third dispute was a consequence of Hitler's invasion of Russia. Once Uncle Joe had become an ally of Britain, Orwell's two chief bugbears - Moscow-worshipping intellectuals and Establishment blimps - worked hand-in-hand to construct an even bigger and better wall of silence round the true nature of the Stalinist system.
What depressed Orwell here was not only the mendacity this involved (he was one of the first people to campaign for a public admission of the truth about the Katyn massacre), but also the extraordinary way in which those Leftists had managed to believe one thing before August 1939, a completely different thing after the Hitler-Stalin pact, and a third after June 1941. His comments on this form of mental self-abnegation can be traced through his letters and articles here, providing the essential background to the writing of his final masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In the end, of course, it is the great novels that matter most. These too have been meticulously edited by Prof Davison, who has checked original typescripts and proofs, restored phrases cut by censors, editors and libel lawyers, and supplied, among other things, the complete text of Orwell's own dramatisation of Animal Farm. These 20 volumes are, quite simply, one of the greatest monuments of the art of editing in the modern English-speaking world.
And now, back to the armchair. Where was I? Ah yes, volume 19, page 11, item 3,148, a letter from Orwell to his literary agent, Jan 9, 1947: "As to a Serbian translation of Animal Farm . . ."
The Complete Works of George Orwell
Edited by Peter Davison, assisted by Ian Angus and Sheila Davison
Secker & Warburg, 20 vols, £750
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