by Eric Weinberger
Boston Globe, 22 December 2002
George Orwell's centenary will be next year, so we will be hearing plenty about him. Christopher Hitchens has claimed him first; having published his ''Letters to a Contrarian'' in his last book not even a year ago, he now examines the correspondence, reportage, and fiction of his own preferred contrarian in a similarly slim volume, ''Why Orwell Matters.''
It's a strange, inapt title not nearly as effective as the assertion contained in the original British edition: ''Orwell's Victory.'' Every semester I rather easily fill up two sections of my Orwell course with freshmen who, having read him or not, know Orwell matters. So perhaps Hitchens should be heartened: A generation of college-bound Americans knows that Orwell is part of their education.
That's the beginning of the semester, anyway; at the end is sometimes a different story. Often the students have grown tired of Orwell and what they perceive as his single-mindedness, bullying, or - most curious of all - his ''negativism.'' Dismayed by a carping, relentlessly critical, seemingly unhappy voice, they wish for something uplifting. Yet there is no uplift, only a lasting sense of having been nagged unendurably. Once at the end of term I asked students to jot down their final image of Orwell, in the spirit of V. S. Pritchett who concluded his 1950 ''New Statesman'' eulogy of Orwell as a traveler on a platform who ''points out that one is waiting for the wrong train and vanishes.'' This turned out well enough, with the group favorite being: ''Orwell is like the overworried parents telling their son he is going to become a crack addict, when all he did was sniff some glue.''
So Orwell is tiresome and negative, and might have profited from a little easygoing complacency. The marvelous thing about all this is that it suggests Orwell is still alive. Still relevant, still useful, he matters. Weariness is not the same as indifference. So Hitchens's brief exercise, idiosyncratic as it is, loses its point unless one reverts to its original, polemical title: ''Orwell's Victory.'' What has Orwell won, and whom over? Reading the book, an Orwell enthusiast cheers along as Orwell (Hitchens) triumphs over, variously, the left, right, feminists, postmodernists, silly British jingo patriots, continental intellectuals (some British too) whose bad-faith statements against Orwell are brutally flattened by Hitchens. Attacking misguided yet essentially obscure intellectuals, as Hitchens does, is the least purposeful of his efforts. Far more useful is the literary criticism of the careful reader who notes Orwell's ''lifelong interest in the relationship between power and sexual repression,'' or the early novels as ''fore-runners'' to a number of postwar literary trends, or the worldly journalism that argues that America, which Orwell mostly ignored in his writing and never visited, was his great ''missed opportunity.'' Like many of us, Hitchens is strongest when making previously undiscovered links among his favorite writers, so here Orwell, when joined to such figures as Kingsley Amis, Auden, and especially Philip Larkin produces tempting insights like ''Englishness ... lends itself to melancholy and pessimism, and borrows from these. Both Orwell and Larkin are drawing on the same store of greensward and grey stone; both share an inward conviction that it's too vulnerable and fragile to endure.''
There is much to learn about Orwell from Hitchens, who has read most, even all of his works, yet can still make an elementary error like saying that Mr. Jones is invited back at the end of Animal Farm, when the book tells us 10 pages earlier that Jones has died in some sort of halfway house. He also says there are no jokes in 1984, when actually there are several. One criticism of Orwell that Hitchens will accept is that he is generally a humorless writer, which I don't think is true. The author's method is, on the whole, rather slapdash, with each short chapter brought suddenly to an end by an eccentric passage, so that when it is time to finish up Orwell's difficulties from the left, for example, Hitchens has three anecdotes of his own with which to conclude the argument. Clearly each of these chapters could be 100 or more pages long, and Hitchens is a fast-moving journalist mounting a defense that can never, in this shallow space, fully hold together. Normally one does not accuse Hitchens of lacking conclusions or conclusiveness, yet sadly that is what one has to report on a moving chapter on ''Englishness'' and George Orwell. Orwell loved England, yes, but Hitchens's way of taking us through Orwell's England is through the oddest trajectory encompassing the metric system, the significance of the adverb ''beastly,'' love of animals and nature, and a very long parenthetical aside on the aspidistra. Of course Orwell did a lot of this meandering, too, and his mind was sufficiently interesting and his prose robust to carry it off. Which is perhaps the point; Hitchens wants to show he can do it himself.
The work that this book most recalls is Orwell's own long essay Charles Dickens, which famously begins ''Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing.'' A lesser writer takes on a greater writer and explains him better, more simply, more excitingly, than a hundred more learned commentators before him. That's the idea of it, at least. Hitchens does well to reveal Orwell as a complex man, and the complex man is never entirely an honest one, almost by definition.
It gratifies us to read Orwell; we feel ennobled by him. We claim him for ourselves; Hitchens might have attempted to ask why. Orwell asked, ''When I say I like Dickens, do I simply mean that I like thinking about my childhood?'' Here the question is: When I say I like Orwell, do I mean I like thinking of myself as virtuous?
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