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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, 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.

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