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The Intimate Orwell

Where I feel that people like us understand the situation better than so-called experts is not in any power to foretell specific events, but in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in.

This uncanny ability received its most eloquent confirmation when Soviet dissidents who wished to translate Animal Farm into Russian (for clandestine distribution behind the Iron Curtain) wrote to him to ask for his authorization: they wrote to him in Russian, assuming that a writer who had such a subtle and thorough understanding of the Soviet reality—in contrast with the dismal ignorance of most Western intellectuals—naturally had to be fluent in Russian!

Orwell’s revulsion toward all “the smelly little orthodoxies that compete for our souls” also explains his distrust and contempt of intellectuals: this attitude dates back a long way, as he recalls in a letter of October 1938:

What sickens me about left-wing people, especially the intellectuals, is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen. I was always struck by this when I was in Burma and used to read anti- imperialist stuff.

If the colonial experience had taught Orwell to hate imperialism, it also made him respect (like the protagonist in a Kipling story) “men who do things.”

In the end, Orwell seems to have essentially reverted to his original position of “Tory Anarchist.” In a letter to Malcolm Muggeridge, there is a statement that seems to me of fundamental importance: “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.”

The Human Factor

Even in the heat of battle, and precisely because he distrusted ideology—ideology kills—Orwell remained always acutely aware of the primacy that must be given to human individuals over all “the smelly little orthodoxies.” His exchange of letters (and subsequent friendship) with Stephen Spender provides a splendid example of this. Orwell had lampooned Spender (“parlour Bolshevik,” “pansy poet”); then they met: the encounter was actually pleasant, which puzzled Spender, who wrote to Orwell on this very subject. Orwell, who later became a friend of Spender’s, replied:

You ask how it is that I attacked you not having met you, & on the other hand changed my mind after meeting you…. [Formerly] I was willing to use you as a symbol of the parlour Bolshie because a. your verse…did not mean very much to me, b. I looked upon you as a sort of fashionable successful person, also a Communist or Communist sympathiser, & I have been very hostile to the C.P. since about 1935, and c. because not having met you I could regard you as a type & also an abstraction. Even if, when I met you, I had happened not to like you, I should still have been bound to change my attitude, because when you meet someone in the flesh you realise immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for this reason that I don’t mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met & spoken with anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to, like the Labour M.P.s who get patted on the back by dukes & are lost forever more.

Which immediately calls back to mind a remarkable passage of Homage to Catalonia: Orwell described how, fighting on the front line during the Spanish civil war, he saw a man jumping out of the enemy trench, half-dressed and holding his trousers with both hands as he ran:

I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at “Fascists”; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a “Fascist,” he is visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.

Literature

From the very start, literature was always Orwell’s first concern. This is constantly reflected in his correspondence: since early childhood “I always knew I wanted to write.” This statement is repeated in various forms, all through the years, till the end. But it took him a long time (and incredibly hard work) to discover what to write and how to write it. (His first literary attempt was a long poem, eventually discarded.) Writing novels became his dominant passion—and an accursed ordeal: “writing a novel is agony.” He finally concluded (some would say accurately), “I am not a real novelist.” And yet shortly before he died he was still excitedly announcing to his friend and publisher Fredric Warburg, “I have a stunning idea for a very short novel.”

As the Letters reveal, he reached a very clear-sighted assessment of his own work. Among his four “conventional” novels, he retained a certain fondness for Burmese Days, which he found faithful to his memories of the place. He felt “ashamed” of Keep the Aspidistra Flying and, even worse, of A Clergyman’s Daughter and would not allow them to be reprinted: “They were written…for money…. At that time I simply hadn’t a book in me, but I was half starved.” He was rightly pleased with Coming Up for Air, written at one go, with relative ease; and it is indeed a most remarkable book—about an insurance salesman who finds that the places he knew as a boy have been ruined—and it is quite prescient, in the light of today’s environmental concerns. Among the books worth reprinting he listed (in 1946—Nineteen Eighty-Four was not written yet) first of all, and by order of importance: Homage to Catalonia; Animal Farm; Critical Essays; Down and Out in Paris and London; Burmese Days; Coming Up for Air.

The Common Man

The extraordinary lengths to which Orwell would go in his vain attempts to turn himself into an ordinary man are well illustrated by the Wallington grocery episode, on which the Letters provides colorful information. In April 1936, Orwell started to rent and run a small village grocery, located in an old, dark, and pokey cottage—insalubrious and devoid of all basic amenities (no inside toilet, no cooking facilities, no electricity—only oil lamps for lighting). On rainy days the kitchen floor was underwater; blocked drains turned the whole place into a smelly cesspool. Davison comments: “One may say without being facetious, it suited Orwell to the ground.” And it especially suited Eileen, his wonderfully Orwellian wife. She moved in the day of their marriage, in 1936, and the way she managed this improbable home testifies both for her heroism and for her eccentric sense of humor. The income from the shop hardly ever covered the rent of the cottage. The main customers were a small bunch of local children who used to buy a few pennies’ worth of lollipops after school. By the end of the year, the grocery went out of business, but at that time it had already fulfilled its true purpose: Orwell was in Barcelona, volunteering to fight against fascism, and when he enlisted into the Anarchist militia, he could proudly sign “Eric Blair, grocer.”

Fairness

Orwell’s sense of fairness was so scrupulous, it extended even to Stalin. As Animal Farm was going into print, at the last minute, Orwell sent a final correction—which was effected just in time. (As all readers will remember, “Napoleon” is the name of the leading pig, which, in Orwell’s fable, represented Stalin.)

In chapter VIII…when the windmill is blown up, I wrote “all the animals including Napoleon flung themselves on their faces.” I would like to alter it to “all the animals except Napoleon.” …I just thought the alteration would be fair to [Stalin] as he did stay in Moscow during the German advance.

Poverty and Ill-Health

Orwell was utterly stoic and never complained about his material and physical circumstances, however distressing they were most of the time. But from the information provided by the Letters, one realizes that his material insecurity (which, at times, reached extreme poverty) ceased only three years before his death, when he received his first royalties windfall from Animal Farm; while his health became a severe and constant problem (undiagnosed tuberculosis) virtually since his return from Burma, at age twenty-five. In later years he required frequent, prolonged, and often painful treatment in various hospitals. For the last twelve years of his short existence (he died, age forty-six, in 1950) he was in fact an invalid—yet insisted most of the time on carrying on with normal activity.

His entire writing career lasted for only sixteen years. The quantity and quality of work produced during this relatively brief span of time would be remarkable even for a healthy man of leisure; that it was achieved in his appalling state of permanent ill-health and poverty is simply stupendous.

Women

In his relations with women, Orwell seems to have been generally awkward and clumsy. He was easily attracted by them, whereas they seldom found him attractive. Still, by miraculous luck, he found in Eileen O’Shaughnessy a wife who was able not only to understand him in depth, but also to love him truly and bear with his eccentricities, without giving up any of her own originality—an originality that still shines through all her letters. If Orwell was a failed poet, Eileen for her part was pure poetry.

Her premature death in 1945 left Orwell stunned and lost for a long time. A year later he abruptly approached a talented young woman he hardly knew (they lived in the same building); with a self-pity that was utterly and painfully out of character for such a proud man, he wrote to her telling her how sick he was and offering her “to be the widow of a literary man.”

I fully realise that I’m not suited to someone like you who is young and pretty…. It is only that I feel so desperately alone…. I have…no woman who takes an interest in me and can encourage me…. Of course it’s absurd a person like me wanting to make love to someone of your age. I do want to, but…I wouldn’t be offended or even hurt if you simply say no…

The woman was flabbergasted and politely discouraged him.

Some years earlier he also made an unfortunate and unwelcome pass at another woman; this episode is documented by the editor with embarrassing precision—at which point readers might remember Orwell’s hostility toward the very concept of biography. Do biographers, however serious and scrupulous, really need or have the right to explore and disclose such intimate details? Yet we still read them. Is it right for us to do so? I honestly do not know the answer.

Solid Objects and Scraps of Useless Information—Trees, Fishes,Butterflies, and Toads

In his essay “Why I Write,” Orwell said:

I do not want completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue…to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.
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