A co-editor of George Orwell’s Complete Works offers a lushly annotated edition of Orwell’s diaries from 1931 to 1949.
Born Eric Arthur Blair, Orwell, as these diaries reveal, lived a varied and even dichotomized life. A reader who visited the majority of these pages could never guess that they recorded the activities of the author of Animal Farm, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and 1984, a book he completed while suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him. (Among the most poignant pages here are Orwell’s lists of his hospital routines just weeks before he died.) Many of the author’s entries deal with his activities on his farm. We learn how many eggs his hens laid each day, his battles with hungry rabbits and deer, his killing of the occasional snake, his observations of the weather, and his maintenance of the property. One moment of great excitement was his near-death in a whirlpool in the Gulf of Corryvreckran. Earlier sections of the diary deal with his abject poverty in the 1930s. He traveled around picking hops (a process he describes in some detail); he was down and out in Paris and London; he traveled to the Mediterranean. In all these places, he noted human customs and flora and fauna. In 1939, Orwell kept daily track of events that were leading toward world war but interwove odd moments about earwigs, a dead cat and the properties of goat manure. In the diary he kept during World War II, he found himself becoming accustomed to continual bombing in London. He joined the Home Guard but noted that their rickety weapons would hardly retard the expected German invasion.
Editor Davison (English/De Montfort Univ.) supplies necessary contextual information and footnotes generously, but stays in the shadows and allows us to truly enjoy Orwell’s impressive chronicles.
Vanity Fair columnist Hitchens (Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001, etc.), late of the English New Left, provides reassurance for those who’ve been staying up nights wondering whether George Orwell has any relevance in the post–Cold War world.
Orwell was right on the three big subjects of his time, Hitchens writes: imperialism, fascism, and communism. In essays like “Shooting an Elephant” and in the slightly clunky novel Burmese Days, he saw the English effort to control South Asia for the misguided, ultimately dehumanizing enterprise it was. In a flood of journalism and such novels as Animal Farm and 1984, he foresaw that the Leninist-Stalinist experiment would necessarily end in the Gulag. Only Orwell’s antifascist polemics, Hitchens asserts, are less than memorable, perhaps because he tended to see fascism as “the distillation of everything that was most hateful and false in the society he already knew: a kind of satanic summa of military arrogance, racist solipsism, schoolyard bullying, and capitalist greed.” As a guided tour of Orwell’s work, this has its value, though a little too much of it is given over to quibbling with previous assessments by V.S. Pritchett, Bernard Crick, Raymond Williams, and others. More interesting is Hitchens’s steady effort to rescue Orwell from those who have tried to bend him to the neoconservative cause; against them, Hitchens suggests that Orwell would likely have flown independent socialist colors had he lived to see 1984. And the European left, Hitchens writes, would do well to remember Orwell’s insistence that a “socialist United States of Europe” was the only way to steer an independent course between American capitalism on one side and Soviet communism on the other, advice that remains sage today even if the game has shifted just a bit.
Admirers of Hitchens should find no fault with this appreciation, which is of an interesting piece with pal Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread (p. 627). Neither should admirers of Orwell.
The second of two volumes of the British author’s essays, compiled by journalist George Packer.
Orwell the critic is not quite the equal of his counterpart, the chronicler of people, places and political occurrences and institutions. Still, this somewhat uneven volume offers four superlative examples of this consummate realist’s keen scrutiny of cultural touchstones and trends, milestones and minutiae. “Charles Dickens” is a long, heartfelt tribute that nevertheless eschews sentimentalizing the ultimate sentimentalist. Contrasting Dickens’s fiction and reportage with similar work from fellow Victorians (e.g., Thackeray, Trollope, Charles Reade), Orwell painstakingly identifies the sources and the enduring strengths of Dickens’s indomitable humanitarian sensibility and stubborn sense of social responsibility. “Inside the Whale” evaluates Henry Miller’s renegade masterpiece Tropic of Cancer as a cheeky response to 19th-century rustic idealism, and a groundbreaking dramatization of the impact of expatriate experience on modern prose style. A penetrating comparison of two very different literary masters (“Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”) interprets the Russian author’s criticism of Shakespeare as expressive of “the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitudes towards life.” Then there’s the great 1945 essay “Politics and the English Language.” In ringing tones that ought to shame every public figure who plays fast and loose with verifiable fact, Orwell gathers apropos anecdotal evidence of the manipulative imprecision of political language at its most recklessly dishonest, concluding, with soulful brevity and wit, that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Elsewhere, he casts a skeptical eye on Salvador Dali’s puckish amorality and Gandhi’s hard-won saintliness, finds low-brow entertainment value in the work of a smutty postcard artist and asks uncomfortable questions about hopeful utopian visions (“Can Socialists Be Happy?”).
More often appreciative and ruminative than critical—but that’s OK.
The first of two volumes of the British author’s essays, compiled by journalist George Packer.
Orwell (1903–50) was no Flaubert closeted in aesthetic concentration. He was a vigorous participant in the chaotic life of his time, traveling to dangerous places (Burma under British rule, Spain fragmented by civil strife) and venturing into the culture of poverty—in his documentary masterpiece Down and Out in Paris and London and in such memorable transcriptions of personal experience as reports on his day spent in a filthy workhouse (“The Spike”) and a similar adventure in a festering prison (“Clink”). Readers familiar with Orwell’s work will not be surprised to find the aforementioned, or a kindred depiction of “Marrakech” as a swamp of poverty, overpopulation and disease, or a thoughtful if embittered retrospective essay, “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War,” which forms a bridge to his great nonfiction book Homage to Catalonia. Some may be surprised, however, to encounter a memoirist who displays a quirky affection for the minutiae of the quotidian (“The Case for the Open Fire,” “In Defence of English Cooking,” “Bookshop Memories”) and a keen observer who always zeroes in on the broader ramifications of a simple subject (e.g., describing English football in “The Sporting Spirit” as “an unfailing cause of ill will”). The journalistic virtue Orwell does not possess in abundance is, oddly enough, objectivity. Readers will feel his inquiring, combative, judgmental sensibility lurking everywhere in his best work: bitter self-criticism in the twin classics “A Hanging” and “Shooting an Elephant”; stoical courage and depressive exhaustion in his immensely detailed “War-time Diary” (1940); his need “to make political writing into an art” in “Why I Write”; and the salutary indignation that enlivens his justly famous remembrance of public-school experiences (“Such, Such Were the Joys”).
A generous display of the great English journalist’s distinctive honesty, clarity and reverence for the pertinent fact and the perfect phrase.
An outstanding, if somewhat superfluous, account of “one of the great misfits of his generation.”
With Jeffrey Meyers’s recent Orwell (2000) on most library shelves, it’s hard to see the need for yet another comprehensive biography. But English literary biographer Bowker (Through the Dark Labyrinth, 1997, etc.) is determined to leave no stone unturned in flushing out the artful political writer’s emotional life, especially the distressing contradiction between his public honesty and his private furtiveness. The avid Orwellian will soon be won over by Bowker’s amiable prose and thorough familiarity with his subject’s milieu. While the text is long, it moves swiftly from Eric Blair’s “golden age” growing up in Edwardian Oxfordshire through the dreadful St. Cyprian’s boarding school (immortalized in the essay “Such, Such Were the Joys”) to Orwell’s puzzling yet life-defining five-year service as a policeman in colonial Burma. (Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma, p. 403, offers superb treatment of this period.) The author authoritatively traces the evolution of “George Orwell” through Blair’s repudiation of his colonial bourgeois roots (Down and Out in Paris and London), the forging of his socialist conscience (The Road to Wigan Pier) and his deep suspicion of Soviet communism (Homage to Catalonia) toward the prophetic clarity of his political perception (Animal Farm, 1984). As well, Bowker provides excellent historical context and a nice sense of the personalities involved. He does not attempt to gloss over Orwell’s less savory qualities, acknowledging the writer’s misogyny and recently exposed tendency to “pounce” on undefended women. The final chapter takes an intriguing look at how Orwell’s work was posthumously co-opted to serve the right-wing Cold War cause due to the naiveté of Sonia Brownell, the bride he took virtually on his deathbed in 1949.
No matter how many incursions are made into his life, the compelling fascination of this politically and morally crucial author always comes through.
A history, published in Britain shortly after the author wrote it in 1937, of the few months surrounding the Barcelona Telephone Exchange riots and what the writer determines as the Communist betrayal of all of Spain's anti-fascist forces. The crux of Orwell's writing is to show the ridiculous misrepresentations of the actual happenings in Barcelona and on the front and their meaning for the rest of Spain. The Communists were joined with the Government. Another anti-fascist faction was the P.O.U.M. or anarchist militia. They were closely allied with socialist worker movements, ready to build up a workers' revolution. In the beginning when issues were but hazily defined, Orwell joined the P.O.U.M. and fought with them- at the front. The Communists, considering anarchist-socialist revolutionary policies as presumptive, sought successfully to purge the P.O.U.M. and rendered them through messy journalism, coercive police methods, withdrawal of arms, false reports- as Trotskyists, pro-Franco, anything but the potent patriotic force they were. Thus republican Spain lost a power that could have helped beat Franco. Orwell's report is as exciting as it is meditative. With his quiet exactitude the midnight skirmishes, the political issues, and the utter futility of war come clearly into focus. Perhaps not a book to create sensation in a day when much of what happened at Barcelona has been realized, but one enlightening in terms of showing the war way toward mutual understanding and fair play.
A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.
The Book-of-the-Month Club dual selection, with John Gunther's Behind the Curtain (1949), for July, this projects life under perfected state controls.
It presages with no uncertainty the horrors and sterility, the policing of every thought, action and word, the extinction of truth and history, the condensation of speech and writing, the utter subjection of every member of the Party. The story concerns itself with Winston, a worker in the Records Department, who is tormented by tenuous memories, who is unable to identify himself wholly with Big Brother and The Party. It follows his love for Julia, who also outwardly conforms, inwardly rebels, his hopefulness in joining the Brotherhood, a secret organization reported to be sabotaging The Party, his faith in O'Brien, as a fellow disbeliever, his trust in the proles (the cockney element not under the organization) as the basis for an overall uprising. But The Party is omniscient, and it is O'Brien who puts him through the torture to cleanse him of all traitorous opinions, a terrible, terrifying torture whose climax, keyed to Winston's most secret nightmare, forces him to betray even Julia. He emerges, broken, beaten, a drivelling member of The Party. Composed, logically derived, this grim forecasting blueprints the means and methods of mass control, the techniques of maintaining power, the fundamentals of political duplicity, and offers as arousing a picture as the author's previous Animal Farm.
Certain to create interest, comment, and consideration.
Orwell can write — he proved it in Down and Out in Paris and London. He has an all-seeing eye, and is not fooled by glamorous whitewashing. And in Burmese Days he has written a malodorous, realistic novel of the white man in the east, as he really is. Granted all that, but after all what has he told that has not been told before, many times since Kipling painted a different picture. And the story itself is not particularly worth telling.
A very different dish of tea from his earlier Animal Farm and recent Nineteen Eighty Four both of which instigated aroused controversy, is this book which was published in England before the war. Prophetic in its atmosphere, it is the total recall of George Bowling, 45, which is started by his set of new false teeth and some money he has won on the horses. The morning's events help him envision what will come with Hitler's threats growing stronger, lead him to think of his youth with special intensity and review the sort of secure, continuous life that went with World War I which took him out of the grocery business, turned him loose among books, inspired his thinking. The mental squalor of his life thereafter with Hilda and their two children and his present doubts as to what is coming — and the 17 quid — send him on a secret visit to his old home. It in turn offers only failure as an antidote for the country has turned into town, no one knows or remembers him or his family — everything is disillusion. In London again with the knowledge earned that there is no going back, that what is to come — horrible as it must be — cannot be stopped. Honesty in the picture of a man neither highbrow nor a fool of a poky milleu and the mingy situations of living, of the downhill path to a ghastly flux, this in its backward, introspective look offers a nostalgic, sincere appreciation of a way of life that can never be again, and will prove something new for his followers.
A collection of eighteen essays by the author of Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm, etc. these represent the last of his finished work. There is excellent reading here, whether it be the title piece on the English colonial attitude, or his thoughts on books, poetry, cigarettes, a report on a hanging and a death, reflections on Gandhi, a toad, English murder, and other assorted topics, and in the field of the essay this provides fine style as well as stimulating thinking. For the selective reader as well as his established followers.
Collected from 1939 on, these are essays and autobiographical pieces, which while contemplative in tone, are not contended and should be welcomed by the audience Orwell has claimed. There are definitions of political orientation, declarations of personal beliefs, examinations of contemporary loyalties and perverted thinking, of the presence of anti-Semitism in England, consideration of radio as a vehicle for poetry, a critique of Henry Miller and his predecessors, a review of the results of the Spanish War and a long reflection of his years as a poor boy at an expensive school. This last is a holding picture of English schooling and of children caught in a system without pity or kindness and gives a very human touch to the book. People, places, events and attitudes- are all caught and observed with honesty and a distillation of meaning that gives these 11 inclusions their appeal.
Ten essays, consistently controversial, that range widely between a long one, in six parts, on Dickens, shorter ones on boys' weeklies', H.G. Wells, comic postcards, Kipling, Yeats, Dall, Koostler, detective stories, Wodehouse. In answering criticism, in defining his own theories, the author provides stimulating ideas, on modern trends, American influence, current values, and literary criticism- among others. The Kipling and Dickens articles re-evaluate the men and their books in terms of their times and mental atmospheres; the Yeats and Dali are book reviews; the Wodehouse is a defense of the man as a Quisling and the reasons he could not be one; the Koostler and Wells examine their failure to maintain their status; the boys' weeklies and detective story a study of the symptoms of the moral degeneration of these days; the comic postcards a defense of the open vulgarity of their kind. A personal, serious, but never dull analysis that has a definite worth in its challenges, in its integrity.
Carping portrait of the English patron saint of left-wing anti-communism, by a biographer who displayed a lot more enthusiasm for Thackeray (2001).
Although Taylor writes that George Orwell (1903–50) “has obsessed me for the best part of a quarter of a century,” the principal sign of his obsession here is endless quibbling with other Orwell observers’ comments, which may or may not be familiar to readers of this work. Moreover, most of these comments are critical—Orwell was self-pitying, he was paranoid, he condescended to the working classes he professed to admire—and are refuted perfunctorily. (A particularly nasty diatribe from a Marxist guide to English literature is reprinted over three pages without any comment at all.) Certainly, in recent years much has come to light about the less attractive features of the author revered for his painfully honest scrutiny of socialism in The Road to Wigan Pier, his superb reporting from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War in Homage to Catalonia, and most of all for his scathing fictional depictions of totalitarianism, Animal Farm and 1984. But a biography ought to at least convey the qualities that made Orwell an increasingly important, controversial figure in English literary and political circles of the 1930s and ’40s. The account of his early years as the son of a British colonial official, a scholarship boy at Eton, and a policeman in Burma is similarly shaped by the desire to cut Orwell down to size; his later reminiscences of those days, Taylor informs us, were highly selective and crafted with an eye to political symbolism—not exactly unusual strategies in autobiographical writing. Impressionistic chapters on “Orwell’s face,” “Orwell’s voice” (horrors: he retained his upper-class accent), “Orwell’s things,” and on and on, do not further illuminate the personality of an admittedly reserved man who entirely fails to come to life in these pages.
Like many volumes on the groaning shelf of Orwelliana, this reads more like a conversation with fellow monomaniacs than something for the general public. (16 pp. b&w illustrations, not seen)
Richard H. Rovere introduces this generous collection of Orwellania — sections and chapters from his books and pieces from his newspaper writings, from his Burmese world to that of World War II, and after. The coverage includes literary criticism, per se and with a political angle; school memories; notes on the Vicar of Bray; a defense of P.G. Wodehouse; an analysis of Gandhi, freedom of the press, the Englishman's England, and James Burnham. Longer inclusions come from Down and Out in Paris and London, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Homage to Catalonia Burmese Days, A Clergyman's Daughter, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Nineteen Eighty Four. The astringency and precision here offer worthwhile stimulation for his American audience for much in this book has never appeared in this country and followers of his publications here will be rewarded by this chance to follow the variety of material that made up his life, his thinking and his writing.