Orwell in 1998

The Complete Works of George Orwell

edited by Peter Davison, assisted by Ian Angus, by Sheila Davison
London: Secker and Warburg, 8,624 (20 volumes) pp., £750.00/$1,250.00

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 …

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