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.
October 22, 1998
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩