The New Yorker / The New Statesman / The Financial Times / The Independent / The Guardian / The Sunday Times
The New York Review of Books, 22 October 1998
Even if you are, as I am, a passionate Orwellian, the question you have to ask of this vast, beautifully produced, stupendously annotated, literary monument is: Why Orwell?
Why should he, of all writers, have his maudlin teenage love poems edited as if they were lost sonnets by Milton? What is the lasting value of all his hundreds of book reviews and columns? How can you justify three fat volumes of his radio talks, humdrum correspondence as a producer for other people's talks, and even the internal "Talks Booking Forms" from two years at the Indian Section of the BBC? When Dr. Peter Davison says Complete Works, he means complete.
Every line treated like Shakespeare. Yet Orwell was no Shakespeare. He was not a universal genius. Nor was he a natural master of the English language. Much of his early writing is painfully bad. A poet friend described the young would-be novelist as "like a cow with a musket." He himself later dismissed two of his published novels, A Clergyman's Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, both meticulously reprinted here, as "thoroughly bad books." When he was dying, he gave instructions that they should NOT (his capitals) be reprinted. Even his final masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is marred by patches of melodrama and weak writing. Only Animal Farm is perfectly composed.
One can immediately think of half a dozen twentieth-century authors who, line for line, page for page, were consistently better writers: Conrad, Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, Auden, Waugh. So why don't they get this treatment? Why Orwell?
One possible answer to this question is: of course the others should get this treatment too. It's a daunting idea, but worth considering for a moment. There is an extraordinary richness of understanding that comes from having every essay, article, broadcast, review, letter, diary, and notebook entry—as well as selected responses from other people—printed in chronological order, day by writing day. The pure literary merit of any individual piece becomes secondary as you navigate the intimate infolding of life and work. You discover multiple connections: between the books Orwell reviewed and those he wrote, between his own love life and those of his characters, between the horrible rats that he catches as a teenager, the rats in a Spanish prison, and the rats that finally break Winston Smith in the melodramatic Room 101 of Nineteen Eighty-Four ("Do it to Julia!").
Such editions could even contribute to a new kind of intellectual democracy. Never mind the published biographies. Here is the raw material to make your own. Orwell, the intellectual democrat, would surely have approved. So perhaps every major writer should receive the complete workover, Davison style. All the Conrads and Joyces need is to find their Davisons, ready to invest, for very modest pay, seventeen years of exhausting editorial work. And then for a publishing or philanthropic big-heart to make available the results (this Orwell, too) in affordable form, whether as paperbacks or electronically. At the hardcover price, only university libraries and a few lucky book reviewers will have the intellectual vote.
A more obvious answer to the question "Why Orwell?" is: the unique fascination and lasting importance of his life and work. Fascination and importance are linked, yet distinct. Fascination first. Davison quotes a well-known comment by Orwell's schoolfriend Cyril Connolly: "Anything about Orwell is interesting. He was a man, like Lawrence, whose personality shines out in everything he said or wrote." This is true, and what an eccentric, cussed, contrary, incurably English personality it was.
The bare biographical facts are curious enough: a talented scholar at Eton perversely goes off to become an imperial policeman in Burma, a dishwasher in Paris, and a tramp in London; runs a village shop, fights in the Spanish Civil War, abandons left-wing literary London for a farm on a remote Scottish island, and dies of tuberculosis at the moment of literary triumph, aged forty-six. That tall, thin figure, in shabby tweed jacket, ballooning corduroy trousers, and dark shirt, with his odd pencil-line moustache, high, rasping voice, and working man's roll-up cigarettes, is the stuff of anecdote in his lifetime and legend after it. Malcolm Muggeridge notes in his diary five days after Orwell's death: "Read through the various obituary articles on George by Koestler, Pritchett, Julian Symons, etc., and saw in them how the legend of a human being is created."
No one wrote better about the English character than Orwell, and he was himself a walking anthology of Englishness. So English in his complicated relationship to class: alert to its subtlest gradations (he famously describes his own family as "lower-upper-middle class"), hating the snobbery and class distinctions, yet never quite able to escape them. It's a measure of how slowly his beloved England has changed that for fifty years middle-class leftists have wrestled with the same tensions, Orwell's ghost walking always beside them.
Very English, too, in his sense of humor—a large part of his sandpapery charm. Reporting matter-of-factly on Orwell's health after he was shot through the throat by a Francoist sniper's bullet, his commanding officer Georges Kopp wrote: "Breathing absolutely regular. Sense of humour untouched." He had that habit of making some outrageous statement—"All tobacconists are fascists"—and then defying you not to take it seriously. Evelyn Waugh was his political opposite, but they were satirical brothers under the skin. The moralist came with the satirist. Connolly said Orwell couldn't blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry.
English, oh so English, in his fumbling relations with women. There are some sad, almost begging letters: "I hope you will let me make love to you again some time, but if you don't it doesn't matter, I shall always be grateful to you for your kindness to me." And English, very pre-death of Diana English, in emotional understatement that was even more extreme than his comic overstatement. There's no doubt that his marriage to his vivacious, intelligent, resourceful, supportive first wife, Eileen, was deeply important to him. But after her unexpected, early death on the operating table he expressed his grief to Stephen Spender thus: "She wasn't a bad old stick."
English, again, in his love of the countryside, animals, and gardening. English, above all, in the whole cast of his intelligence, with its deep, stubborn empiricism. He was an inveter-ate diarist, note-taker, and list-maker. These tomes are jam-packed with curious facts and minute observations, from the habits of the hen to the different kinds of German bombs landing on the streets of London. He loved what the English poet Craig Raine memorably calls "the beauty of facts." If he had a God, it was Kipling's "the God of Things as They are."
Yet there's a complication here, which is also part of the fascination. Orwell put so much of his life into his work. Three of his nine full-length books (now the first nine volumes of the Complete Works) are proclaimedly autobiographical. He led the way in the emphatic, frontal use of the word "I." That unmistakable Orwell voice is one of defiant unvarnished honesty, of the plain man bluntly telling things as they are. But who exactly is this "I"? Is it the real man, Eric Blair, or the invented persona, George Orwell? In what sense are the things he tells us actually true?
One of his most powerful early essays describes witnessing a hanging in Burma. But he later told three separate people that this was "only a story." So did he ever witness a hanging? He annotates a copy of Down and Out in Paris and London for a girlfriend: this really happened, this happened almost like this, but "this incident is invented." Anyway, there's a basic untruth in telling the story as if he really was down to his last penny or sou. In England he had family and friends, in Paris a favorite aunt who would certainly have helped out.
Did the avatars of the "New Journalism" in the United States read him before they wrote? Even if they did not, he is a precursor. The questions the New Journalism raised about the nature of veracity in reporting and the relationship between fictional and nonfictional truths, questions central to the whole business of higher journalism today: all are there in "Orwell."
This is already the stuff of a thousand critical studies. Whole departments of English literature seem to have been kept busy disentangling, triangulating, deconstructing, and reconstructing fact and fiction in Orwell's work. Still and all, this biographical and critical fascination would not have existed, let alone persisted, multiplying Orwelliana like relics of the true cross, were it not for his huge success and worldwide influence over the last half-century as the author of two books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The fascination cannot, ultimately, be divorced from the importance.
"In terms of the effect he has had on history," David Remnick has written, "Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of the twentieth century. Who else compares? Orwell? Koestler?" Well, it's an interesting challenge. I would say Orwell. For a start, his influence is so much wider. "Big Brother," "newspeak," and "doublethink" have entered the language. They are used in a thousand, often trivial or wildly inappropriate, contexts. It's an irony Orwell might not have enjoyed that prime evidence for his influence comes from the political-linguistic abuse of terms he invented to warn against such abuse.
Meanwhile, the word "Orwellian" pops up all over the place, both as an adjective, to describe totalitarian terror, the falsification of history, etc. (compare "Kafkaesque"), and as a noun, to describe an admirer and conscious follower of his work. Very few writers harvest this double tribute of becoming both adjective and noun. Offhand, I can only think of Marxist, Freudian, Darwinian, Dickensian, Tolstoyan, Joycean, and Jamesian. (Partly, to be sure, this is the accident of euphony. "Solzhenitsynian" is a mouthful, "Eliotian" sounds like a hair oil.)
No, Orwell is the most influential political writer of the twentieth century. His friend Arthur Koestler certainly does not compare. Who else? Popper? Hayek? Sartre? Camus? Brecht? Aron? Arendt? Berlin? In the 1970s, Solzhenitsyn probably had a greater political impact than any of these. Yet long before Solzhenitsyn, and for much longer—from 1945 to 1990, for the whole span of the cold war—Orwell was read throughout what we then called "the West" as the supreme describer of totalitarianism in general, and Soviet totalitarianism in particular.
He even matched Solzhenitsyn on his own ground. Inside what was then called "the East" anyone who could lay hold of a smuggled underground copy of Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four would devour it in a night and recognize it as an extraordinary satirical critique of their own reality. The historian Aleksandr Nekrich wrote that "George Orwell is perhaps the only Western author to understand the deepest essence of the Soviet world." The Russian poet Natalya Gorbanyevskaya told me she felt Orwell was an East European.
Except, of course, that he wasn't. He was incurably English, and he never went near Russia or Eastern Europe. In the 1980s, Polish and Czech friends would show me their samizdat editions of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four and say, "But how did he do it?" Who told him that in their communal apartment block "the hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats"? How did he understand about everything, from the shortage of razor blades to the deep psychology of doublethink? How did he know?
The answer is both complicated and simple. It really starts in the Spanish Civil War. Because he had joined the heterodox Marxist POUM militia rather than the communist-run International Brigade, he and his wife then got caught up in the violent suppression of the POUM in Barcelona. Friends with whom he had fought at the front were thrown into prison or killed by the Russian-directed communists—supposedly their republican allies. Orwell became a fugitive on the streets. This edition prints a secret report to the Tribunal for Espionage and High Treason in which Eric and Eileen Blair are described as "rabid Trotskyists" and "agents of the POUM." Had they not slipped out of Spain a few days earlier, they could have found themselves, like Georges Kopp, incarcerated, tortured, and thrown into a coal bin with giant rats.
This direct experience of communist terror, betrayal, and lies is a key to understanding all his subsequent work. Of the Russian agent in Barcelona charged with defaming the POUM as Trotskyist Francoist traitors he writes, in Homage to Catalonia, "It was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies—unless one counts journalists." The tail sting is typical black humor, but also reflects a further, bitter discovery. On returning to England he found that virtually the whole left-wing press was suppressing or falsifying the facts about the Barcelona events. This was the second part of his Spanish experience, and it shocked him even more because it was happening in his own country. Here begins his fascination with what he describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as a basic principle of Oceania's ruling ideology: "the mutability of the past." Falsification, airbrushing, rewriting history: in short, the memory hole.
After Spain, he follows with acid passion the development of both totalitarianisms, Nazi and Soviet, but especially the Soviet one. He reads the press closely. One of his many notebooks records the major events leading up to World War II, including the Nazi-Soviet pact. The Tehran conference of 1943 gives him the idea of a world divided into three great blocs. He is one of the first to take up the matter of the Katyn massacres of thousands of Polish officers, carried out by the NKVD but attributed by them to the Germans. And he reviews books. Yevgeny Zamyatin's dystopia We is an acknowledged influence. An American correspondent's account of life in the Soviet Union contains the central trope of Nineteen Eighty-Four: "2+2=5." (This was an actual Soviet poster, suggesting the five-year plan could be fulfilled in four.)
Much of the physical feel of the battered, run-down, smelly London in Orwell's imagined 1984 comes from the battered, run-down, smelly London of 1946-1948. (What no one could have guessed is that Warsaw and Moscow would still look—and smell!—like that in the real calendar year of 1984.) A few details are also based on his time at the BBC. Davison shows that Room 101 is a personal in-joke. Orwell had attended many boring Indian Section meetings in Room 101, Broadcasting House.
Finally, as with all writers, some things come from very personal sources. To make love in a sun-dappled woodland dell is a recurring fantasy, which he achieved with at least one girlfriend, Eleanor Jaques. In a letter of 1932 he remembers her "nice white body in the dark green moss." The white body is back in the woods in Nineteen Eighty-Four (Julia's "body gleamed white in the sun"). Then there's his lifelong thing about rats. And something rather dark: he could describe cruel police oppression and even sadism so well, not just because he had actually been part of an oppressive imperial police but also because there was a streak of cruelty in his own makeup.
All the ingredients are there; but the secret is in the mix. It's in the new mixing that the major weaknesses of his earlier work are magically converted into strengths. His weakness as a novelist is that he is just not sufficiently endowed with the transforming power of the creative imagination. You can say of any of his novels what he later wrote to a correspondent about Burmese Days: "Much of it is simply reporting of what I have seen." Half his fiction is little more than dressed-up reportage. His weakness as a journalist, a less serious one, but still a weakness, is his penchant for ill-founded, sweeping, violent overstatement: "No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist," "All left-wing parties in the highly industrialised countries are at bottom a sham," "A humanitarian is always a hypocrite," and so on. As V.S. Pritchett observed, he "exaggerates like a savage." This is partly his humor, of course. But the trouble with such a journalistic style is that in the end you don't know whether to take it seriously or not.
Now look what happens in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The impact of these books comes precisely from the fact that they are so closely based on real events, details, and trends over the three decades after 1917. Just how closely is shown by a letter to his publisher asking that, in the scene when the humans blow up the windmill in Animal Farm, the line, "All the animals including Napoleon flung themselves on their faces," should be changed to "all the animals except Napoleon," because "the alteration would be fair to J.S., as he did stay in Moscow during the German advance." If Russians and East Europeans had this uncanny sense of recognizing their own reality in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it's because the starting point was their own reality—with some of Nazism and a dash of 1940s London thrown in. But this closely observed reality is then blown up, as on a giant projection screen, by a lover of the savage, darkly humorous overstatement. What mars the journalism makes the masterpiece: first, the small, perfectly formed, Swiftian satirical fable, then the larger, less perfectly formed, but ultimately much more powerful dystopia.
Finally, there is the timing. Because of his Spanish experience, Orwell is on the Soviet case while most of his contemporaries are still celebrating our heroic ally of Stalingrad. Famously, Animal Farm is rejected by Victor Gollancz, by T.S. Eliot at Faber's (Eliot's thoughtful letter is printed here), and by Jonathan Cape, on advice from an unnamed official at the Ministry of Information. It appears in August 1945, when the British are beginning to realize that they may have to plunge straight into another war, this time a "cold war" against their former ally. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Orwell is the first person to use the phrase "cold war" in English. Recent historians have described a process by which, in 1945 and 1946, Britain tries to bring a reluctant United States into this cold war. The North American publication of Animal Farm, in August 1946, is itself a small part of that process. When Nineteen Eighty-Four comes out in 1949, just after the Berlin blockade, the new war is fully joined for all to see.
Then Orwell delivers his last masterstroke. He dies. Literary friends hasten to celebrate him, perhaps a mite more generously than they would have done had he continued as a living rival. He is the James Dean of the cold war, the JFK of English letters. How much less satisfactory had he still been around, as Koestler was, to diminish his own reputation with meanderings into popular science, or as Solzhenitsyn still is today—busily dismantling his own monument. As Edmund Clerihew Bentley wrote,
There is a great deal to be said / For being dead.
To guess which way Orwell might have gone is but a nice parlor game. Whichever way he went, it would have been cussed and contrary. He was committed to a socialism with equality as its central value, but in the last year of his life he was having himself turned into a limited company and putting his adopted son down for Westminster School. More seriously, his last draft work finds him reverting to weak, vaguely Somerset Maughamish fiction, a horrible return of the cow with a musket.
But no, since he dies in 1950 on that marvelous crescendo, his myth and his influence will grow and grow. Left and right will both claim him for their own, and argue over his remains.
In Britain, the latest and perhaps last flickering of that now familiar argument was prompted by this new edition. Shortly before its publication, the right-wing Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story headlined "Socialist icon who became an informer." The hot news (drawn from an advance copy of this edition, but actually known since 1996) was that Orwell had compiled a list—sorry, a "Big Brother dossier"—of people he considered to be fellow travelers, and in 1949 had passed on thirty-five names to Celia Kirwan, a friend working in the Information Research Department. This was a newly formed, semi-secret department of the Foreign Office charged with countering the communist propaganda offensive.
The Telegraph's own editorial said Orwell was quite right to do this, but commentators on the left expressed dismay, as they had when the government released some of the relevant documents in 1996. For Andrew Marr, a former editor of the Independent, he instantly became "a damaged hero." "To think Orwell could label possible communists 'Jewish' and 'English Jew' as relevant information for British officialdom—just a few years after the concentration camps had been revealed to the world—is just jaw-dropping."
Davison gives us the true facts, in impeccable detail. In the late 1940s Orwell kept a small, pale blue notebook listing what he called "crypto-communists and fellow-travellers." Davison prints 135 names; another thirty-six have been withheld for fear of libel actions. The entries, with biographical details, range from one Peter Smollett—"Almost certainly agent of some kind"—through the New Statesman editor Kingsley Martin, who had suppressed Orwell's dissi-dent account of Spain—"Decayed liberal. Very dishonest"—and the historian E.H. Carr—"Appeaser only"—to the poet Stephen Spender—"Sentimental sympathizer, & very unreliable. Easily influenced. Tendency towards homosexuality."
As I have mentioned already, Orwell was an inveterate note-taker and list-maker, and this is a very idiosyncratic private list, touched with humor. Nonetheless, there is something disquieting—a touch of the old imperial policeman—about a man who can have lunch with a friend like Stephen Spender, then go home to file him in this way. It is unsettling to see the labeling "Jewish?" (Charlie Chaplin) and "English Jew" (Tom Driberg), even if other names have "Jugo-Slav," "Polish," "Anglo-American," and so on. The fact is that while Orwell wrote perceptively and forcefully against anti-Semitism, he himself never quite lost the traces of a rather Edwardian English anti-Semitism, which had been especially pronounced among the imperial "lower-upper-middle class." (It's painfully visible in Down and Out in Paris and London.)
But these are intimate biographical insights, obtained by posthumous peeping. He never intended this list for publication. On the available evidence, Marr is quite wrong to suggest that Orwell saw the label "Jewish" as "relevant information for British officialdom."(1) All he did was to pass on thirty-five names of people from this notebook. He did this not to get them spied upon by MI5, but so that communists should not inadvertently be used as anticommunist propagandists. He had earlier written to suggest people on the anticommunist left who should be used. In an interesting recent article in the Times Literary Supplement, Robert Conquest, who worked in the Information Research Department with Celia Kirwan, explains how, far from being part of an English secret police, the department's job was to show up the Soviet one. And there really were Soviet agents in British intellectual life. We now know that one of them was Peter Smollett—exactly as Orwell suspected. For a final twist, Davison plausibly suggests that this same Smollett was the senior official in the Ministry of Information who persuaded Jonathan Cape to reject Animal Farm. To turn these facts into "Socialist icon who became an informer" is itself (sorry, but it's irresistible) Orwellian.
Nor does Orwell need the special pleading that says "Ah well, he was a dying man, and smitten with the beautiful Celia," though both statements are true, and biographically relevant. What he did was entirely consistent with his political position. He was a cold warrior of the left, an anti-communist socialist. Forced to choose between Russia and America, he told his former publisher Victor Gollancz in 1947, "I would always choose America." But he swiftly moved to puncture an American interpretation of Nineteen Eighty-Four as an attack on Britain's Labour government and its brand of socialism. The book's message, he said, was "Don't let it happen. It depends on you."
After a brief membership in the Independent Labour Party, he concluded that "a writer can only remain honest if he keeps free of party labels." But this did not mean sitting on the fence. Far from it. He exemplified the nonparty partisanship of the spectateur engagé. And he followed through. He did not merely go to Spain, as so many leftist writers did; he fought for the republic, and was shot through the throat. Disqualified by illness from fighting against Nazi Germany in the British forces, he became an enthusiastic sergeant in the Home Guard.
He thought the writer's duty in the cold war was to fight too, not just with his own books but also in voluntary organizations. Here we find him planning one with Arthur Koestler and being vice chairman of another, the aptly named Freedom Defence Committee. As systematic investigation of possible communist connections of government employees was being introduced in 1948, he signed a Freedom Defence Committee statement saying that such investigation (later known as "vetting") was acceptable so long as the person being investigated had the right to be represented by a trade union official, MI5 and Special Branch evidence was always corroborated, and the employee could cross-examine his investigator. That was his kind of cold war politics. Orwell has as much in common with an informer as an eagle has with a worm.
And still you might insist: Why Orwell? He was neither a universal genius nor a great novelist. What the whole phenomenon of Eric Blair tells us about Englishness still matters in the England of Tony Blair, especially as Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales begin to go their own ways. But that is of interest mainly to us, the English.
He was the most important political writer of the cold war. But the cold war is over. Penguin can no longer say, as they did on my 1979 paperback edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, "First published in 1949, it retains as much relevance today as it had then." Although today's technology of secret electronic surveillance makes the Thought Police telescreen look primitive, the threat of that kind of centralized, party-state totalitarianism has—unless I am horribly mistaken—receded.
Anyone who wants to understand the twentieth century will still have to read Orwell. His name will go on being invoked, in contexts he never dreamed of. I recently discovered that my eldest son, aged fourteen, has contributed a column to an Apple Mac users' on-line magazine and there describes some nefarious anti-Apple maneuver by Microsoft as "Orwell-esque." So for him and his friends Bill Gates is Big Brother.(2) But what is the Orwell his generation should read, an Orwell for the twenty-first century?
In the long summer after I took my first degree at Oxford, I read the whole of Orwell's work, read him self-consciously as example and guide for a would-be writer. The books that affected me most deeply were the Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters, in four Penguin paperback volumes. That handy compendium is now overtaken by Davison's eleven tomes of collected essays, journalism, letters, replies, diaries, notebooks, radio talks, and Talks Booking Forms. These should go into paperback or onto CD-ROM. But will any student, even with the longest free summer, read them as I did the old Penguins? What is the essential Orwell for our time?
Animal Farm can be read like Gulliver's Travels, at any age. Nineteen Eighty-Four is enthralling, and indispensable for understanding modern history. My essential Orwell for our time would add just two more Penguin paperbacks. First, a new selection of his finest and most important essays, articles, and letters, with texts and footnotes based on this marvelous edition. Second, Homage to Catalonia. Here you would have in concentrated form Orwell's central and enduringly relevant achievement, which is, in his own words, "to make political writing into an art."
Homage to Catalonia—which in Orwell's lifetime sold only about fifty copies a year, but now sells more than 10,000—is a model of how to write about a foreign political crisis, war, or revolution. He goes there. He sees for himself. He takes notes, and he takes risks. Then he writes about it in the first person, not in the self-indulgent spirit of "look at me, what a brave little Hemingway am I," but because it really is more honest. That "I" makes explicit the partiality of his view. To rub it in he tells the reader at the end of the book: "Beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events."
He uses all his hard-learned writer's craft, chisels away at clean, vivid prose, deploys metaphor, artifice, and characteristic overstatement; but all the facts are as accurate as he can make them.(3) It is, as he wrote in praise of Henry Miller, "a definite attempt to get at real facts." For all the question marks about the factual basis of some of Orwell's earlier work, his public and private writing after 1937 shows him striving for an old-fashioned, empirical truth, light-years removed from the postmodern. This includes, crucially, the unpleasant truths about his own side. These he makes a special point of exposing most bluntly.
True, he invites the reader to "skip" two chapters of detailed political exposition, full of acronyms. Davison here follows Orwell's later wishes in banishing them to an appendix. I think he should have exercised editorial judgment to ignore those wishes—as he does by reprinting A Clergyman's Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. For these chapters are brilliant pieces of clear, vigorous, passionate political writing, and an essential part of a book about what was, as Orwell says, "above all things a political war."
You can apply what I call the Homage to Catalonia Test to anything written about any of the defining foreign crises over the last thirty years—Vietnam, Afghanistan, Poland, Nicaragua, South Africa, Rwanda, Bosnia. I must have read twenty books about Bosnia, but I don't think a single one really passes the test.
His great essays straddle politics and literature. They explore Dickens, Kipling, and Tolstoy, nationalism, anti-Semitism, Gandhi, and boys' weeklies. In "Politics and the English Language" he shows how the corruption of language is crucial to the making and defending of bad, oppressive politics. But he also shows how we can get back at the abusers of power, because they are using our weapons: words. Freedom depends on writers keeping the word-mirrors clean. In an age of sophisticated media manipulation, this is more vital than ever.
In his best articles and letters, he gives us a gritty, personal example of how to engage as a writer in politics. He takes sides, but remains his own man. He will not put himself at the service of political parties exercising or pursuing power, since that means using half-truths, in a democracy, or whole lies in a dictatorship. He gets things wrong, but then corrects them. Sometimes he joins with others in volunteer brigades or boring committee work, to defend freedom. But if need be, he stands alone, against all the "smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls."
In "The Prevention of Literature" he suddenly bursts into an old Revivalist hymn:
Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone;
Dare to have a purpose firm,
Dare to make it known.
He did. As he himself wrote of Dickens, behind the pages of his work you see the face of a man who is generously angry. This is the great Orwell. We need him still, because Orwell's work is never done.
1. I say "on the available evidence," because the British government, while it released Orwell's letter to Celia Kirwan, has withheld the actual list of thirty-five names. So we still don't know precisely what details or assessments he passed on. However, we can make a very good guess at who is there, because on the list in his notebook Orwell marked exactly thirty-five names with an asterisk. Smollett, Martin, and Carr received an asterisk. Spender did not—quite rightly, since at this time he was just writing his contribution to The God that Failed (edited by Richard Crossman, and published in 1950), a very influential collection of testimonies from intellectuals who had once believed in communism, but now abhorred it. Oddly, Crossman also appears in Orwell's notebook—"Too dishonest to be outright F.T." (i.e. fellow traveler)—though unasterisked. As Davison records, the notebook is written in several different pens, and may therefore have been kept over a number of years.
2. Curiously enough, the magazine is called 1984. However, I am told that this refers not to Orwell but to the year in which the Mac was launched.
3. If his facts are nonetheless sometimes wrong, this is at least partly because all his papers—including, probably, his Spanish war diary—were taken during a secret police search of his hotel room in Barcelona. Davison makes the intriguing suggestion that these may now be in an NKVD dossier on Orwell that, according to one source, still exists in the Soviet archives.
Who wrote this? "Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." But you guessed straightaway: George Orwell. The subject stated up front, the sudden acceleration from the scope-widening parenthesis into the piercing argument that follows, the way the obvious opposition between "lies" and "truthful" leads into the shockingly abrupt coupling of "murder" and "respectable," the elegant, reverse-written coda clinched with a dirt-common epithet, the whole easy-seeming poise and compact drive of it, a world view compressed to the size of a motto from a fortune cookie, demanding to be read out and sayable in a single breath -- it's the Orwell style. But you can't call it "Orwellian," because that means Big Brother, Newspeak, the Gestapo, the K.G.B., the Stasi, and any other totalitarian obscenity that has ever reared its head or ever will.
The word "Orwellian" is a daunting example of the fate that a distinguished writer can suffer at the hands of journalists. When a totalitarian setup, whether in fact or in fantasy -- in Brazil or in "Brazil" -- is called "Orwellian," it is as if George Orwell had helped to create it instead of helping to dispel its euphemistic thrall. (Kafka has suffered a similar fate with the word "Kafkaesque.") Such distortions would be enough to make us give up on journalism altogether if we happened to forget that Orwell himself was a journalist. Here, to help us remember, are the twenty volumes of the new complete edition, cared for with awe-inspiring industry, dedication, and judgment by Peter Davison, a scholar based in Leicester, who has spent the last two decades chasing down every single piece of paper his subject ever wrote on and then battling with publishers to persuade them that the accumulated result would supply a demand. The All of Orwell arrives in a cardboard box the size of a piece of check-in luggage: a man in a suitcase. As I write, the books are stacked on my desk, on a chair, on a side table, on the floor. A full, fat eleven of the twenty volumes consist largely of his collected journalism, reproduced in strict chronology along with his broadcasts, letters, memos, diaries, jottings, et exhaustively and fascinatingly al. The nine other volumes, over there near the stereo, were issued previously, in 1986-87, and comprise the individual works he published during his lifetime, including at least two books that directly and undeniably affected history. But, lest we run away with the idea that "Animal Farm" and "1984" are the core of his achievement, here, finally, is all the incidental writing, to remind us that they were only the outer layer, and could not have existed without what lay inside. Those famous, world-changing novels are just the bark. The journalism is the tree.
A four-volume edition of the journalism, essays, and letters, which was published in 1968 (co-edited by Ian Angus and Orwell's widow, sonia), had already given us a good idea of how the tree grew, but now we get an even better chance to watch its roots suck up the nutrients of contemporary political experience and -- But it's time to abandon that metaphor. Orwell never liked it when the writing drove the meaning. One of his precepts for composition was "Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around." For him, prose style was a matter in which the ethics determined the aesthetics. Reading others, he was open to persuasion, but he would not be lulled, least of all by mellifluous rhetoric. Anyone's prose style, even his, sets out to seduce. Orwell's, superficially the plainest of the plain, was of a rhythm and a shapeliness to seduce the angels. Even at this distance, he needs watching, and would have been the first to admit it.
Orwell was born into the impoverished upper class -- traditionally, for its brighter children, a potent incubator of awareness about how the social system works. Either they acquire an acute hunger to climb back up the system -- often taking the backstairs route through the arts, a la Sir John Betjeman -- or they go the other way, seeking an exit from the whole fandango and wishing it to damnation. Orwell, by his own later accounts, went the other way from his school days onward. In one of his last great essays, "Such, Such Were the Joys," he painted his years at prep school (where he nicknamed the headmaster's gorgon of a wife Flip) as a set of panels by Hieronymus Bosch: "'Here is a little boy,' said Flip, indicating me to a strange lady, 'who wets his bed every night. Do you know what I am going to do if you wet your bed again?' she added, turning to me. "I am going to get the Sixth Form to beat you.'"
Orwell had a better time at Eton -- it sounds as if he would have had a better time in Siberia -- but twenty years later, after he left it, reviewing his friend Cyril Connolly's partly autobiographical "Enemies of Promise," he poured scorn on Connolly's fond recollections of the place. When Connolly proclaimed himself fearful that after his cliamctic years of glory at Eton nothing in the rest of his life could ever be so intense, Orwell reacted as if Flip had just threatened to deliver him to the Sixth Form all over again: "'Cultured' middle-class life has reached a depth of softness at which a public-school education -- five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery -- can actually be loked back upon as an eventful period."
Orwell often reviewed his friends like that. With his enemies, he got tough. But it should be said at the outset that even with his enemies he rarely took an inhuman tone. Even Hitler and Stalin he treated as men rather than as machines, and his famous characterization of the dogma-driven hack as "the gramophone mind" would have lost half its force if he had not believed that there was always a human being within the fanatic. His comprehension, though, did not incline him to be forgiving: quite the reverse. Society might have made the powerful what they were as surely as it had made the powerless what they were, but the mere fact that the powerful were free to express whatever individuality they possessed was all the more reason to hold them personally responsible for crushing the freedom of others. When they beat you, you can join them or you can join the fight on behalf of those they beat. It seems a fair guess that Orwell had already made his choice by the time Flip threatened him with a visit from the Sixth Form. In the early part of his adult life, he was a man of action. He wrote journalism when he could -- for him, it wa more natural than breathing, which, thaks to a lurking tubercular condition, eventually became a strain -- but he wanted to be where the action was. Already questioning his own privileged, if penny-pinching, upbringing and education, he went out to Burma at the age of nineteen and for the next five years served as a colonial policeman -- an experience from which he reached the conclusion (incorporated later into his novel "Burmese Days" and his essays "Shooting an Elephant" and "A Hanging") that the British Empire was a capitalist mechanism to exploit the subjugated poor. Back in Europe, he found out what it was like to be a proletarian by becoming one himself -- "Down and Out in Paris and London," "The Road to Wigan Pier" -- and expanded his belief about the exploitative nature of the Empire to embrace the whole of capitalist society, anywhere. He volunteered for service in Spain in the fight against Franco, and the selfless comradeship of ordinary Spaniards risking their lives to get justice -- "Homage to Catalonia" -- confirmed his belief that an egalitarian socialist society was the only fair and decent alternative to the capitalist boondoggle, of which Franco's Fascism, like Hitler's and Mussolini's, was merely the brute expression.
So here, already formed, were two of his three main political beliefs -- about the awfulness of capitalism and the need for an egalitarian alternative. There was nothing uncommon about them except their intensity. The third belief was the spanner in the works. Again, he was not the only one to have figured out that the Soviet Union's vaunted Socialist utopia wa a put-up job, but nobody ever expressed his revulsion better or more lastingly than Orwell, who got it right without ever having to go there.
He went somewhere else instead. Discovering in Spain, from the behavior of the Russian representatives and their Communist adherents, tha the Soviet Union was as implacable an enemy of his egalitarian aspirations as Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, he developed the idea that it wasn't enough to be against Mussolini and Hitler: you had to be against Stalin as well, because the enemy was totalitarianism itself. That was as far as he got before his career as a man of action came to an end. Shot in the throat by a sniper, he recuperated, but if he had stayed in Spain any longer he would have almost certainly been murdered. The anarchist group in whose ranks he had fought, the POUM, was being liquidated on Soviet orders, and his name was on the list. (The evidence is all here, in Volume XI, and it is enough to bring on a cold sweat: losing Orwell to the N.K.V.D. would have had the same devastating effect on our intellectual patrimony that the loss of the historian Marc Bloch and the literary critic Jean Prevost to the Gestapo had on the French.)
Back in England with his three main beliefs -- capitalism was a disease, socialism was the cure, and Communism would kill the patient -- the erstwhile man of action carried on his cause as a man of letters. For part of the Second World War, he was a member of the Home Guard, and for a further part he was with the BBC, preparing broadcasts for India, but as far as the main action went he was an onlooker. No onlooker ever looked on more acutely. The journallism he wrote at the close of the thirties and in the forties would have been more than enough by itself to establish him as having fulfilled his life's purpose, which he made explicit in his last years: "What I have most wanted to do is to make political writing into an art." The whole heavy atmosphere of the prelude to the war, the exhausting war itself, and its baleful aftermath: it's all there, reported with a vividness that eschews the consciously poetic but never lapses from the truly dramatic, because he had the talent and the humility to assess even a V-1 in terms of its effect on his own character, using his soliloquy to explain the play:
"Every weapon seems unfair until you have adopted it yourself. But I would not deny that the pilotless plane, flying bomb, or whatever its correct name may be, is an exceptionally unpleasant thing, because, unlike most other projectiles, it gives you time to think. What is your first reaction when you hear that droning, zooming noise? Inevitably, it is a hope that the noise won't stop. You want to hear the bomb pass safely overhead and die away into the distance before the engine cuts out. In other words, you are hoping that it will fall on somebody else."
First, though, with the Spanish war over and the full European war not yet begun, he had another battle on his hands, bloodless this time but almost as noisy: the battle against Britain's left-wing intellectuals. He realized that they had willfully declined to get the point about Spain: they still saw Communism as the only bulwark against Fascism. Worse, they thought that the Moscow trials were justified or otherwise to be condoned -- a price worth paying to Build Socialism. Orwell's conviction that no socialism worth having could be built that way set him at odds with the progressive illuminati of his generation, and that altercation was made sharper by how much he and they had in common. He, too, had had the generosity to declare his own privileges meaningless if they were bought at the expense of the downtrodden. He, too, believed that the civilization that had given birth to him was a confidence trick. And, although he had already concluded that free speech was the one liberal institution no putative future society could abolish if it was to remain just, he still thought that the plutocratic oligarchy allowed liberal institutions to continue only as part of the charade that favored the exploitation of the poor. (In the sixties, the same notion lived again, as "repressive tolerance.") Fascism, he proclaimed, was just bourgeois democracy without the lip service to liberal values, the iron fist without hte velvet glove. In 1937, he twice ventured the opinion that democracy and Fascism "are Tweedledum and Tweedledee." In the same year, he warned that "the moneyed classes" might trick Britain into "another imperialist war" with Germany: language hard to distinguish from Party-line boilerplate.
Indeed, when the war began he said that Britain was bound to be defeated unless it had a social revolution, which might even require an armed uprising. Possibly he had been carried away by the rifles issued to the Home Guard, and had visions of an English POUM taking pot shots at the oppressor. (Orwell rose to the rank of sergeant in the Home Guard, but Davison should have found room to say, in a footnote, that his hero was notoriously more enthusiastic than competent: a Court of Inquiry was conducted after he supervised a mortar drill that almost resulted in the decapitation of one of his men.) Even in 1941, well after the Battle of Britain demonstrated that this bourgeois democracy might well hope to withstand Hitler, we can still hear Orwell promising that "England is on the road to revolution" and that to bring the revolution about a "real English socialist movement" would be "perfectly willing to use violence if necessary."
But the facts were hard at work on a mind whose salient virtue was its willingness to let them in. Even before the war, he had been impressed by how the English people in general had managed to preserved and develop civilized values depite the cynicism of their rulers. Now he became less inclined to argue that all those things had happened merely because the sweated labor of colonial coolies had paid for them, and were invalidated as a result. He was even capable, from time to time, of giving some of the cynical rulers an nod of respect: Orwell's praise of Churchill was never better than grudging, but nobody else's was ever more moving, because nobody else would have so much preferred to damn Churchill and all his works. From the early war years until the end of his life, Orwell wrote more and more about British civilization. he wrote less and less about the irredeemable obsolescence of bourgeois democracy. He had come to suspect that the democratic part might depend on the bourgeois part.
Most of the left-wing intellectuals hadn't. After Hitler clamorously repudiated his non-aggression pact with Stalin by launching Operation Barbarossa, they were once again able to laud the virtues of the Soviet Union at the tops of their voices. Even on the right, keeping Uncle Joe sweet was regarded as mandatory. In this matter, Orwell showed what can only be described as intellectual heroism. Though his unpalatable opinions restricted his access to mainstream publications -- most of his commentaries were written for Tribune, an influential but small-circulation weekly newspaper backed by the Labour Party's star heavy weight, Aneurin Bevan -- Orwell went on insisting that the Soviet regime was a tyranny, even as the Red Army battled the Panzers to a standstill on the outskirts of Moscow. At this distance, it is hard to imagine what a lonely line this was to take. But when it came to a principle Orwell was the sort of man who would rather shiver in solitude than hold his tongue.
Solitude fitted his character. Though he was sociable, and even amorous, in his everyday life, he didn't look it: he looked as gauntly ascetic as John Carradine, and in his mental life he was a natural loner. Collectivist theories could appeal to his temperament for only so long, and in this strictly chronological arrangement of his writings we can watch him gradually deconstructing his own ideology in deference to a set of principles. Even with this degre of documentation, it is not easy to see quite how he did ti from moment to moment, because for a crucial period of the war he metaphorically went off the air. Literally, he had gone on it. For a two-year slog, from 1941 to 1943, he expended most of his time and energy broadcasting to India for the BBC. Belated market research on the BBC's part revealed that not many Indians were listening (you guessed it: no radios), but the few who did manage to tune in heard some remarkable stuff from a man who had expended so much ink on insisting that the British would have to quit India. Orwell told them the truth: that they had a better chance with the British than with the Japanese. He also scripted weekly summaries of the war's progress. Writing on the tenth of January, 1942, he remarked on a tonal shift in Germany's official pronouncements:
"Until a week or two ago, the German military spokesmen were explaining that the attack on Moscow would have to be postponed until the spring, but that the German armies could quite easily remain on the line they now occupied. Already, however, they are admitting that a further retreat -- or, as they prefer to call it, a rectification of the line -- will be necessary.... Before the end of February, the Germans may well be faced with the alternative of abandoning nearly all their conquests in the northern part of the Russian front, or of seeing hundreds of thousands of soldiers freeze to death."
It was an optimistic forecast for 1942, but it all came true in 1943, and it showed two of Orwell's best attributes operating at once: he had a global grasp, and he was able to guess the truth by the way the other side told lies. The broadcasts make such good reading today that you almost feel sorry he ever stopped. From these indirect sources, you can surmise something of what was going on deep within his mind, and when he started writing journalism again he retroactively filled in some of the gaps. From the realization that the violent socialist revolution would not take place, he was apparently moving toward the conclusion that it should not. Reviewing a collection of Thomas Mann's essays published in English translation in 1943, he praised Mann in terms that would have been impossible for him before the war: "He never pretends to be other than he is, a middle-class Liberal, a believer in the freedom of the intellect, in human brotherhood; above all, in the existence of objective truth." While careful to point out that Mann was pro-socialist, and even excessively trustful of the U.S.S.R., Orwell went on to note, approvingly, that "he never budges from his 'bourgeois' contention that the individual is important, that freedom is worth having, that European culture is worth preserving, and that truth is not the exclusive possession of one race or class." For Orwell, who had once preached that bourgeois democracy existed merely to swindle the working class, this was a big switch.
The last and most acrimonious phase of Orwell's battle with the left-wing intelligentsia began not long after D Day. As the Allied forces fought their way out of Normandy, a piece by Orwell landed on a desk in America. Partisan Review would publish a London Letter in which Orwell complained about the Western Russophile intellectuals who refused to accept the truth about Stalinist terror. Clearly, what frightened him was that, even if they did accept it, Soviet prestige would lose little of its allure for them. For Orwell, the Cold War was already on, with the progressive intellectuals in the front rank of the foe. Orwell was the first to use the term "cold war," in an essay published in October, 1945, about the atomic bomb -- the very device that would insure, in the long run, that the Cold War never became a hot one. At the time, however, he saw no cause for complacency.
But unreconstructed gauchiste pundits who would still like to dismiss Orwell as a "classic" Cold Warrior can find out here that he didn't fit the frame. For one thing, Orwell remained all too willing to accuse the West of structural deficiencies that were really much more contingent than he made out. When he argued, in the pages of Tribune, that the mass-circulation newspapers forced slop on their readership, he preferred to ignore the advice from a correspondent that it was really the readership forcing slop on the newspapers. he should have given far more attention to such criticisms, because they allowed for the possibility -- as his own assumptions did not -- that if ordinary people were freed from exploitation they would demand more frivolity, not less. And he was still inclined to regard Stalin's regime as a perversion of the Bolshevik revolution rather than as its essence. As late as 1946, it took the eminent émigré Russian scholar Gleb Struve to tell him that Zamyatin's "We," written in 1920 but never published in the Soviet Union, wasn't merely a projection of a possible totalitarian future but had drawn much of its inspiration from the Leninist present. If Orwell took this admonition in, he made little use of it. (He made great use of "We," however: if the English translation of Zamyatin's little classic had been as good as the French one, many more of the reviewers of "1984" might have spotted that Orwell's phantasmagoria had a distinguished precursor.
As a journalist, Orwell had labored long and hard for small financial reward, and overwork had never been good for his delicate health. Life was pinched, not to say deprived, especially after his wife and faithful helpmeet Eileen (he was an unfaithful spouse and she may have been as well, but they depended on each other) died as a result of a medical blunder. The success of "Animal Farm," in 1945, could have bought him a reprieve. He upped takes to a small farmhouse on the island of Jura, in the Hebrides, and cultivated his garden. Though he overestimated the strength he still had available for the hard life he lived there -- he could grow vegetables to supplement his ration, but it took hard work in tough soil -- the place was a welcome break from the treadmill of London. Mentally, however, he found no peace. A heightened anguish can be traced right through his last journalism until he gave it up to work on "1984." The left-wing intellectuals, already promoting the revisionism that continues into our own day, not only were giving Stalin the sole credit for having won the war but were contriving not to notice that he had rescinded the few liberties he had been forced to concede in order to fight it; that his rule by terror had resumed; and that in the Eastern European countries supposedly liberated by the Red Army any vestige of liberty left by the Nazis was being stamped flat. Once again, crimes on a colossal scale were being camouflaged with perverted language, and once again the intellectuals, whose professional instinct should have been to sick it up, were happily swallowing the lot. It took a great deal to persuade him that reasoned argument wasn't enough. But it wasn't, so he wrote "1984."
There are still diehards who would like to think that "1984" is not about the Soviet Union at all. Their argument runs: "Animal Farm" is a satire about what happened in Russia once upon a time, but "1984" is a minatory fantasy about something far bigger -- the prospect of a world divided up into a few huge centers f absolute power, of which a Soviet-style hegemony would be only one, and the United States, of course, would be another. It is just possible that Orwell thought the Marshall Plan was meant to have the same imperialist effect in Europe as the Red Army's tanks. He never actually said so, but people as intelligent as Gore Vidal believe much the same thing today. The late Anthony Burgess sincerely believed that "1984," because the Ministry of Truth bore such a strong resemblance to the BBC canteen, had been inspired by the condition of postwar Britain under rationing. As Orwell said so resonantly in his essay "Notes on Nationalism," "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.
If they didn't get it in the West, they got it in the East. From the day of the book's publication until far into the Thaw, it meant big trouble for any Soviet citizen who had a copy in his possession. In the years to come, now that the Soviet archives are opening up, there will be a fruitful area of study in trying to decide which were the Western cultural influences that did most to help the Evil Empire melt down. For all we know, the jokes were always right, and it was the Beatles albums and the bootleg blue jeans that did the trick. But it will not be surprising if "1984," even more than "The Gulag Archipelago," turns out to be the book that had the greatest subversive effect, ounce for ounce. For one thing, you could put "1984" in your pocket: a portable little slab of spiritual plastique, a mindblower.
But if the part played by Orwell's dystopian novels in the dismantling of the Sovietized monolith will always be hard to assess, there is less difficulty about measuring the effect of his last period of journalism on his own country. Self-immured on Jura, he was a Prospero running on the reserve tank of his magic. Orwell was only forty-two, but he had little physical strength left, and although many friends and colleagues sent him letters and books, and presents of rice and chocolate, and some even made the slow and tricky journey to visit him, he was short of love. A widower of some fame and no longer without means, he offered his affections to a succession of young women and found himself in the humiliating position of being respected and refused. When it emerged recently that he handed a list of fellow-travellers to a government propaganda unit, suggestions that he had conspired in a witch-hunt carried little force. McCarthyism was a nonstarter in Britain, and most of those named on the list were already glad ot have it known that they had aligned their prayer mats in the direction of the Kremlin. But if he lapsed from his own standards by tittle-tattling in school the most likely reason was that his Foreign Office contact was a noted beauty. He was sending her a bouquet.
The young woman who finally accepted him, Sonia Brownell (renowned in literary London as the Venus of Euston Road), married him practically on his deathbed: cold comfort. He kept a diary of what was happening in his garden -- small things growing as the great man withered. For us, the only consolation is that he could speak so clearly even as the walls of his lungs were giving way against the tide of blood. The succession of magnificent essays he wrote as the harsh war wound down into an austere peace add up to a political event in themselves: a textbook example of how well-informed commentary on events can feed back into history and help to shape its course.
It takes nothing from Davison's achievement to say that these last essays are probably best encountered in the "Collected Essays," or even in a single small volume, such as "Inside the Whale," where they will be found to have the effect of poems, a the paragraphs succeed one another with the inevitability of perfectly wrought stanzas, with every sentence in the right place yet begging to be remembered on its own, like a line from a magisterial elegy. "Notes on Nationalism," "The Prevention of Literature," "Politics and the English Language," "Why I Write," "Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of 'Gulliver's Travels'" -- read for and by themselves, they tell you all you need to know about Orwell except the one fact so poignantly revealed here: that they were the work of a man who was not only dying but dying young. Very few writers about politics have said much in their forties that is lastingly true; and even Orwell undoubtedly would have continued to deepen enrich, modulate, and modify his opinions.
But he had come a long way, and, by coming as far as the great last essays, he left a precious heritage to the country that he loved in spite of itself. Though the appeal to a totalitarian model of a just society (and the corresponding contempt for piecemeal solutions) was to remain possible in the academy, it became much more difficult in everyday political journalism, simply because Orwell had discredited the idea in a plain style that nobody could forget and everybody felt obliged to echo. The theoretical work that disenfranchised all total transformations was done by others, such as Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, and Isaiah Berlin. Orwell never got around to figuring all that out in detail. But he felt it, and the language of his last essays is the language of feeling made as clear and bright as it can ever get.
How clear is that? Finally, it comes down to a question of language, which is only appropriate, because, finally, Orwell was a literary man. Politics inspired Orwell the way the arts had always inspired the great critics, which gives us the clue to where he got the plainly passionate style that we are so ready to call unique. It is unique, in its flexibility of speech rhythms and its irresistible force of assertion, but he didn't invent it; he invented its use. George Saintsbury had something of Orwell's schooled knack for speaking right out of the page, and Shaw had almost all of it: Orwell isn't often outright funny, but Shaw, in his six volumes of critical writings about music and theatre, deployed the full range of Orwell's debunking weapons with a generous humor to drive them home. Orwell called Shaw a windbag, but had obviously taken in every word the old man wrote. And there are many other critics who could be named, all the way up to the young F.R. Leavis, whom Orwell read with interest, if not without a certain distaste for his joyless zeal.
Orwell was a superb literary critic himself: he is the first person to read on Swift, on Dickens, and on Gissing, and if he had lived to finish his essay on Evelyn Waugh it would have been the best thing on the subject, the essay that really opens up Waugh's corrosively snobbish view of life without violating his creative achievement. Had Orwell lived to a full term, he might well have gone on to become the greatest modern literary critic in the language. But he lived more than long enough to make writing about politics a branch of the humanities, setting a standard of civilized response to the intractably complex texture of life. No previous political writer had brought so much of life's lesser detail into the frame, and other countries were unlucky not to have him as a model. Sartre, for example, would have been incapable of an essay about the contents of a junk shop, or about how to make the ideal cup of tea -- the very reason he was incapable of talking real sense about politics.
In one of the very last, and best, of his essays, "Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool," Orwell paid his tribute to Shakespeare. He was too modest to say that he was paying a debt as well, but he was:
"Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity: he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life -- which, it should be repeated, is *not* the same thing as wanting to have a good time and stay alive as long as possible. Of course, it is not because of the quality of his thought that Shakespeare has survived, and he might not even be remembered as a dramatist if he had not also been a poet. His main hold on us is through language."
A writer has to know a lot about the rhythms of natural speech before he can stretch them over the distance covered by those first two sentences. Each of them is perfectly balanced in itself, and the second is perfectly balanced against the first -- the first turning back on itself with a strict qualification, and the second running away in relaxed enjoyment of its own fluency. They could stand on their own, but it turns out that both of them are there to pile their combined weight behind the third sentence -- the short one -- and propel it into your memory. It hits home with the force of an axiom.
And it isn't true -- or anyway, it isn't true enough. Elsewhere in the essay, Orwell shows signs of being aware that the relationship of Shakespeare's language to the quality of his thought can never be fully resolved in favor of either term. But not even Orwell could resist a resonant statement that fudged the facts -- a clarity that is really an opacity. Yes, Orwell did write like an angel, and that's the very reason we have to watch him like a hawk. Luckily for us, he was pretty good at watching himself. He was blessed with a way of putting things that made anything he said seem so, but that was only a gift. His intellectual honesty was a virtue.
Orwell's standards of plain speaking always were and still are a mile too high for politicians. What finally counts with politicians is what they do, not how they say it. But for journalists how they say it counts for everything. Orwell's style shows us why a style is worth working at: not just because it gets us a byline and makes a splash but because it compresses and refines thought and feeling without ceasing to sound like speech -- which is to say, without ceasing to sound human. At a time when ideological politics still exercised such an appeal that hundreds of purportedly civilized voices *had* ceased to sound human, Orwell's style stood out. The remarkable thing is that it still does. Ideologues are thin on the ground nowadays, while any substantial publication has a would-be George Orwell rippling the keys in every second cubicle, but the daddy of modern truth tellers still sounds fresh. So it wasn't just the amount of truth he told but the way he told it, in prose transmuted to poetry by the pressure of his dedication. This great edition, by revealing fully for the first time what that dedication was like, makes his easy-seeming written speech more impressive than ever, and even harder to emulate. To write like him, you need a life like his, but times have changed, and he changed them.
(With thanks to Martha Bridegam - AA)
Most reviewers so far have written about Orwell the man. I want to write about what is in front of me: the beautifully printed and immaculately edited heavy volumes that I can only just lift. Peter Davison began his troublesome long march in 1981 and now it is out: 20 volumes, 3,755 items in the last 11 volumes of essays, journalism, letters, diaries; 7,460 pages in all, 30,000 entries in the cumulative index, with footnotes and annotations beyond measure. His feat is awesome, even if he was not wholly alone: his wife Sheila and Ian Angus padded alongside, helping in everything.
Even rival biographers must close ranks in praise of Davison. Michael Shelden put it so well, writing in the Daily Telegraph: "One can only marvel at the devoted service that one British scholar has given to that genius. His is a real labour of love in a selfish age dominated by the greed and corruption that Orwell so eloquently warned against. And the edition itself is a national treasure which somehow survived the burdens of indifference and neglect." My only cavil is that "genius" is a bit over the top and needs some discrimination within Orwell's varied oeuvre.
This is a scholarly edition of would class. We can now be as sure as it is possible to be that we can read all that Orwell wrote much as he meant it to appear after the often dangerous journey between manuscript and printed page.
We can never be completely sure. Davison knows that. Even an author's corrected proof is not conclusive evidence that he did not change his mind later. For instance, in the early editions of Orwell's works from 1951 (the year after his death), the passage where a shattered Winston Smith is released from the torture cells has the following: "Almost unconsciously he traced with his finger in the dust on the table: 2+2 = ". The first edition had the famous "2+2 = 5" of the torture scene. Davison says the startling blank space is "the result, I imagine, of a piece of type slipping out unnoticed". For if the omission were deliberate, he argues, it would show that Winston has been able "to preserve his independence, his integrity; such a conclusion is optimistic", and thus contradicts the book's pessimism.
But the omission could make sense as showing that Winston is not totally brainwashed to a new belief, that he is simply rendered cynical and utterly without care for truth: two plus two can mean what the hell they like for all he now cares. The regime can destroy Winston's earlier, better self, but he is only a broken man, not a reborn man. Having no belief itself, the regime can do no more. All it believes in is "power for the sake of power".
Orwell could have made a change beyond the first edition. It is slightly less plausible that this "2+2 = ", if it was a mistake, would have been missed so often (centred on a line of its own). It depends how one reads the text. I read it as grim satire, not as prophetic pessimism. So my annotated Clarendon edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four left the blank as an existential abyss. Now I am being quite as obsessive as Peter. He knew I would come back on this old big small point.
Now some will doubtless say that 20 volumes are a sledgehammer to crack a nut - an odd fate for someone who wrote not for his fellow intellectuals but, in the tradition of Dickens and Wells, for the common man: a dying class whose education was the free public library. Not so. Some of the texts were very corrupt. Publishing conditions were very different between the wars. Fears of prosecution for obscenity were understandably great: respectable publishers had gone to prison in living memory. And the risk of libel was at least as strong as now. Some of Orwell's tongue-lashings of foul hotel kitchens in Paris, corrupt Burmese, racist imperial civil servants, pig-ignorant private school entrepreneurs and advertising slogans led to many changes of text (some now restored, some lost for ever).
From the start his publishers were aware of how close his fictions were to fact, even if later critics have too readily dismissed the idea that essays or sketches in the first person could sometimes be a clever use of the "fictive I", as in Daniel Defoe and Edgar Allan Poe. His desire to set down how people actually spoke in the world of the tramps and the spikes also engendered fear. "Bugger, fuck and cunt, now I've said it all!" says the small girl of the story. Orwell tried but could not say it all. Letters to and from editors and his agent show him trying it on, but accepting defeat with sardonic realism.
As the legend to his general introduction Davison uses Winston Smith's rumination that" Ampleforth . . . was engaged in producing garbled versions - definitive texts, they were called . . ." He is Orwell's great ungarbler, but this quote also reminds us that a "definitive text" is always a relative term, a chimera. Yet even if, as Orwell the socialist said of social and moral progress, there is no hope of perfection, there is reasonable hope of betterment. And so much better texts we now have.
Davison's tale of why it all took 17 years is like something out of a black comedy by Iris Murdoch, with elements of a Tom Sharpe farce. The commission was originally for an edition of Orwell's nine main books to celebrate (or cash in on) the non-event of 1984. He was to produce one corrected volume a month for [pounds]100 each. I can imagine the then director of Secker & Warburg, Tom Rosenthal, explaining earnestly, man to man, how it would not make money, and Davison feeling happy to be asked to undertake such a labour of love and to be paid at all. Saints are not of becoming simplicity in all things, only in some - the best forgery wouldn't last under Davison's eyes for five minutes. The task turned out to be almost Sisyphean. He finished on time, but three and a half years later he was summoned to Rosenthal's office and asked why he had not delivered the proofs. He admits to replying "crossly". A search revealed the missing proofs under a stack of books, coffee-stained, and, on a galley, a pencilled schedule for a skiing holiday. They had never been sent to the printers. In 1986 three volumes were launched, but had to be withdrawn because they were riddled with errors. The printers said that radar from ships passing the Tyne had affected their computers!
Then, surprisingly, the stakes were doubled: the publisher decided to go for the complete edition of all published and unpublished material. Davison assented when Ian Angus, the joint editor with Sonia Orwell of the familiar four-volume Collected [selected] Essays, Journalism and Letters of 1968, agreed to help him.
The tale gets worse, but let me pause to speculate why Rosenthal and the Orwell estate went for a scholarly edition princeps with extensive annotation. This was plainly beyond the capacity of a small literary publisher, well run or not. Such editions are the preserve of great university presses, usually with a foundation grant for a large editorial team with thick glasses and PhDs. Under the law as it then was, Orwell having died in 1950, his works would come into the public domain in 2000. So the more a new edition was worked upon, the more likely it would be to be accepted in law as constituting a new copyright - as the Cambridge University Press had successfully doubled the life of the dead D H Lawrence. If my wicked surmise is true, they must have felt right Charlies when the European Union's 80-year copyright came into force. Perhaps that explains part of what happened next.
Tom Rosenthal moved on. For two years the firm dropped the project. During the whole period of the labours of Davison, Secker went through seven changes of ownership and takeovers. The American co-partner for the edition, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovitch, dropped it, came back, dropped it, came back again, dropped it. But from 1995 Max Ellenberg, then Secker's publisher, got the show on the road with great vigour. Then he went and Random House took Secker over, and in the move of premises lost much of Davison's work. And there was nearly no happy ending to the story. After two years of bad health, Davison had a sextuple heart bypass in 1995. He was told that otherwise he had only a year to live, which he knew would not be enough to finish the Orwell. In France he would be a civic hero.
However, I do have two somewhat ungrateful worries. Orwell grumbled about Homage to Catalonia (as he did about most of his books), and he left clear instructions during his last illness that chapters V and XI, "the political parts of the book", should be put at the end as appendices. Both of these chapters had begun by saying that if the reader was not interested in the "horrors of party politics", then "please skip". So Davison has followed Orwell's "instruction" and blames (I would praise) the editor for ignoring it (as everyone has properly ignored Orwell's gloomy requests in the same document not to reprint A Clergyman's Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and The Lion and the Unicom).
There is, indeed, a hiatus between Orwell's first-person account of what he saw in Catalonia and these two chapters explaining what was going on. But a new reader may find it hard to make sense of the narrative unless given, precisely where it occurred in the original 1938 edition, his commentaries on the political situation. Orwell might have wished, ten years later, to give the book a more literary appearance, but that was the book he wrote at the time.
Here Davison may have gone too far, almost as if, in his admiration, he takes Orwell too literally, forgetting the writer's self-deprecation of his own work: "every book is a failure". I hope popular editions will not follow suit. After all, Orwell said that his great ambition after Spain was to "make political writing into an art". Davison's decision depreciates this - although not in the gross way that Sonia Orwell, in the four-volume edition, ignored several key, late political essays and reviews to create the wholly false impression that his eccentric socialist fires were burning low; that in marrying her he had declared for "Literature". That impression cannot be sustained now that we see everything; including, it must be said, some very poor and hasty book reviews, some excruciating film and theatre hack-work and some routine letters making appointments of no interest to anyone except another biographer. Davison would think it wrong to exercise judgement on what is important or not, and yet he can tear into the political heart of the book that really was the turning point of Orwell's thinking and his style.
My second concern is the decision to put everything, as far as possible, in strict chronological order in the 11 volumes of essays, journalism and letters. The essays are hard to find, interspersed with everything else and without running heads. Even the two books of essays that he published together in his lifetime, Inside the Whale and Critical Essays, are scattered. The cumulative effect of reading in date order is to make the essays appear to arise all too closely from immediate Context. This underestimates Orwell's skill as a writer, his thoughtfulness as a speculative essayist and his imaginative humour. His use of the first person as a literary device leads many to think that the character of the man is the great thing, not his skill as a writer - that plain, blunt, simple man who had gone to Eton and had read most of the modernist literature of the day, even if politically he chose to write so as to reach the common reader.
Several reviewers of these volumes have done the usual - a summary of his life followed by a discussion of his character. And those who wish to discredit his writings, too painful still for some romantic lefties because of his exposure of the mendacity of the Popular Front, have to go for his character. This is what inspired those two Guardian journalists who were shocked to find, two years ago, that in 1949 Orwell had sent to a close friend in a Foreign Office unit the names of people unreliable for counter-propaganda. Davison puts it all in context excellently. There was a cold war on and communists would stop at nothing by way of penetration and subversion. Two weeks ago the Daily Telegraph reheated all that from what Davison had printed (ignoring his very full gloss), with a front-page headline "Socialist icon who became an informer". The right makes character the issue so that no one can believe that there ever was a socialist of such honesty, integrity and patriotism.
So the nine big books are printed first, and the great essays are obscured among this and that, good writing and tat. There is unease among critics about his reputation. The prewar novels would have few readers were it not for his last two books. And Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm might not survive fading memories of the events that triggered their satiric rage. If Orwell has genius, it is as an essayist. The essay is a great English genre, and he is among the greatest exponents of that seeming-easy, most difficult craft: the humanist, speculative writer, raising moral dilemmas in ordinary language, humorous and serious at once, attacking cant of all kinds, and all the time longing for a just, egalitarian society, but sadly aware of how far away it was, and is.
George Orwell was an imposter. An old-Etonian, ex-imperialist policeman, he was desperate to pass for ordinary, to be absolved of social sin, to shed the crime of privilege. To this end, he changed his name and tried to change his character - about which there was always something patrician.
According to a footnote in this welcome, exhausting, enthralling, praiseworthy, unaffordable edition, when he arrived in Barcelona to serve with the POUM militia, he pretended to be a grocer. (In fact, he was merely being frugal with the truth: he had resuscitated the meagre shopping facility in his cottage at Wallington.) Doreen Kopp, a relative who married Orwell's commanding officer, accurately commented: "it was of course very typical of George as he always wanted to be taken for a working man." However, despite his disguise, that draught-excluder moustache -adoor-to-door salesman's centipede of sample bristle - Orwell was a failed transsocial.
Hence, though, his particular successes as a writer. The best of Orwell - his journalism, here accounting for 14 of the 20 volumes - arises from his profound dividedness. His style's polemical effectiveness relies on a preference for deflationary similes and the conflation of the rhetorically plain with a more upper-class idiolect: Orwell's evident courage and authenticity are maximised by the manifest absence of any literary high-style - of writing -and the prevalence of a near-Wodehousian comic vocabulary ("it was plain eyewash"; "the pain in my arm was diabolical"; "damnable inefficiency"; "the beastly stench"; "the devilish din of firing"; "a frightful shambles").
His greatest essays, "A Hanging" and "Shooting an Elephant", depend on detail for their power, but also on double agency, on Orwell's scrupulous notation of his skewed loyalties: "with one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny . . . with another part I thought the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts." The traitor within suffers the visceral pull of class and nation, while the politically re-educated autodidact exercises his capacity for ethical disgust, the ready rising of the gorge at social injustice. Dividedness was Orwell's element. He suffered it and he recognised it everywhere.
In My Country Right or Left, written in the autumn of 1940, Orwell explained how his views on the latest war came to change: "for several years the coming war was a nightmare to me, and at times I made speeches and wrote pamphlets against it. But the night before the Russo-German pact was announced I dreamed that the war had started. It was one of those dreams which, whatever Freudian inner meaning they may have, do sometimes reveal to you the real state of your feelings. It taught me two things, first, that I should be simply relieved when the long-dreaded war started, secondly, that I was patriotic at heart, would not sabotage or act against my own side, would support the war, would fight in it if possible." In other words, the dream showed Orwell that he was divided - that he thought one thing but felt another.
Previously, he regarded the war not as a war against Hitler, but as a pretext for the English upper class to set in place an authoritarian quasi-fascist regime. With Herbert Read, he conspired to secrete printing presses for the purpose of disseminating anti-government propaganda once the war was under weigh. In May 1941, he predicted that "within two years we shall either be conquered or we shall be a Socialist republic fighting for its life, with a secret police force and half the population starving." Prediction - vide Nineteen Eighty-Four - was never Orwell's strong suit, but this is frankly bonkers, as is his claim in September 1940 that the war was "developing into a revolutionary war" - which made him think of "St Petersburg in 1916".
Then there is his abiding paranoia about "direct treachery in high command", his conviction that anti-fascist refugees were jailed because their radical European connections might foment a Bolshevik-style revolution here. Orwell's wife rightly saw that he retained "an extraordinary political simplicity in spite of everything". He could see, for example, that P.G. Wodehouse was a political naif in need of a helping hand. But he couldn't see that his own "sophistication" was equally risible: the early release of Wodehouse and Nazi permission to let him broadcast, Orwell believed, was a "minor move" to keep the US out of the war. Which seems as likely as his contention that the capitalist newspaper proprietors who ran comics like "Gem" and "Magnet" maintained the "antiquated, conservative tone of these stories ... in the interests of class structure of society". Evelyn Waugh, whose summary I quote, pronounced this "nonsense" when he reviewed Orwell's essays in The Tablet in 1946. Which it incontrovertibly is.
So why is Orwell still worth reading? For Peter Davison, he is the precursor of post-colonial studies and anticipates, in his two years at the BBC, the Open University and the Third Programme. You could also argue that the New Journalism was foreshadowed in the documentary works, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, in which the author is half-observer, half-participant - the guinea pig under fire: "the whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting . . ." Waugh's review also makes the point that Orwell's essays undermine the concept of literary hierarchy - Dickens and comics are equally proper subjects. You might, therefore, credit Orwell with the post-modern progeny of Barthes and Eco - were it not that Charles Lamb is an even earlier practitioner of the feuilleton, the frisk on any subject.
The real reason we read Orwell is because his own fault-line, his fundamental schism, his hybridity, left him exceptionally sensitive to the fissure - which is everywhere apparent - between what ought to be the case and what actually is the case. He says the unsayable. Paradoxically, Orwell's own ontological fraudulence confers on him his awkward and appealing honesty. It isn't the gift of the gab. It is the odder bounty of the blurt. Like Whitman, Orwell contains multitudes. Inside him, there is a continuous argument between the convinced socialist, the unregenerate imperialist and his adopted identity of the bloke in the street, George Hairoil. One can never be quite certain what will emerge from these tripartite talks - except that it is unlikely to be safely orthodox. Or even consistent. "I feel sure that there is quite enough north-country dialect in real life without letting it get into novels," writes Orwell, only to assert a hundred pages later that literature would be transformed if "working-class writers will learn to write in their own dialect". Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.
He congratulates Anthony Powell for calling Scotsmen "Scotchmen" - "I find this a good easy way of annoying them." Eleven years later, he changes his mind out of "the most ordinary politeness". Provocation is, of course, a tool of his trade: "one of the surest signs of [Conrad's] genius is that women dislike his books." Lydia Jackson, a woman he failed to seduce, reports that his "masculine conceit annoyed" her. Even allowing for coat-trailing, it is clear that Orwell's honesty is rooted in his own conflicted personality. He is litmus to hypocrisy - and to its (rarer) opposite. In March 1936, he is much taken by a man whose mother has "just died" and is "lying dead at home": "she was 89 and had been a midwife for 50 years. I noted the lack of hypocrisy with which he was laughing and joking and came into the pub to have a drink etc." It might be Camus's Meursault, refusing to lie, refusing to feel more than he feels. This is cognate with the impulse to tell us that the deplorable Oswald Mosley is "a very good speaker" or that Hitler has "something deeply appealing about him" - and that his expression reminds Orwell of the crucified Christ. Like Edgar at the end of King Lear, Orwell says "what we feel, not what we ought to say."
Orwell thought Zola set out to symbolise capitalist corruption in his novels, but that his scenes "are also scenes". The balance is crucial and carefully monitored in Orwell's own best epiphanic sketches. In "A Hanging", the obvious pivotal moment - when the condemned man steps aside to avoid a puddle - is telling in its epitome of the barbarism of capital punishment. It is also commonplace. Its literary antecedents go back to Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede: "she craved food and rest - she hastened towards them at the very moment she was picturing to herself the bank from which she would leap towards death." Orwell and George Eliot both seize on the local contradiction - but it is the more insidious contradictions which animate Orwell's sketch. The warders crowd very close to the condemned man - "with their hands always on him a careful, caressing grip". The dog that bursts onto the scene is an emblem of all the unruly, improper, well-nigh uncontrollable feelings being repressed, but which Orwell finally steels himself to introduce to his readers. When the condemned man prays, "each cry [is] another second of life; the same thought was in all our minds: oh, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that abominable noise". Here, the parable of capital punishment is superceded by the scene itself. And when the hanging is over, the "moody look" leaves the superintendent's face - and "one felt an impulse to sing, to break into a run, to snigger". We are reminded that great art has to articulate fearlessly what it is to be human. What was later to harden into an intellectual mannerism of patrician plain-speaking is here, in this very early work, a dispassionate stare at the existential truth of our unreliable, sluggish, turbid, powerful, meagre emotions.
Over the past 30 years or so, George Orwell has become public property in rather the way that, a century before, Dickens insinuated himself into the popular consciousness of the late Victorian age (a process that Orwell touches on in his 1937 essay "Charles Dickens"). Ask any remotely educated person - and I am aware of the deeply Orwellian tang of these words as I write them - what he or she thinks of books, and the chances are that there will be a space in this mental landscape for Orwell. And not merely for Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four, for perhaps the greatest mark of Orwell's genius is that bits of his journalism and reportage - pieces such as "A Hanging" or "Shooting an Elephant" - should so rapidly have entered the canon.
Undoubtedly much of this impetus arose not from the novels, widely read though they are, but from Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell's four-volume edition of the Collected Letters, Essays and Journalism, published in 1968. Appearing 18 years after his premature death, this set had the effect not only of assembling a mass of biographical details and newspaper library trawls, but also of rescuing Orwell from some of the rightist Cold Warrior myths that had built up around him in the 1950s.
There were contradictions in much of this, but they were welcome ones, usually borne out of Orwell's intensely quirky humanitarianism. In the end it was a relief to discover that the critic of the Attlee government's disinclination to tamper with the public schools and the House of Lords, had already put his adopted son down for Wellington.
All this was 30 years ago. (The battered Penguins on my shelf, bought in the late 1970s, have prices ranging from 50p to pounds l.25.) Now, 15 years in the making and at colossal expense, comes Peter Davison's definitive edition of Orwell's prodigious output.
Quite a bit of it has already surfaced in one form or another. Volumes I to IX are reprints of final versions of the novels and non-fiction first published in 1987, while the BBC Eastern Service war broadcasts were published by W J West in the early 1980s. But it's a mark of Peter Davison's industry that the four original volumes of letters and journalism have expanded to a bookshelf-warping eleven. Orwell's compulsion to write is one of the givens of recent literary history, of course, but the millions of words he produced in a career lasting a bare two decades immediately lifts him into the Dickens or Thackeray class.
What can possibly be said, within the limits of a short review, about this three-foot-high pile of riches? Essentially, there are two questions worth asking. One: what is there? Two: how does it change, refine or otherwise affect our view of Orwell?
The answer to question one, inevitably, is everything: all the material hinted at in the biographies by Bernard Crick (1980) and Michael Sheldon (1991), from the film criticism contributed to Time and Tide to domestic diaries, rafts of hitherto unseen correspondence and early articles printed in French papers during his stay in Paris in the late 1920s. With the exception of some of the BBC talks material, which includes a lot of standard documentation, nearly every volume turns up dozens of specimens of vintage Orwell.
Volume I, in particular (X in the overall sequence), fills in many of the gaps that exist in previous treatments of Orwell's development as a writer. The years spent in the Burmese military police yield up several gloomy sub-Housman/Kipling poems, while several of the letters and short pieces from the early 1930s reveal the germ of later work or attitudes - a letter to his friend Dennis Collings, for instance, about his tramping experiences which prefigures much of the Trafalgar Square scene in A Clergyman's Daughter, or a review of an obscure working-class novel by Lionel Britton called Hunger and Love, which looks as if it may have influenced his thinking about the emotional effects of poverty.
A review of a book on Dickens by G K Chesterton, too, is an interesting try-out for his own essay. Later on there are all kinds of previously unknown gems, such as an unfinished essay on Evelyn Waugh, and a review of an "interim biography" of Clem Attlee, which turns out to have been written by the rising young Labour MP, R H Jenkins.
As for the cadaverous, tubercular figure of Orwell himself - and one effect of these volumes is to emphasise just how ill he was from a relatively early stage in his life - the slightly dandyish, ladykilling side surfaces in a series of letters to a woman named Lydia Jackson, a psychologist who under the pseudonym Elisaveta Fen later translated Chekhov's plays. They were written while his first wife, Eileen, was still alive. Lydia Jackson found him physically unenticing, but seems to have consented to a few reluctant embraces in a sanatorium garden.
His well-known fury at the domestic response to the Spanish Civil War spills over in a venomous paragraph or three scrawled on the back of Nancy Cunard's circular inviting writers to "take sides on Spain": "Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish. . . I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and Spender, I was six months in Spain, most of the time fighting, I have a bullet-hole in me at present and I am not going to write blab about defending democracy or gallant little anybody." The conclusion of this diatribe shows just how personally Orwell took 1930s literary politicking. "By the way, tell your pansy friend Spender that I am preserving specimens of his war-heroics and that when the time comes when he squirms for shame at having written it, as the people who wrote the war-propaganda in the Great War are squirming now, I shall rub it in good and hard."
Elsewhere, an appendix to the final volume prints Orwell's list of supposed communist fellow travellers, which, despite some oddities (Ian Mikardo one could perhaps argue about, but J B Priestley?), seems broadly defensible given the political circumstances in which it was written. After all, history has confirmed the regularity of Tom Driberg's visits to the Soviet Embassy.
Oddly enough, though, the most consistent of the personae on display here is not Orwell the red-baiter but Orwell the patient chronicler of natural detail. Set down on Jura in the Western Isles towards the end of his life, in Morocco a dozen years before, or on the Hertfordshire smallholding that he and Eileen ran for a few months in the late 1930s, he becomes a curious and charmed observer of the natural world: "After October there's no good in the grass, though on fine days I generally peg a goat out to get the air." A patient but idiosyncratic gaze links him to a venerable tradition of English nature-noting stretching back through Kilvert and W H Hudson.
The political material from the last years offers enormous scope for an increasingly popular literary parlour-game. What would Orwell, who died at 46, have become? How would his opinions have developed?
Anthony Powell, who knew him fairly intimately in the 1940s and produced one of the most penetrating short sketches of his personality (in Infants of the Spring, 1976), once speculated that, while never abandoning a certain kind of Romantic leftism, he would have ended up anti-CND, a supporter of the Falklands task force, and so on.
While accepting Powell's remarks about Orwell's "decided taste" for power, it is difficult to wrest any prognoses of this kind out of the collected works. Asked to consider Profumo, the Beatles or the European Union, you suspect that Orwell would simply have been Orwell. Meanwhile, everyone connected with the production of The Complete Works - from Peter Davison, its indefatigable editor (whose only error I noticed in this first read was the misspelling of the surname Lyttelton) and his assistants, Ian Angus and Sheila Davison, to the original directors of Secker who first sponsored the project, and Max Eilenberg, who steered it through to completion - should be congratulated on one of the great triumphs of late 20th-century publishing. All we need now is a paperback edition at an affordable price.
In the 1980s a refurbished warehouse in Wigan was kitted out, complete with a museum and restaurant, as 'The Orwell Wigan Pier', from which visitors could take barge trips on the canal. Rarely can the anti-historical drive of 'heritage' have been so fatuously illustrated. Orwell only visited Wigan for a few weeks in 1936, and the title of his subsequent book was anyway an allusion to a local joke. Only the resources of Newspeak could do justice to such absurdity: the whole thing is Doubleplus Unreal.
In some ways, Orwell's enduring iconic status is puzzling. As a writer (and 'George Orwell', we have to remind ourselves, only existed as a writer), he is a figure of glaring limitations. His novels suffer from their diagrammatic, propagandistic qualities; his plain-mannish literary persona led him to be reductive and philistine; there is something tiresome and self-flattering about his repeated insistence that only the cantankerous non-joiner has any chance of telling the truth; and he is a compendium of intolerant prejudices, represented by his repeated attacks on 'pansy intellectuals'.
Moreover, one might have expected his writing to 'date' badly, since it is so tightly bound up with the politics of the 1930s and 1940s, but new generations of readers conscripted by exam syllabuses continue to fall under his spell. He actually subtitled Animal Farm 'a fairy story', a detail omitted in many editions, and that description may suggest something about the source of that particular book's enduring power, even for readers for whom 'Communism' is something to be looked up in the notes.
We also tend, in this post-Cold War world, to write off Orwell's predictions of creeping totalitarianism as alarmist pessimism, but it is worth remembering that he was at least as preoccupied by the insidious managerialism and deadening consumerism of liberal societies. For example, in a sentence that was written 50 years ago, Orwell imagined another 'implausible' feature of life in Airstrip One: 'The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention.' Nah, it'll never happen.
Certainly, it was one of Orwell's strengths, as well as the source of some of his obvious limitations, that he was always truculently 'off-message'. We don't find it very difficult to imagine what he might have said about Britain in the age of another Mr Blair. An updated version of his famous essay on 'Politics and the English Language' would make particularly enjoyable reading, and he would surely have had no difficulty in identifying the whereabouts of the Ministry of Truth: O'Brien is now Minister Without Portfolio, and 'Big Brother is bleeping you'.
The great difficulty with Orwell is not to allow the slag-heaps of glibness that result from the political, commercial and curricular appropriations of him to obscure the enduring qualities of the courageous, driven man who recognised, in a characteristically plain phrase, that he had 'a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts'. Part of the value of comprehensive scholarly editions of major writers lies in the way they help us to confront the icon, worn smooth by repeated careless handling, with the unevenness and sheer variousness of the actual writer's achievement. Peter Davison's long-awaited edition of 'the complete Orwell' serves this purpose marvellously well.
Volumes 1 to 9, containing textually corrected editions of Orwell's nine books, were published in 1986-7. After many difficulties and delays, volumes 10 to 20, containing the essays, journalism, letters and much else besides, have now triumphantly appeared. The 11 volumes of miscellaneous material contain 3,737 separate items, plus several more that only came to light when this edition was already at the proof stage. There is some new, and a vast amount of newly accessible, material here which it will take scholars some years to digest.
There is an irresistible madness about a 'Complete Works' edition on this scale; it yields pleasures which fall somewhere between those of dipping into Wisden and those of poking around in a dead aunt's attic. Most readers will probably remain content with the four-volume Penguin Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, which was first published in 1968. Some indication of what they will be missing, however, is given by the fact that only 68 of the 379 reviews and only 226 of the more than 1,000 letters printed here were included in that edition, not to mention the vast body of material from his time at the BBC during the war, his lectures on street-fighting tactics to his Home Guard platoon ('bombs easier to throw downstairs than up'), his diaries, previously unpublished letters by his first wife, Eileen, records of his earnings, and so on.
Every item is impeccably presented and authoritatively annotated; there is a wealth of additional commentary. The cumulative index to the last 11 volumes runs to 187 closely-packed pages. The edition more than once refers, in wry self-defence, to the description of the character in 1984 who 'was engaged in producing garbled versions - definitive texts, they were called'. Professor Davison knows better than to lay claim to definitiveness, but the message on the tele-screens should certainly be Blairtexts Ungarbled Good, and quite a few unBlair untexts ungarbled good, too.
These volumes thus document in quite extraordinary detail what was a relatively short writing life. And they bring home even more forcefully than Bernard Crick's splendidly tough-minded biography the extent to which this was a writing life, a life lived in thrall to the ideal of producing clear, honest, telling sentences. From the moment in the mid-1930s when he starts to sign personal letters with his pseudonym, we can trace the unnerving process by which the man was increasingly absorbed into his writerly persona (neatly symbolised by the fact that his first wife died as 'Eileen Blair', while his second lived on as 'Sonia Orwell').
The first item in this edition is an (uncorrected) letter home from the 8-year -old Eric: 'I supose you want to know what schools like, its alright we have fun in the morning. When we are in bed.' (Ah, such, such were the joys!) The final entry has him signing his last will and testament three days before his death, aged 46: he directed that the headstone on his grave should bear the name 'Eric Arthur Blair', but he also left instructions for the Uniform Edition of the works of 'George Orwell'. Blair est mort: vive Orwell!
George Orwell despised wealth and swank, so entombing him in 20 luxurious volumes at Pounds 750 might seem a bit cockeyed. But the principles of this edition are far from cosmetic. It aims to search out and print every essay, newspaper article, book review, letter and scrap of private notes that Orwell ever penned, as well as restoring words and phrases cut by nervous early pub lishers - a move that alters the received texts of nearly all his books.
Is Orwell worth this vast editorial enterprise? Resoundingly, yes. Apart from anything else, he evolved, in his seemingly offhand way, the clearest and most compelling English prose style this century. That alone would justify this epoch-making edition. But of course he was more than just a great writer. We need him today because his passion for the truth shames our shifty relativism.
Although he was scornful of religion - likening the Christian heaven to "choir practice in a jeweller's shop" - his truth-telling had a religious intensity, and his life hinged on a road-to-Damascus conversion. At Eton he had been an "odious little snob". Serving with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma he played the sahib, hitting servants and coolies in fits of rage. Then his humanity caught up with him: "I became conscious of an immense weight of guilt I had to expiate." So he returned to Europe and plunged into the abyss - got a job as washer-up in a Paris restaurant and, disguised as a tramp, mingled with the sicken ing scum of London's underclass. The first cup of dosshouse tea he drank was "a kind of baptism".
Joining the oppressed was not just a penance. He wanted to get at the facts, and challenge his readers with them. His revelations about the filth that gets into food in smart restaurants were a calculated affront to wealthy diners, and must have turned many a patrician stomach. Begging, he found, far from being an easy option, meant working harder than the average respectable person, and was agony for the feet: "It taught me not to use the expression 'street-corner loafer.' " Investigating the mining industry for The Road to Wigan Pier, he went down a mine himself, and discovered that crawling on all fours to the coal face left him exhausted before the miner's day's work had even begun.
His craving for firsthand knowledge drew him to the civil war in Spain. He had always felt unmanly compared to the 1914-18 generation, and fighting in an anarchist militia unit reassured him about his physical courage - although he also got a bullet in the throat, which almost killed him. The betrayal of himself and his comrades by the communists left a more lasting wound. He had supposed they were all united in the fight against fascism. Instead, he found himself the target of communist lies and terrorism. Other members of his unit were hunted down, killed or imprisoned. Orwell and his wife slipped across the frontier just in time (the communist document indicting them has come to light and is reproduced here). Back home, leftist newspapers refused to print his version of events, and he had to watch history being cynically rewritten. This unofficial pro-Soviet censorship persisted for years. In 1945, several publishers (including T S Eliot at Faber) turned down Animal Farm because it was too rude to the Russians.
When he was dying of TB in 1949, Orwell handed a list of 35 crypto-communists and fellow-travellers to the British secret service. This first became known in 1992 and has aroused indignant bleating from old lefties ever since. But it was neither shameful nor out of character. At the time, as Peter Davison notes, the cold war was at its iciest; the Russians were still blockading Berlin. Orwell knew that Soviet communism meant the death of objective truth, as well as of liberty, and he was resolved to stop Europe falling into its clutches.
Truth meant confronting not just other people's hypocrisies but his own. He hated imperialism, but understood how imperialists felt when they were subjected to sneers and provocation. In Burma, he admitted, he knew with half his mind that the Raj was an unspeakable tyranny, but with the other half he felt the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. The same awkward honesty prevented him from simply parroting socialist mantras.
Independence for India had his support, but immediate independence would be fatal, he insisted, because India could not defend itself. The whole subcontinent (this was in 1943) was incapable of manufacturing an automobile engine. Besides, the worst barbarities Indians suffered were inflicted on them by other Indians, not by Europeans. None of this made him popular with Indians, or with the orthodox left.
His refusal to be mealy-mouthed about the poor also gave offence. The people he met in dosshouses, he reported, were often abject, envious jackals. As for the working class, it was not possible to be really intimate with them. To pretend otherwise was just socialist cant. Their cultural assumptions were alien, and they were more xenophobic and anti-semitic than the middle class. He came close to saying, in addition, that they smelt, which raised howls of fury - although as he sensibly pointed out nothing else could be expected, given the inadequate washing facilities workers had to endure. What it amounted to was that he would fight for the underprivileged, but would not lie about them. He was equally frank about his fellow-socialists, whom he found largely repellent - a dreary tribe of prigs and fruit-juice drinkers, with no real desire to redistribute wealth, because they knew it would damage their cosy standard of living.
You wonder, reading these volumes, how Orwell would react to Britain in 1998. What would he feel, confronted with new Labour, the Diana cult, fat cats, supermodels and millions of zombies propped in front of World Cup telescreens? The inevitable answer is undisguised contempt. Our drooling interest in league-tables of the world's richest people would strike him as particularly obscene. He would see at once that we had slipped back into the swill-bucket (the money-stink, the success-worship) that he tried to escape when he went to fight in Spain.
His own values were austere. He wanted to equalise incomes and abolish every vestige of class-privilege, from the House of Lords to first-class compartments on trains. Affluence disgusted him, and the second world war earned his qualified approval for killing it off. He hoped clothes rationing would last until moths had devoured the last dinner-jacket. His ideal was to be "brave and hard". On his Hertfordshire small-holding, and later on the Isle of Jura, he kept chickens and goats, grew vegetables and struggled to be self-supporting. It was fairly calamitous, as his diaries show. On Jura, they were struck by lightning. Rabbits and and slugs ate his vegetables. But he relished the fight because it was against softness and, ultimately, against death.
His various diaries, all printed here in full, display his endless curiosity about the world and his talent for spotting ordinary things - the technique thrushes use opening snail shells, the special type of shoe worn by donkeys in Morocco, newspaper headlines, tombstone inscriptions in Kensal Green cemetery (where he went when he wanted a good laugh). In his weekly As I Please column, he wrote about English pubs, making a cup of tea and the pleasure he had got from sixpenny Woolworth's rose bushes (this elicited a letter from a woman socialist, denouncing roses as bourgeois - which gave him another excuse to mock socialists). By analysing ordinary things - boy's weeklies, seaside picture postcards - he invented what is now known as cultural studies. In history, too, it was the unexpectedness of the ordinary that he noticed - that Napoleon's Grand Army marched on Moscow in British overcoats, that safety razors were already in use in 1849. He had an enormous appetite for books, especially "good-bad" and out-of-the-way ones. On Dickens, Thackeray, Joyce, Jack London and scores of lesser writers he is matchlessly sharp and fresh.
The old four-volume Penguin Essays, Letters and Journalism is here replaced by 11 densely annotated volumes with new essays, many new letters, and odd items such as Orwell's lectures to his Home Guard platoon. A mass of correspondence, poetry readings, play scripts, book discussions, from his wartime years with the Indian propaganda department at the BBC, shows him developing an Open University of the air, beamed at Indian students. The supplementary material includes letters from friends and foes - and those written by his wife Eileen just before her death in 1945, while Orwell was a war correspondent in Germany. Lovers of the old Penguin will claim, rightly, that it picked the plums.
Nevertheless, these 20 bulky volumes embody large reserves of untapped Orwellian pleasure. Few books published this year will be as worth reading as any one of them.
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