It is not a New Year’s resolution but I intend to write one blog post a month about what I’ve been reading. Usually I write a roundup of books enjoyed twice a year but these posts do not tend to say much in the sense of being reviews. They are more lists with a few observations. I’d rather read books than review them but certainly have more chance of saying something useful if I post monthly.
January is undoubtedly the best month of the year for sustained personal reading. I really make hay while the summer holidays shine and read a book every couple of days.
This year, there’s been a glut of Orwell’s non fiction, especially essays, opinion pieces and reviews which continue to astound, rarely disappointing with dated or suspect observations. Considering this work is over 70 years old, there’s a sagacity of observation that is quite staggeringly modern in sensibility. I cannot imagine too many journalistic pieces published today being relevant enough to see the light in 2085.
Orwell writes about literature, politics and popular culture. His subjects include the big ‘isms’ – fascism, communism and socialism – but he also writes about seaside postcards, how to brew tea, children’s magazines and advertising. He is interested in the everyday, as well as the big political issues of his times. He has a love of nature and the countryside and is slightly obsessed by eggs. It is factually true to say he is occasionally guilty of being flippantly homophobic but some of the other charges against him (of sexism or anti-semitism are unfounded, not so clear, or at least debatable). I have been surprised that there are not more awkward moments on reading his work in the 21st century.
I have read Orwell’s writing since 1984, the year, as teenagers, we studied his dystopian novel in class and watched the film adaptation. At that time I had no idea about Eric Blair, the man. Even at university when I read Down and Out in Paris and London, as well as a few of his essays, I knew relatively little about Orwell. As a teacher, I have used Animal Farm with classes and this is when the figure behind the novels started to fascinate me and I read more widely. His journalism, reviews and essays are extensive and the most famous pieces are widely anthologised. Politics and the English Language or Why I Write are essays that English students, writers and the generally bookish have read and re-read. However, there are quite a few other essays that have a surprisingly wide readership too, certainly compared to other writers of the period. You will likely enjoy at least some of these dozen of Orwell’s best essays.
I have read these Orwell collections in the last few weeks:
Many of these collections have similar selections so there are quite few to skip (although surprisingly, I found myself reading many pieces again). Orwell never seems to write a bad sentence even though much of what is now published was found after his death and had not been personally prepared for publication. His collected writings make for a better biography (and Orwell forbade the writing of one on his deathbed) then any other written chronology of his life. From his birth in colonial Burma, to his early death from tuberculosis aged just 46, a remarkably complete picture of his existence forms.
There is such truthfulness to his writing about his life. Essays, like Such, Such Were the Joys, an indictment of the schooling system he experienced, have been criticised by some for lacking veracity but considering that this piece was found amongst Orwell’s papers and he did not publish it should be considered. In the essay he discloses many embarrassing facts about his life as well as damning St Cyprians. It certainly matches with my perceptions of what schooling in England entailed and those who have claimed otherwise were ‘Old Boys’ of the school. Oddly enough, Eric Blair likely changed his name to George Orwell as to not embarrass his parents when his writings about living amongst the working classes and sleeping rough were published.
There’s just so much to read. You may be a ‘completist‘ like myself who will enjoy this comprehensive bibliography for Orwell. I did discover that an expensive, twenty volume complete Orwell exists but it truly is more suited for scholars of his work rather than general readers as it is, at least the eleven volumes of his non fiction output, a chronological everything. For example, Facing Unpleasant Facts 1937-39 has many letters that become tedious to read, especially as one never sees the reply. I found myself skimming quite a few. For most, a selection of reviews, essays, letters, diary entries and the like is better than the these encyclopaedic volumes. However, for anyone researching Orwell it is an important and magisterial resource.
“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”
I unexpectedly picked up Homage to Catalonia (I had two unread copies on my shelf) late last year when looking for another book and started reading it in the dusty garage library under our house. This lasted for about an hour, until the children found me. Later that night I finished it. Orwell’s voice is compelling. His praise of the Manchester Guardian and advice to his readers is what really stayed with me after completing the book:
And I hope the account I have given is not too misleading. I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan. In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.
Not many writers ask their readers to be wary of their own writing.
At about the same time I read a review of a new collection by the ‘elderly’, indefatigable editor of Orwell’s work, Peter Davison. Seeing Things as They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings is just exceptional and I am so glad that I forked out for the hardback (thanks to booko.com.au it was half what the bricks & mortar stores are charging). It is very difficult to find a selection of Orwell’s non fiction that does not have many essays read previously but not so with this collection which has the best of his reviews and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines many of them not readily available. Indeed, I had not realised that Orwell did so much broadcasting for the BBC, especially for an Indian audience. Orwell correctly felt that Churchill’s intransigence towards independence for India was a blight but equally, he was suspicious of Gandhi’s religious extremism, as well as doubting if pacifism could work in other contexts.
The following is an excerpt from a broadcast made in 1941 about ‘literature and totalitarianism’ that is terribly important, not just when thinking about Orwell but for judging contemporary authors, journalists and essayists:
The whole of modern European literature – I am speaking of the literature of the last four hundred years – is built on the concept of intellectual honesty, or, if you like to put it that way, on Shakespeare’s maxim, ‘To thine own self be true’. The first thing we ask of a writer is that he shan’t tell lies, that he shall say what he really thinks, what he really feels. The worst thing we can say about a work of art is that it is insincere.
We see these ideals time and time again in Orwell’s work.
Orwell’s sincere attempt to see things as they are meant he was prepared to be critical of fellow ideological travellers, not just those with different points of view. Many literati, often those of ‘The Left’, grew to be very unhappy with Orwell into the 1940s as he continued to be critical of socialism, especially Stalin’s Russia.
By 1946 Orwell’s essays and style were being analysed on radio. It was evident to these commentators that he was neither lowbrow or highbrow but stood for common sense. He wanted to speak the truth and worked out how it was he could best convey his ideas honestly. Daniel George called it “the extreme plausibility of George Orwell’s style”. This critique captures what it is about this writer which has enabled him appeal on either side of a yawning ideological chasm, simply put, he wants to speak the truth and consequently, sounds believable.
Often when I read reviews and contemporary essays in literary journals it is clear that an intellectual game is being played and who knows what the writer really thinks about the book, film or idea. When one has been reading Orwell’s writing, this contemporary disingenuousness, is quite stark. Orwell’s direct, unadorned prose stands in direct contarst to the convoluted styles employed by some academics and others who should know better.
I have much left to read before feeling I can put Orwell back on the shelf. The good news is I want to read more. The bad news is a couple of his novels, admittedly started in a half-hearted way have previously defeated me but I will try again. Indeed, the author requested that A Clergyman’s Daughter never be reprinted.
I may respect Orwell’s wish on this one. 😉
One good book leads to another
I have read both of these books (covers above) about Orwell previously – the Raymond Williams‘ well over twenty years ago and Hitchens’ tome when it was published at the beginning of the 21st century – but my renewed interest in the author has led me back to both. Reading them in quick succession this month was illuminating. Hitchens’ and Williams’ readers should take to heart Orwell’s advice, from Homage to Catalonia (and many other writings) about deliberate, or otherwise, distortions of the facts. Both are more than a little guilty of doing this.
Hitchens’, grinding his axe against ‘The Left’, complains that Williams reviews Orwell unfairly for purely ideologically reasons. Ironically, Hitchens does something very similar in his book to Williams. It seems more about Hitchens’ rejection of his New Left intellectual origins than commentary about Orwell. At no time does Hitchens mention he was formerly a Trotskyist himself and this is surprising considering how any book about Orwell should have truth-telling high on the agenda. Terry Eagleton, with wry wit, writes amusingly about Hitchens – when reviewing new biographies of Orwell – and makes a good point with his comparison of the writers. Hitchens is quite happy to be a ‘New Orwell’, decrying pacifism in the face of aggression and advocating fighting for freedom, confirming his support of the ‘hawkish’ neo-conservative policies in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time of publication and following decade until his death.
“To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.” Tropic of Cancer
I never read Henry Miller for similar reasons to why Charles Bukowski never found his way onto the pile. This has been a serious oversight rectified by reading George Orwell’s review in New English Weekly (Nov. 1935) of Tropic of Cancer and re-reading his essay, Inside the Whale. How could one not want to read Miller after Orwell describes him as:
…the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance; and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.
Tropic of Cancer is a stunning novel in many ways. Most notably, Miller provides what we all want; the writing soon fades and nothing stands between the experience and the reader. The prose is stunning, as is the debauchery. It is still, over 70 years later, quite shockingly debased.
Miller was a pacifist and thought Orwell quite mad for heading to Spain to fight. It is hard to imagine two value systems, united by prose, being so vast different. Orwell, although a critic of the establisment, was never going to be a counter-culture figure like Miller. Orwell worked from the inside. Miller would never have been allowed a seat at the table.
Here is a timeline that outlines Miller and Orwell’s relationship.
Richard Flanagan’s, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, led me to hunt down a book by the author’s father (and brother). The Line explores Arch Flanagan’s experiences as a prisoner of war on the Burma Railway and his son Martin’s quest to understand his father’s time ‘on the line’. What I found remarkable was how much of the Arch’s experiences and stories have found their way into Flanagan’s Man Booker Award winning novel. Some of the most memorable episodes in the novel are representations of real events and characters. It shows how much fiction can be based very closely on real events; the character of Darkie and the freeing of the fish in particular. Arch Flanagan knew ‘Weary’ Dunlop and indeed, wrote a tribute for him. There would be few Australians who read Flanagan’s novel without thinking that ‘Dorigo’ Evans, the protagonist, was largely based on the historical figure of Dunlop. Richard Flanagan acknowledges the inspiration behind the book but Arch Flanagan’s memoirs tend to confirm this even more than one suspected.
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything: just hope they’ll leave you alone.
If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino opens so delectably that one wants to plunge on into the story but unfortunately, by the end this reader found it just as disappointing as experimental. The first quarter of the book had me enthralled but page after page it just became less interesting. An admirable, postmodern, piece of writing but ultimately, not one that I’d recommend to you.
is a new favourite. A couple of years ago I read the first book in his cleverly structured Kingkiller Chronicle and loved it. The second book is not as strong but still wonderfully immersive fantasy. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is not the third part of the trilogy but a meditation, of sorts, exploring a popular character’s world. The book opens and closes with Rothfuss explaining a little about how he came to publish this story about Auri that does not follow the usually conventions of the genre. To be honest, this saves the book which, although well-written and a pleasant experience feels more like publishing an author’s character notes. I should note that Rothfuss does have much better female characters than most fantasy writers manage. His justification of this quite self-indulgent piece tends to revolve around the fact that he knows you may not like the book but enough people want to be in Auri’s world, the damaged one’s among us, that he feels justified in publishing it. If he was an unknown author it would never have been published. It certainly sold well and I still look forward to book 3 of the trilogy.
I intend to read all of the Shardlake series and enjoyed Dark Fire, the second book in this wonderful series of historical mysteries. I plunging heavily into the Tudor world at present (more on that later and in February) and admire Sansom’s ability to recreate the period so convincingly for the reader. I never read mysteries so this is indeed good to holm my interest. I am also keen to start his novel set during the Spanish Civil War, Winter in Madrid.
Here is my complete January reading list.
More Miller and Orwell will be on the February menu but I will start to digest Northern Lights: The Positive Policy Example of Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway by Andrew Scott the moment I finish this blog post. It is wonderful to see a growing number of Australians realising that there are policy options rather than merely pursuing rat eat rat models of existence that have been so popular in recent decades.
I eagerly await Hilary Mantel‘s final book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, due out later in the year, that explores the last four years of Thomas Cromwell‘s life. There are some books that demand re-reading. I have started Wolf Hall again as the critics heap praise on the BBC adaptation. It is not possible to recommend a book more highly than this one. Do yourself a favour, read it before watching the tv series.
NB I am still quixotically ploughing through Cervantes. 😉
Featured image: Screenshot of my Shelfari page for January
What have you read recently?