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George Orwell's first wife, who died tragically young, has always been an enigmatic figure. Now, writes biographer DJ Taylor, a previously unknown cache of letters has been found, shedding new light on her and on a crucial period in the writer's life
Saturday December 10, 2005
For a writer who died in his mid-40s, leaving 11 fat volumes of letters and journalism and a host of garrulous friends, much of George Orwell's life is still curiously unnavigable. Even now, with half-a-dozen biographies on the library shelves and a near-archive of assorted recollection, there are great stretches of time of which hardly anything is known about what he was doing or even where he was. These gaps and fissures extend to many of his friendships and professional dealings: the people are dead, the trails gone cold, the mementos thrown away. All this is complicated by Orwell's habitual reticence, a personal caution that often extended to outright paranoia, an unwillingness to reveal more about himself than was absolutely necessary.
His friend Anthony Powell once declared that what you truly believed about yourself, and by implication the people around you, should be kept to yourself. Orwell, it is safe to say, was forged in the same Edwardian crucible. Nowhere is the dense emotional smokescreen that hung over his career more impenetrable than in his relationship with Eileen O'Shaughnessy, whom he met in the spring of 1935, married in the summer of 1936, and who died nine years later on an operating table during a hysterectomy while her husband was away in occupied Europe, reporting the closing stages of the second world war for the Observer and the Manchester Evening News.
Six decades on, Eileen is one of the larger silences in Orwell studies. Though generously recollected by Orwell's friends in the years after his death, there is a way in which she never quite comes alive in their reminiscences, finds her own voice or takes on a personality distinct from her husband. Of medium height, with a "heart-shaped face" and "Irish colouring", Lady Violet Powell remembered half a century later. The Powells were fond of Eileen while noting a "defensive side". "I never found Eileen at all easy to get on with," Powell recalled in a diary entry from the late 1980s. Another friend talked of her "curiously elusive personality". The file of compliments paid her by Cyril Connolly is horribly unrevealing: charming, intelligent, independent. Aren't we all? What, one wants to know, in the midst of this anodyne memorialising, was Eileen like? And what did she think of the author of Animal Farm, in whose conception she is thought materially to have assisted? Curiously enough, 60 years after Eileen's miserable death, we now have some kind of an answer.
A previously unknown cache of Eileen's letters came to light in the early part of this year. Written between 1936 and 1941, without salutations and signed off with the nick-name "Pig", they are addressed to her friend Norah Myles (née Symes) whom she had met at St Hugh's College, Oxford, in the mid-1920s.
Instantly a puzzle that has irked generations of Orwell-fanciers is solved. This is the reference in one of Eileen's last letters to Orwell from March 1945, in which she worries over who might look after their adopted son Richard in the event of her death. "Norah & Quartus would have him & bring him up but you have never seen either of them. Quartus is in India & I can't arrange it." "Quartus" is Quartus St Leger Myles, a Bristol GP, whom Norah married in 1933. But the Eileen-Norah correspondence has an importance far beyond the identification of bit-part players in Orwell's life (Norah, it turns out, met him twice and thought him "rather intimidating"). They illuminate Orwell's first marriage with an occasionally rather startling clarity. They also establish Eileen definitively as a person in her own right - witty, ironic, able to extract humour from the most unpromising situations, demonstrating almost from sentence to sentence why Orwell wanted to marry her.
Needless to say, from the biographer's point of view - especially the biographer who has already published his biography - all this is on the one hand tremendously exciting and, on the other, unbelievably frustrating. You spends four years or so trying to penetrate the carapace of someone who at the time remained resolutely impenetrable, only for new evidence to come rolling along to suggest a radically revised view of your subject. All you can console yourself with is the fact that this is a habitual drawback of the biographer's craft. That cache of long-lost photographs, that rapt, incriminating letter - these things invariably turn up 10 minutes after the page proofs have been signed off.
Orwell, only recently parted from his baptismal name of Eric Blair, met the then 29-year-old Miss O'Shaughnessy early in 1935, when he and his Hampstead landlady Rosalind Obermeyer held a party at their Parliament Hill flat. Mrs Obermeyer, then studying for an MA in psychology at University College London, invited several of her fellow students to make up the numbers. One of them - two years younger than Orwell, talkative and lively - made a striking impression. That, Orwell informed his co-host shortly after the proceedings drew to a close, was the kind of girl he would like to marry. Orwell being Orwell, no time was lost. His six-month stay in Hampstead, where he worked part-time in a bookshop while writing Keep the Aspidistra Flying, had already taken in several low-key romantic entanglements, but the seriousness of his intentions towards Eileen produced a whirlwind courtship. They went horse-riding at Blackheath, near the O'Shaughnessy family home in south London, and within three weeks he had as good as proposed. Intrigued, and perhaps faintly alarmed by this impetuousness, Eileen turned him down without absolutely discouraging a second attempt. Orwell, who informed his friend Rayner Heppenstall that "she is the nicest person I have met for a long time", continued to press his suit.
Like her suitor, whose CV included five years in the Burma Police and a stint as washer-up in a Paris hotel, Eileen had a varied career behind her. Born in South Shields, where her father worked for the Customs & Excise, she was unusual among women of her generation in possessing an Oxford English degree. Subsequently she taught in a girl's boarding school, took odd clerical and administrative jobs and then ran her own typing agency before giving it up to study at UCL. However enigmatic she may have seemed to Orwell's friends, and however ineluctable the qualities he found in her, there is widespread agreement among them that she cheered him up, took him out of himself and gave him confidence in his abilities. Her predecessor in Orwell's affections, Kay Ekevall, noted disinterestedly that "she was gay and lively and interesting, and much more on his level".
At the same time there was another man in Eileen's life, whom no potential husband could ever displace. This was her brother Laurence, a distinguished thoracic surgeon, to whom she occasionally acted as secretary and despite a billing in her letters as "one of nature's Fascists" remained devoted. Though Eileen eventually made up her mind to marry Orwell, she was aware that blood ran deeper.
"If we were at opposite ends of the earth and I sent him a telegram saying 'Come at once', he would come," she once wrote of Laurence. "George would not do that. For him work comes before anything."
The Orwells began their married life in June 1936 in the tiny cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire, to which Orwell had enthusiastically relocated two months before. Even by the standards of the 30s it was inconveniently remote - Baldock, the nearest town, was three miles away - and uncomfortably primitive, high on damp and low on modern amenities. "They didn't even have an inside loo," one friend recalled. "You had to go to the bottom of the garden."
"The Stores", as its name suggested, had doubled up as a village shop, customers entering by way of the 4' 6" front door, and Orwell was keen to continue the tradition. Of the wedding preliminaries no record at all remains, except for a peculiar letter from Orwell to his friend Geoffrey Gorer, confiding that he and Eileen were telling as few people as possible in case their relations combined against them in some way to prevent it. What Orwell meant by this is anyone's guess: bride and groom were in their 30s, unencumbered, with no property settled on them and had been living independent lives for the past 10 years. One can only assume that some mild hint of unease blowing up from Greenwich, or down from Southwold (where Orwell's parents lived in genteel retirement), had appealed to his considerable sense of melodrama.
What did Eileen, a bright, spirited girl who had given up a master's degree to sit in a draughty hovel selling shillings' worth of groceries and watching her husband type, expect from her marriage? The first letter to Norah, sent from the Blair seniors' house in Southwold and dating from early November 1936, clearly follows a long silence.
"I lost my habit of punctual correspondence during the first few weeks of marriage," Eileen explains, "because we quarrelled so continuously & really bitterly that I thought I'd save time & just write one letter to everyone when the murder or separation had been accomplished."
The newlyweds' "trouble" had arisen in part because Orwell's Aunt Nellie Limouzin came to occupy the cramped spare bedroom for a couple of months. To add to this imposition, before the wedding:
" ... Mother drove me so hard in the first week of June that I cried all the time from pure exhaustion & partly because Eric had decided that he mustn't let his work be interrupted & complained bitterly when we'd been married a week that he'd only done two good days' work out of seven. Also I couldn't make the oven cook anything & boiled eggs (on which Eric had lived almost exclusively) made me sick. Now I can make the oven cook a reasonable number of things & he is working very rapidly. I forgot to mention that he had his 'bronchitis' for three weeks in July & that it rained every day for six weeks during the whole of which the kitchen was flooded & all the food went mouldy in a few hours. It seems a long time ago but then seemed very permanent."
Eileen's characteristic amalgam of irony and jauntiness is very difficult to separate out, but the air of exasperation is undisguised. "I thought I could come & see you," she continues, "& have twice decided when I could, but Eric always gets something if I'm going away if he has notice of the fact, & if he has no notice ... he gets something when I'm gone so that I have to come home again." Meanwhile, funds were running low. The money they had expected for Keep the Aspidistra Flying in October would not now be paid until April, while The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell's account of his journey round the unemployment blackspots of the north of England, undertaken earlier in the year, was several chapters away from completion. But Eileen professed to be enjoying her week chez Blair:
" ... the family on the whole is fun & I imagine unusual in their attitude to me because they all adore Eric & consider him quite impossible to live with - indeed on the wedding day Mrs Blair shook her head & said that I'd be a brave girl if I knew what I was in for, and Avril the sister said obviously I didn't know what I was in for or I shouldn't be there. They haven't I think grasped that I am very much like Eric in temperament which is an asset once one has accepted the fact."
The Road to Wigan Pier was published in the spring of 1937, by which time its author was nearing the end of his third month as a volunteer for the Republican army in Spain. Eileen's next letter to Norah, undated but apparently written in the middle of February, heralds her own departure to Barcelona to work in the offices of the Independent Labour party. Desperate to join her husband on the Aragon front ("If Franco had engaged me as a manicurist I would have agreed to that too in exchange for a salvo conducto [safe conduct]"), she seems mildly amused by the privations Orwell was suffering in the trenches:
" ... the Spanish government feeds George on bread without butter and 'rather rough food' and has arranged that he doesn't sleep at all, so he has no anxieties."
Already there is a characteristic tone at work in Eileen's reflections on "Eric": affectionate, exasperated, its incidental comedy not always disguising straightforward annoyance and deep-seated anxiety over Orwell's health. The Blairs came back from Spain in the summer of 1937, nursing real and metaphorical scars. Orwell had been shot through the throat by a fascist sniper, the bullet missing his carotid artery by a few millimetres. Pursued across the border by Soviet-sponsored hit-squads keen to liquidate the Trotskyist militia for whom Orwell had fought, they were lucky to escape with their lives. The experience of Spain affected the couple in different ways. For Orwell it provided a spectacular validation of his belief in democratic socialism, while definitively undermining his constitution. For Eileen it had offered, among other enticements, a relationship with Georges Kopp, formerly her husband's commander but now languishing in a Republican jail, which is one of the great enigmas of her trip.
All these preoccupations jostle for space in a long letter dispatched to Norah from the Wallington cottage on New Year's day 1938. The usual domestic conditions apply. Typewritten in rapidly failing candlelight ("I have no pens, no ink, no glasses and the prospect of no light because the pens, the ink and the glasses and the candles are all in the room where George is working and if I disturb him again it will be the fifteenth time tonight"), the letter mixes routine gossip about the Wallington hens and their poodle puppy, Marx, with a determined spilling of the Spanish beans. "The difficulty about Spain is that it still dominates our lives in a most unreasonable manner." George is "just finishing the book about it [Homage to Catalonia]" and "always having to speak about it".
And there was the problem of Georges Kopp:
"He is still in jail but has somehow managed to get several letters out to me, one of which George opened and read because I was away. He is very fond of Georges, who indeed cherished him with real tenderness in Spain and anyway is remarkable as a soldier because of his quite admirable courage, and he is extraordinarily magnanimous about the whole business - just as Georges was extraordinarily magnanimous. Indeed, they went about saving each other's lives or trying to in a way that was almost horrible to me, though George had not then noticed that Georges was more than 'a bit gone on' me. I sometimes think no one ever had such a sense of guilt before. It was always understood that I wasn't what they call in love with Georges - our association progressed in little leaps, each leap immediately preceding some attack or operation in which he would almost inevitably be killed, but the last time I saw him he was in jail waiting, as we were both confident, to be shot, and I simply couldn't explain to him again as a kind of farewell that he could never be a rival to George."
Homage to Catalonia was published in April 1938. Shortly before this, one of Orwell's lungs haemorrhaged and he was rushed to the Preston Hall Sanatorium in Kent: the first steps along the serpentine path that led to his death from tuberculosis in January 1950. During a long convalescence, the doctors advised that his health would benefit from a winter out of England. Financed by a £300 loan from an anonymous benefactor (in fact the novelist LH Myers) the Blairs set out by sea for French Morocco in the first week of September.
Writing from their rented villa just outside Marrakech in mid-December, Eileen is understandably preoccupied by the state of Orwell's chest. Though now apparently "better", he lost 9lb in the first month of their stay:
" ... & coughed all day & particularly all night so that we didn't get thirty minutes' consecutive rest until November. He has put on about five of the pounds again now & doesn't cough much ... so I think he may not be much worse at the end of the winter abroad than he was at the beginning."
But Eileen is ominously matter-of-fact about her husband's prospects. In particular, her brother Laurence is represented as "lying" to Orwell about the exact nature of his illness ("they'd kept him at Preston Hall on a firm and constantly repeated diagnosis of phthisis for two months after they knew he hadn't got it ... ").
As for Morocco,
"Of course we were silly to come but I found it impossible to refuse & Eric felt that he was under an obligation though he constantly & justly complains that by a quite deliberate campaign of lying he is in debt for the first time in his life & has wasted practically a year out of the very few in which he can expect to function. However, now that we're hardened to the general frightfulness of the country we're quite enjoying it & Eric is writing a book that pleases both of us very much."
The book was Coming Up for Air, Orwell's elegy to a lost England gathered up beneath the shadow of the approaching war-planes. The rest of the letter is awash with local colour.
"Marrakech crawls with disease of every kind, the ringworm group, the tuberculosis group, the dysentery group; & if you lunch in a restaurant the flies only show themselves as flies as distinct from black masses when they hurry out for a moment to taste a corpse on its way to the cemetery."
Interestingly, this points the way to the opening line of Orwell's essay "Marrakech", published a year later in a volume of John Lehmann's New Writing: "As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant tables in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later."
The Blairs returned to England in March 1939. War was looming and the future uncertain. Denied military occupation on account of his ravaged lungs, Orwell moped in Wallington while Eileen took a job working for the censorship department in Whitehall. In the summer of 1940, as invasion threatened, he was appointed drama and film critic of the weekly magazine Time and Tide and the couple relocated to a mansion flat in Chagford Street NW1. There are two more letters, undated but, internal evidence suggests, written on either side of Christmas 1940. The first concentrates not on Orwell's health but Eileen's:
"I have been ILL. Ever so ill. Bedridden for 4 weeks & still weak ... They diagnosed cystitis and then they diagnosed nephrolithiasis & then they diagnosed Malta fever with ovarian complications & then they went all hush-hush while they diagnosed a tuberculous infection so that I couldn't possibly guess what they were testing for. They haven't yet diagnosed cancer or General Paralysis of the Insane but I expect they will shortly."
George, meanwhile, has
"written a little book [The Lion and the Unicorn, published in February 1941] ... Explaining how to be a Socialist though Tory."
Eileen's greatest misery goes unmentioned. Six months previously, her brother Laurence had been reported missing in the retreat to Dunkirk. Friends insist that she never got over this bereavement. Undoubtedly it lurks behind a curiously telegraphic final communication ("I am too profoundly depressed to write a letter") probably written in March 1941:
"Physical condition - much improved by air raids, possibly because I now sleep several hours a night longer than ever in my life;
"Mental condition - temporarily improved by air raids which were a change, degenerating again now that air raids threaten to become monotonous;
"Events since the war - daily work of inconceivable dullness; weekly efforts to leave Greenwich always frustrated; monthly visits to the cottage which is still as it is only dirtier;
"Future plans - imaginings of the possibility of leaving a furnished flat ('chambers') that we have at Baker Street & taking an unfurnished flat north of Baker Street to remain in George's Home Guard district, with the idea that we might both live in this flat - probably to be frustrated by continued lack of five shillings to spend & increasing scarcity of undemolished flats & perhaps by our ceasing to live anywhere. But the last is unlikely because a shorter & no less accurate summing up would be NOTHING EVER HAPPENS TO Pig."
Orwell, by his own admission, was unfaithful to his wife, but it was a durable relationship, characterised, at least by the male half, (Eileen's views are not recorded) as "a proper marriage", by which he seems to have meant one involving rows and disagreements but always redeemed by the underlying bond. Whether or not Orwell was, as he claimed, sterile, Eileen's gynaecological problems may have prevented her from conceiving. It is a measure of their intense desire to have children that, despite the precariousness of their life in London, they should have adopted an illegitimate Tyneside baby found for them by Eileen's medical sister-in-law, Gwen O'Shaugnessy.
The effect of Richard Horatio Blair's arrival on Eileen is attested to by her friends: although worried that she might not love him enough, Eileen "wanted to live" again. As it was, she died in the Fernwood House Hospital, Newcastle, on March 29 1945, with her adopted son nearly a year old and the publication of Animal Farm - and her husband's fame - five months distant. She was 39.
· The author would like to thank Mrs Margaret Durant, who owns the original letters of this correspondence, and Professor Peter Davison for their help in preparing this article.
· The letters will be printed in full in The Lost Orwell, edited by Peter Davison, published by Timewell Press early next year.
December 24, 2000, Sunday
Wintry Conscience of a Generation.
By Jeffrey Meyers.
As a young officer in the Burma police force, George Orwell had an original way of criticizing the English magazine Adelphi. If he disliked an article, he would prop the offending issue up against a tree and shoot it to bits. His assaults as a writer and social critic were verbal but no less fierce. Jeffrey Meyers traces Orwell's rage through the diverse stages of his life in the absorbing biography ''Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation.'' He attributes to Orwell, the middle child of Anglo-Indian parents, an ''acute intelligence'' that ''made him detached, and critical'' of his conventional family. At St. Cyprian's prep school, he suffered at the hands of sadistic teachers, and this experience, Meyers argues, ''intensified his lifelong guilt and fear of failure.'' The colorful episodes that followed -- as a student at Eton, a policeman in Burma, a soldier in the Spanish Civil War, a vagrant in England and Paris and a broadcaster of wartime propaganda to India -- are convincingly depicted as repeated slides from ''idealism to disillusionment.'' Orwell's writing career began with his disappointment in imperialism in Burma, where, Meyers writes, ''he turned to writing to begin the long process of healing.'' Although Meyers's intermittent sarcasm can be jarring (''The BBC was not all bad. During the war it continued to pay Hitler royalties . . . for excerpts from 'Mein Kampf' ''), the breadth of his research is impressive. He is at his most interesting identifying the many real-life models that Orwell used for his writing, particularly in ''Animal Farm'' and ''Nineteen Eighty-Four.'' Christine Kenneally
Published: 12 - 24 - 2000 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 15
October 11, 2000, Wednesday
THE ARTS/CULTURAL DESK
'A Kind of Saint' With Thin Patience for the Saintly
Wintry Conscience of a Generation
By Jeffrey Meyers
Illustrated. 380 pages. W. W. Norton. $29.95.
A kind of impassioned clarity governed the life and work of the great George Orwell, whose writings, as a critic once observed, are so fluidly presented, so unobtrusive, so transparent that you almost feel you could have tossed them off yourself.
Ideally a biography of Orwell would be consistent with its subject's unassuming intelligence, and Jeffrey Meyers's admirable ''Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation'' is that. It illuminates the ruggedly individualistic Orwell without calling attention to the illuminator. It is comparatively slim as literary biographies go these days; it steadfastly refuses to pile on the detail, so what remains seems, in the spirit of its subject, to be the common-sense essentials.
Mr. Meyers, who has written biographies of such writers as D. H. Lawrence and F. Scott Fitzgerald, sensibly stresses the rigorous honesty of Orwell, his stubborn and brave willingness to contradict what passed for the decent opinion of the Western intelligentsia. He attributes these characteristics to a powerful and ineradicable sense of guilt that arose from Orwell's circumstances as the offspring of emotionally distant, mediocre, colonial-era parents, especially his father, a minor official in British India who oversaw the production of opium destined for the China market.
''His family,'' Mr. Meyers writes of the young Orwell (whose name, until he changed it in his early 30's, was Eric Blair), ''inspired his most striking characteristic: a deep sense of guilt that pervaded his personality and his writing. He felt guilty about his colonial heritage, his bourgeois background, his inbred snobbery and his elite education.''
To attribute one of the most refined political and literary sensibilities to guilt seems too simple, yet Mr. Meyers may well be right. Much of what Orwell did in his extraordinary life rang with a kind of attempted expiation, an effort not so much to transcend his circumstances as to tunnel beneath them. He attended fancy private boarding schools, including Eton, but rather than go on to Oxford, he became a policeman in Burma, collecting the material that he later used in his novel ''Burmese Days'' and his classic essay ''Shooting an Elephant.''
When he went home to England after two unhappy years serving British colonial interests, he took to the roads as a tramp, purposefully living a life of poverty, going native in his own country, as he put it himself. He was sick with congenital lung disease, but even after achieving fame and wealth he chose to live on a dank island in Scotland, a choice that seemed to confirm what one friend years before had called a ''suicidal perversity.''
Mr. Meyers relates the life crisply and judiciously, with Orwell emerging as a darkly enlightened sort of character whose vision of the world came out of real experience. He was a lifelong anti-Communist -- one of his many penetrating phrases was about ''the new kind of men from eastern Europe, the streamlined men who talk in slogans and think in bullets'' -- because he saw the corruption of Stalinism in Spain, where he went in 1937 to fight for the republican cause. His book ''Homage to Catalonia'' ran so counter to prevailing opinion that in its first 12 years it sold only 600 copies; yet it was perhaps the most rigorously clear view of the Spanish reality in the English language.
There have of course been other biographies of Orwell, the fact-rich one by Bernard Crick, published two decades ago, and a more recent work by Michael Sheldon. Mr. Meyers does not claim to have produced a great deal of new information, but his focus on Orwell's inner life and on the connection between the unsparing lucidity of his work and the gritty self-destructiveness of his personality add up to an altered vision. Mr. Meyers's Orwell is still a hero, but he is a hero whose need for love could make him slightly pathetic and whose drive to place himself in the path of danger endangered those close to him.
V. S. Pritchett called Orwell ''a kind of saint,'' and he seems to have had his habit of self-punishment in mind. Strangely, Mr. Meyers does not make any reference in this connection to Orwell's famous essay on Gandhi, which begins, ''Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.'' Orwell's point was that it takes political shrewdness, manipulation and coercion, not just goodness, to succeed, though he also in the end seems to have found Gandhi innocent. Orwell's remarkable impact on the 20th-century consciousness, in which his judgment was almost always right, would seem to make him innocent, too, but, judging from some of the evidence in Mr. Meyers's ''Orwell,'' only barely.
One of the pleasures of this book is the space it gives to walk-on roles for others of the midcentury thinking class, from Arthur Koestler, with whom Orwell had a good deal in common, to the critic Cyril Connolly, who was a kind of friendly opposite to Orwell. These others -- who also include Lawrence, Stephen Spender and T. S. Eliot -- not only give a sense of the intellectual climate, they also demonstrate how different Orwell was. And Mr. Meyers shows that he was different almost from the beginning, from his school days at St. Cyprian's (immortalized in his sour essay ''Such, Such Were the Joys'') to his months on the Scottish island of Jura, writing ''1984'' and dying of tuberculosis.
It is possible, now that the 20th-century struggle with totalitarianism is over and ideological passions have waned, that Orwell could fade from awareness. One wonders in fact how frequently he appears on college reading lists these days. Mr. Meyers's fine biography is a reminder of the uniqueness of the man who titled one of his essays ''Revenge Is Sour,'' of just how much he lived, and of how morally and intellectually cauterizing was his thought.
Published: 10 - 11 - 2000 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 3 , Page 10
May 29, 2002
This is not a biography, says Ian McIntyre. Hitchens's 140-odd pages resemble the patter of the custodian of a literary shrine
Homage to Orwell's moral genius
By Christopher Hitchens
Allen Lane, £12.99; 150 pp
ISBN 0 713 99584 X
He resembled a man “raw all down one side and numb on the other”, thought E.P. Thompson. He preferred the country to the town, and poems that rhymed. The New Statesman famously refused to print his dispatches from Spain because they might let down the republican side.
He wrote a long essay on how to make a proper pot of tea. He has a fair claim to be regarded as one of the founding fathers of anti-communism, yet when his most famous book appeared in a Ukrainian edition, it was seized by the American military authorities in Germany and turned over to the Red Army to be destroyed. Not an easy man to fathom, the writer we know as George Orwell, even though he has been dead for half a century and more.
Christopher Hitchens, who nowadays earns a well-buttered crust in the United States writing for The Nation and Vanity Fair, extends a helping hand. This is not a biography. His 140-odd pages resemble the patter of the custodian of a literary shrine. Knowledgeble, sophisticated, sometimes sceptical, he ushers us through a suite of thematic rooms — “Orwell and Empire”, “Orwell and America”, “Orwell and the Feminists”. Occasionally he turns aside to erase graffiti scrawled on the wallpaper by the likes of Raymond Williams or Edward Said. Now and again — a common manifestation of professional deformation among keepers of the flame — he digresses to demonstrate how clever and amusing he himself can be: reminding us, for instance, that he once described Louis Althusser’s attempt to recreate communism by abstract thought as “his application for the Electric Chair of Philosophy at the Ecole Abnormale”. Orwell himself was not a great man for jokes (not that one would expect too many in Nineteen Eighty-Four). Hitchens has, however, dug up a 1938 review in which the Trotskyist trials then taking place are translated, somewhat school-magazinishly, into English terms: “Mr Winston Churchill, now in exile in Portugal, is plotting to overthrow the British Empire and establish communism in England . . . Eighty per cent of the Beefeaters at the Tower are discovered to be agents of the Comintern . . . the proprietress of a village shop in the Cotswolds has been transported to Australia for sucking the bulls-eyes and putting them back in the bottle . . .” Hitchens dedicates his book to Robert Conquest, whom he salutes as “founder of the united front against bullshit”, and he reprints the fine poem Conquest wrote about Orwell in 1969: “He shared with a great world, for greater ends,/ That honesty, a curious cunning virtue/ You share with just the few who don’t desert you.”
Hitchens’s book is essentially an extended commentary on those lines. He sets about it enthusiastically, although it is not always easy to grasp the plain prose sense of the words on the page: “It’s an open question as to whether or not integrity and honesty are cold or hot virtues,” we read, “and England can be a dank place in which to locate the question”. He devotes an entire chapter to defending Orwell against the attacks of “the political and cultural left”, offering examples of “the sheer ill will and bad faith and intellectual confusion that appear to ignite spontaneously when Orwell’s name is mentioned in some quarters”. In addition to Said and Williams, those arraigned include Salman Rushdie and Isaac Deutscher. He is in little doubt about the root cause of their anti-Orwellism: “In the view of many on the official Left, he committed the ultimate sin of ‘giving ammunition to the enemy’.” Whether the expenditure of quite so much of his own ammunition was necessary on this minor sector of the front seems questionable.
He praises Orwell’s ability “to make a large and intelligent inference from very limited information”. Well, that might certainly explain some of the silly things Orwell wrote about the United States, a country he never visited and about which he evinced little curiosity: “The general consensus of opinion,” he wrote fatuously in the Partisan Review during the war, “seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes”. Some of Orwell’s silliness has rubbed off onto his champion. “How often one was to notice, during the Cold War,” he writes in his chapter on Orwell and the Right, “a sort of Western penis-envy for the ruthlessness of Soviet methods.”
Elsewhere, writing about Anthony Powell, he observes that “one might pause here to give credit to Eton College for accommodating both him and Orwell in the same intake”. These blemishes could indicate undue haste in writing or a lack of sufficiently muscular advice from his publisher. They are outweighed by numerous good turns of phrase (“the usual Leavisite provincial and Puritan malice”) and many perceptive insights — he notes, for instance, in writing about A Clergyman’s Daughter, that Orwell “observes the good novelist’s rule of letting the reader’s imagination supply the missing passage”.
“It could be asserted,” he concludes, “even by an atheist admirer, that he took some of the supposedly Christian virtues and showed how they could be ‘lived’ without piety or religious belief.” Robert Conquest struck a similar note in verse:
“A moral genius. And truth-seeking brings/ Sometimes a silliness we view askance,/ Like Darwin playing his bassoon to plants;/ He too had lapses, but he claimed no wings.”
Orwell's critics, down and out
Noel Malcolm reviews Orwell's Victory by Christopher Hitchens.
If anyone deserves to be called a "controversialist" it is Christopher Hitchens: he has polemicism pulsing in his arteries, the way other writers have blood, or alcohol. Here is the man who launched a campaign to have Henry Kissinger tried as a war criminal, and whose pitiless examination of one of the 20th century's most sainted figures was entitled The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.
So it comes as a shock to find Hitchens, of all people, publishing a book in defence of George Orwell. What next - an essay criticising the Taliban for intolerance, or a treatise arguing that Mozart was, despite what everyone says, a great composer? Surely, you may think, there are few modern thinkers about whom the verdict has been more consistently unanimous: Orwell is one of those rare individuals (Isaiah Berlin being another) who have been eagerly claimed by Right, Left and Centre as vindicating all their most strongly held beliefs.
If you do think that, you are wrong. For although frontal attacks on Orwell have been rare, the praise has not been unanimous, and the reception of his works has been plagued with disputes of various kinds. A man of the Left, Orwell has been falsely co-opted by some writers as a Right-winger; on the other hand, he has also been criticised by Leftists as an insidious underminer of their cause. More recently he has come under attack from feminists, and from "post-modern" philosophers who regard his plain-speaking, empiricist approach to moral truth and historical facts as culpably naive.
Orwell's Victory is more than just a reply to these critics. In a sequence of interlinked essays, it also explores different aspects of Orwell's writings, such as his image of Englishness, his apparent lack of interest in America, his failings as a novelist, and his attitude to women.
These are fine examples of the essayist's craft (a craft Orwell himself excelled at), making skilful use of the magnificent new 20-volume edition of Orwell's collected writings. But, as always with Christopher Hitchens, the real fun begins when he rolls up his sleeves and reaches for his cudgels.
Some of his opponents here never stood a chance. The post-modernists are dispatched with ruthless efficiency. His special bźte noire is the French novelist Claude Simon, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1985 for a novel based on the idea that Orwell's Homage to Catalonia was, as Simon put it, "faked from the very first sentence". The way in which Hitchens goes through Simon's claims (and his extraordinarily ungainly prose) should give "deconstruction" a whole new meaning on the rive gauche.
The other person who really gets it in the neck here is a figure of greater intellectual respectability: Raymond Williams, the Cambridge literary critic and cultural theorist, whose cold hostility to Orwell becomes the main focus of Hitchens's chapter on "Orwell and the Left".
Hitchens goes straight for the jugular, introducing Williams as follows: "His first published work, co-authored with Eric Hobsbawm, was a Cambridge student pamphlet defending the Soviet Union's invasion of Finland in the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact." But his treatment of Williams is no crude ad hominem attack: with great linguistic and ideological deftness, he goes through Williams's comments on Orwell, picking out one nuance after another of evasion and misrepresentation. The other writers sharply criticised in this chapter (including Edward Said and Salman Rushdie) will feel that they have got off lightly in comparison.
After that, the chapter on "Orwell and the Right" is almost a let-down. Hitchens has some fun with the conservative American journalist Norman Podhoretz, showing how his conjuring-up of a Right-wing Orwell depended partly on misquotation and partly on emphasising some of the least central of his opinions (such as his hatred of homosexuals). And he also emphasises the difference in attitude between Orwell and such early theorists of the Cold War as James Burnham (who was much stung by Orwell's criticisms in print).
But still one senses an asymmetry here. Undoubtedly Orwell belonged to the Left: to his dying day, he was in favour of widespread nationalisation, state planning, and so on. Yet the Right's misuse of Orwell consists of admiring him and claiming him; whereas the Left's abuse of Orwell consists of denigrating him and accusing him of treachery.
Had Orwell survived his TB (and, as Hitchens reminds us, with the right treatment he could have lived into the 1980s), what would his position have been during the Cold War? Of course he would have fought against McCarthyism, and he would no doubt have criticised, in his cussed and incisive way, the crudest forms of Manichaean-style anti-Communist ideology. But in the end he would surely have been as firmly pro-NATO as the Right wing of the British Labour Party, and for all the same reasons.
At times Hitchens seems to accept this; when he defends Orwell's action in giving a list of suspected Soviet sympathisers to a friend who worked for the Foreign Office in 1949, his argument points in this direction, even though he is mainly concerned with questions of personal morality. Once he goes so far as to describe Orwell as a Cold Warrior avant la lettre; elsewhere, however, he takes pains to distance him from "Cold War ideology".
One thing at least is clear: Orwell was an anti-totalitarian. During the Cold War some Left-wing intellectuals complained that "totalitarianism" was a bogey invented by the Americans, who had unfairly put Fascism and Communism in this single category in order to trick people who had been against the former into opposing the latter as well. Such arguments would have cut little ice with Orwell, who had been attacking totalitarianism (and using the word) long before the Cold War began.
So, had he lived through the 1950s and 1960s, there can be little doubt as to which side, so to speak, Orwell would have been on. Not that he was an admirer of capitalism: he wasn't. But he had no patience with facile moral equivalentism, and could see the difference between a dole queue and a gulag.
Much of that no-nonsense spirit, that impatient rejection of moral dishonesty, is present in Hitchens's own writing here. Those who have found his other controversial works sometimes too florid, sometimes too feline, will relish the directness and vigour of this book. It is not only a fine defence of Orwell's politics, but also the most stimulating introduction available to almost every other aspect of his work.
· Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon 'Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes'.
Robert Hanks reviews Orwell's
Victory by Christopher Hitchens
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a debate on "the War on Terrorism" at which Christopher Hitchens was one of the principal speakers. In recent months, Hitchens has become an unexpected celebrity in America, his adopted home, as the most articulate and vociferous advocate from the Left of a military response to Islamic terrorism. On this occasion, he was faced with a largely bien-pensant, Left-leaning audience; but instead of trying to win them round, he appeared to delight in bating them - answering questions in an offensively patronising manner, egging on jeers.
Comparing Hitchens the moustachio-twirling Uncle Abanazar seen at that debate with Hitchens the acute, cool-headed critic encountered in Orwell's Victory, the resemblance does seem remote. But there are passages where their common ancestry is clear. Hitchens's mission in this book is to rescue George Orwell's reputation, both from his detractors and from some of his more unthinkful or doublethinkful adherents. Hitchens is perfectly suited to the job, because of his erudition, because he doesn't mind giving offence, and because he is for the most part fair-minded. Although his admiration for Orwell is unquestionable, it is not unqualified: he does not scruple to admit the deficiencies of the early novels, and cheerfully castigates Orwell for some clumsy criticism of Auden's poetry.
the book runs the paradoxical-looking fact that Orwell, professedly a man of the
Left, has become a figurehead for many on the Right, while a minority on the
Left have regarded him with suspicion. When he is dealing with the Right-wingers
who have tried to enlist Orwell as a kind of posthumous Tory, Hitchens is
occasionally devastating. He cites the American conservative Norman Podhoretz,
who in 1984 tried to bring Orwell's authority to bear on Europeans sceptical of
the "Star Wars" anti-missile programme. Podhoretz quoted Orwell on the
confrontation of superpowers:
It will not do to give the usual quibbling answer, "I refuse to choose." . . . We are no longer strong enough to stand alone, and . . . we shall be obliged, in the long run, to subordinate our policy to that of one Great Power or another.
Hitchens resurrects the conditional clause that Podhoretz left out of that second sentence: " . . . if we fail to bring a Western European union into being . . ." Kind of puts a different slant on things, doesn't it?
But in the chapters on Orwell's relationship with the Left, Hitchens goes off the rails. He quotes and refutes a number of blatant misreadings or partial readings of Orwell by such writers as E P Thompson, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said; and quite rightly reproaches those on the Left who, unlike Orwell, were seduced into apologising for or overlooking the crimes of Stalin and his successors. But his claim that Orwell evokes "revulsion" on the Left is bizarre: for most on the Left, Orwell is a hero.
In a later chapter, Hitchens deals with the supposed scandal of Orwell's "blacklist" of Communists. In 1996, the revelation that Orwell had offered this list to the Foreign Office's Information Research Department created a stir. Hitchens fulminates against what he regards as distorted accounts of this affair. "The existence of Orwell's list of Stalinized intellectuals was not 'revealed' in 1996," he complains, after citing one version: "It appears in Professor Bernard Crick's biography, which was first published in 1980." It's true, in 1996 the list's existence was no revelation; but the fact that Orwell had passed it on to an arm of the government - that was news, and no mistake.
Hitchens isn't usually this muddled; it makes you wonder what has made him so rattled. I rather suspect the reason is that he is over-identifying with his subject: they are both men of the Left who aren't afraid to tell the Left things it doesn't want to hear; in defending Orwell, Hitchens is defending himself. Still, the flaws and the psychological oddity shouldn't obscure Hitchens's achievement: he has written about Orwell with not just the intelligence but the passion his subject deserves.
May 3 - 9, 2002
WLS: The Internationalist
Christopher Hitchens on George Orwell
NO ONE WHO HAS ENDURED THE AGONY OF SELF-employment as a scribbler can possibly afford not to read George Orwell's "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," published in May 1946 in the London socialist weekly Tribune:
In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it. He cannot throw the papers away because the wastepaper basket is already overflowing, and besides, somewhere among the unanswered letters and unpaid bills it is possible that there is a cheque for two guineas which he is nearly certain he forgot to pay into the bank. There are also letters with addresses which ought to be entered into his address book. He has lost his address book, and the thought of looking for it, or indeed of looking for anything, afflicts him with acute suicidal impulses.
More and more sharply, Orwell etches the picture of degradation ("He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time") while never losing sight of the lofty aspirations that brought the wretched hack to this terminus of shame. It's unusual, as a sample of his style, in being humorous. But it is a very telling description of the way he actually existed, in poverty-stricken interludes and adverse conditions and in a continuous struggle to be published. At the time he wrote the above, he had survived the refusal of innumerable editors, including T.S. Eliot on the right and Victor Gollancz on the left, to print Animal Farm, and was engaged on the first draft of 1984, for which he had no great expectations. Then aged 43, he had less than four years to live. (The centennial of his birth falls next year.)
However, having confronted the world with little except a battered typewriter and a certain resilience, he can now take posthumous credit for having got the three great questions of the 20th century essentially "right." Orwell was an early and consistent foe of European imperialism and foresaw the end of colonial rule. He was one of the first to volunteer to bear arms against fascism and Nazism in Spain. And, while soldiering in Catalonia, he saw through the biggest and most seductive lie of them all -- the false promise of a radiant future offered by the intellectual underlings of Stalinism. As he once wrote of Kipling, his own enduring influence can be measured by the number of terms and phrases -- Doublethink; Thought Police; "Some animals are more equal than others" -- that he embedded in our language and in our minds.
Indeed, that last achievement was a triumph on its own. In Orwell's own mind there was an inextricable connection between language and truth, a conviction that by using plain and unambiguous terminology one could forbid oneself the comfort of certain falsehoods and delusions. Every time you hear a piece of psychobabble or propaganda -- "People's princess," say, or "collateral damage," or "peace initiative" -- it is good to have a well-thumbed collection of his essays nearby. His main enemy in discourse was euphemism, just as his main enemy in practice was the abuse of power, and (more important) the slavish willingness of people to submit to it.
LIONEL TRILLING IN HIS INTRODUCTION TO Homage to Catalonia made the excellent point that Orwell was by no means a genius. He was just a reasonably good writer with a fair bit of moral courage. His work does not afflict me with the sense of uselessness that I feel when reading George Eliot or Marcel Proust. It shows, rather, what anybody with average integrity can do, as long as he does not give a damn what anyone else thinks of him. ä30
What are the sufficient and necessary conditions here? Well, a good writer must be a good reader. Orwell read keenly and widely, and wrote generous and enduring appreciations of writers as varied as Charles Dickens, George Gissing and Henry Miller. A good critic must be able to change his or her mind and be honest about the fact: Orwell despised Mahatma Gandhi for years as a stooge for British rule in India but later reversed himself and made restitution. Anyone engaged in political and cultural wars should be very wary of party-mindedness and party allegiance: Orwell did briefly join a small leftist party in England but never wrote as a loyalist or mouthpiece and often published self-criticism of his previous positions. In his entire output I can find only one piece of genuine unfairness -- a very thuggish attack on the poetry of W.H. Auden, whom he regarded as a dupe of the Communist Party. But even this was softened in some later essays. The truth is that he disliked Auden's homosexuality, and could not get over his prejudice. But much of the interest of Orwell lies in the fact that he was born prejudiced, so to speak, against Jews and the colored peoples of the empire, and against the poor and uneducated, and against women and intellectuals, and managed in a transparent and unique way to educate himself out of this fog of bigotry. (Though he never did get over his aversion to "pansies.")
This doesn't exhaust the uses of paradox in his work. Often regarded as essentially and incurably "English," he could and did write in French and learned several Asian languages. His interest in the outside world was that of a convinced internationalist, and he wrote one of his most "English" novels -- Coming Up for Air -- while living in Morocco. He said that he set 1984 in England in order to show that the English were no better than anyone else. He never had any use at all for religion but showed a deep appreciation for the prose of the Cranmer prayer book and the King James Bible. He was an egalitarian and a socialist but thought of Stalin's great "experiment" (what a revealing word) as the negation of socialism and not as a Russian version of it. In The Captive Mind, written in the early 1950s, Czeslaw Miloscz wrote that Eastern European intellectuals, reading 1984 in clandestine editions, were amazed to find that its author had never visited the Soviet Union. How then had he captured its mental and moral atmosphere? By reading its propaganda, and by paying attention, and by noticing the tactics of Stalin's agents in the Spanish Republic. Anybody could have done this, but few had the courage to risk the accusation of "giving ammunition to the enemy."
Orwell wrote easily and well about small humane pursuits, such as bird watching or gardening or cooking, and did not despise popular pleasures like pubs and vulgar seaside resorts. In many ways, his investigations into ordinary life and activity prefigure what we now call "cultural studies." His style as a writer places him in the category of the immortals, and his courage as a critic outlives the bitter battles in which he engaged. As a result, we use the word "Orwellian" in two senses. The first describes a nightmare state, a dystopia of untrammeled power. The second describes the human qualities that are always ranged in resistance to such regimes, and which may be more potent and durable than we sometimes dare to think.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation. His book Orwell's Victory will be published by Perseus in the fall.
Ministry of truth
Andy Croft reads Orwell's Victory by Christopher Hitchens, and dares to argue with both author and subject
Saturday May 25, 2002
150pp, Penguin, £12.99
This is, as you would expect from a combination of George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens, a robust and provocative read. Hitchens clearly identifies with his subject, and at times appears to be writing about himself as much as about Orwell. Like Orwell's own best prose, it is a strongly argued, chatty and witty book, combining acute close readings (the comparison between Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Lucky Jim is particularly good) with personal anecdote, a generous aside here and a knee in the groin there.
Unfortunately, this kind of swashbuckling, pugnacious style tends - as so often with Orwell - to slippery generalisations and dreadful overwriting ("he had dirt under his fingernails and an understanding of the rhythms of nature"; "when Spain was menaced by fascism he was among the first to shoulder a rifle and feel the weight of a pack"). This is a book about a "flinty and solitary loner", "as English as roast beef and warm beer", defending "sturdy English virtues". The pages of Orwell's Victory are thick with such terms of heavy-handed praise.
Orwell is variously acclaimed by Hitchens as "one of the founders of the discipline of postcolonialism", a "libertarian before the word had gained currency" and a pioneer of cultural studies. He was "one of the founding fathers of anti-communism" (credited here with inventing the term "cold war"), who "anticipated" the collapse of the Soviet Union and whose Wigan notebooks "would not have disgraced Friedrich Engels". Elsewhere he is a writer whose work "anticipated" and "prefigured" postwar British "angry" fiction, who "helped keep alive the socialist press in England" and who made "the only English contribution to the literature of 20th-century totalitarianism". Like Nostradamus, Orwell was never wrong.
Perhaps all this is true. Perhaps Orwell is "the outstanding English example of the dissident intellectual who preferred above all other allegiances the loyalty to truth". But it hardly needs saying again. Who is going to disagree? You can't argue with a monument. Anyway, who would dare to argue with Christopher Hitchens? Like Orwell, Hitchens repeats the banal claims of orthodoxy disguised as the lonely voice of dissent. Or perhaps it all needs saying again for US readers, for whose benefit, presumably, Hitchens devotes a chapter on "Orwell and America". Considering that Orwell never visited the US and rarely wrote about it except in largely horrified terms, Hitchens has to work hard on his connections to ex-Trotskyite US cold warriors such as Dwight Macdonald and Philip Rahv. In fact, the book's only real criticism of Orwell is that - unlike Hitchens -"he exhibited a curious blind-spot" regarding the US. Or perhaps, as Hitchens says, "it was enough to visit the country in his mind".
But was Orwell always right? His anti-semitic, homophobic and anti-Catholic prejudices aside, no one who changed their opinions so often and so forcefully can have been right all the time. Was Orwell really right to propose armed resistance to Churchill at the beginning of the second world war? Or to argue that fascism and "so-called democracy" are like Tweedledum and Tweedledee? Or that the Spanish republic was a fascist government?
Like Orwell, Hitchens is impatient with anyone who disagrees with him. Feminist critics of Orwell such as Bea Campbell, Deirdre Beddoe and Janet Montefiore are dismissed with a stern reminder that no one who enjoyed the company of tough-minded women (and who married two of them) can really have been much of a misogynist. Conservatives who have tried to claim Orwell are denounced as clumsy political body-snatchers. Trotskyism is the only political tradition that Hitchens feels is entitled to claim Orwell, whose work is "the most English form in which cosmopolitan and subversive Trotskyism has ever been cast".
By far the longest chapter is devoted to the Orwell-hatred of those on the left, who have never forgiven him for "giving ammunition to the enemy". Edward Thompson, Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, Isaac Deutscher, Conor Cruise O'Brien and the "sub-literate" Raymond Williams are all given a paragraph or two, just enough to demonstrate their "sheer ill will and bad faith and intellectual confusion", before we are taken to North Korea and Zimbabwe to be reminded why Orwell was right and why everyone else on the left is "too stupid or too compromised" to understand him.
As for the notebooks containing the names of 86 suspected communists, which Orwell passed to the cold warriors in the shadowy Information Research Department, Hitchens regrets that "too much has been made of this trivial episode". Nevertheless, he defends Orwell's actions on the grounds that the IRD was not involved in domestic surveillance, that Orwell was not motivated by personal gain, that nobody suffered as a result, and that, anyway, some of his suspicions turned out to be right. This may seem superficially convincing, but it surely evades the moral issues. And "loyalty to the truth" has its price, though of course it was not paid by Orwell. Unlike many of his enemies, Orwell never lost a job or was blacklisted because of his opinions; he was in constant demand as a reviewer and essayist and all his books were published.
In 1946, the magazine Polemic published a reply to Orwell's "The Prevention of Literature" by the communist poet Randall Swingler, just back from Italy where he had served with the Eighth Army. Swingler did not disagree with Orwell's underlying argument that a writer must "dare to be a Daniel" against the enemies of intellectual liberty. Nor did he take issue with the substance of Orwell's case against the totalitarian cultural policies of the Soviet Union. His objection was rather that Orwell's essay - like so much of his journalism - was pitched at such a level of "intellectual swashbucklery", persuasive generalisation and unsupported assertion, that it was impossible to reply to it. There was, anyway, something absurd about the author of Animal Farm casting himself in the role of Daniel: "What in heaven is Orwell really worried about? He appears at the moment to be getting more space than any other journalist to report truthfully... Orwell's posture of lonely rebel hounded by monstrous pro-Soviet monopolists has a somewhat crocodile appearance..."
In case Swingler had any doubts about the incipient limits to the right of free expression permitted to communists in Britain, his piece was published with sarcastic marginal annotations by Orwell, who took it as a "violent" personal attack, characteristically accusing Swingler of trying to silence him. Swingler - and his brother, the Labour MP Stephen Swingler - later turned up on Orwell's little list. Shortly afterwards Swingler was blacklisted by the BBC, his extra-mural classes investigated and closed down. There were few crimes more serious in cold war Britain than the crime of lčse-Orwell. Such was Orwell's victory.
Andy Croft is writing a biography of Randall Swingler.
May 28 2003
GEORGE ORWELL BY GORDON BOWKER Little, Brown £20;512 pp ISBN 0 3168 6115 4 ¯ £16
ORWELL: THE LIFE BY D.J.TAYLOR Chatto and Windus £20; 448 pp ISBN 0 7011 6919 2 ¯ £16
BLAIR ON THE ROAD TO ORWELL
LIKE MANY writers George Orwell, the person formerly known as Eric Blair, emerged from a family of fading fortunes. He was part of the imperial ruling class even as the sun was beginning to set behind that monument of privilege and power. His father was an opium agent in India, monitoring the sale of the drug for the sake of the English Treasury, and Orwell himself would join the Imperial Police in some kind of determined atavistic gesture.
Like all good Anglo-Indians, however, he was
brought up in a quiet English town. Nothing much happened to him in
Henley-on-Thames, and in later life he cultivated a myth of isolation and
loneliness. But this myth may have been true. According to Gordon Bowker the
first word he ever uttered as a baby was ”beastly”. D.J. Taylor has the longer
story about young Eric Blair. When found standing on his head he is supposed to
have remarked that: ”You are more noticed if you stand on your head than if you
are the right way up.” Here are the makings of a most interesting artist.
Despite being on occasions the wrong way round, he always seems to have disappointed himself. When he left his preparatory school at the age of 13, he said (albeit at a later date) that he felt ”Failure, failure, failure – failure behind me, failure ahead of me...” He carried that sense with him, like a bad head cold, for the rest of his life.
At Eton he was described as ”a boy with a permanent chip on his shoulder”. It is of course very like that someone who disappoints himself will be proportionately disappointed in others. He expressed indifference to his school at a later date but, if he had never been at Eton, he would never have wanted to become a tramp. He was not a success at school, but like so many of his contemporaries he created much of his adult persona there – aloof, sardonic, and thoroughly self-absorbed. He had the shyness of the proud person. From the beginning he wanted to become what he called a ”FAMOUS AUTHOR”, even going so far as to compose a poem on the outbreak of the First World War entitled ´Awake, Young Men of England!´ He was so sure of his eventual destiny that he speculated on the book bindings of his collected edition. He was intensely superstitious, according to Gordon Bowker, and probably realised at an early age that if you wish for something hard enough it is almost bound to happen. That collected edition did emerge five years ago, in a resplendent red, blue and gold which any schoolboy would admire. But surely even the young Eric Blair would have been astonished by its 20 volumes? Taylor, in his admirable biography, calculates that Orwell wrote some two million words in 20 years.
From Eton he progressed (if that is the right word) to Burma where he became a member of the Imperial Police. The image of him as an agent of the Empire and the law, wielding a baton where it was necessary to do so, fits oddly with the image of the fervent anti-authoritarian. But there was always a severity about Orwell, a secretiveness and a streak of cruelty that suggest a recessive personality. He was in certain respects a person of darkness.
Yet Taylor also suggests that to most people he appeared ordinary to the point of being utterly conventional. He did not leave the Imperial Police in a fit of anti-imperialist conscience, but as a result of the ill health which surrounded him all his life. He came back to England at the age of 24, determined to begin a career as a writer. So he embarked on what Taylor calls ”a tramping expedition to the East End”, apparently with the sole purpose of obtaining ”copy”.
It has been suggested that Orwell adopted the role of a tramp in order to escape a bad conscience over his period in the Imperial force, but Taylor notes how carefully his descent into the lower depths was constructed and how dependent it was upon earlier literary models. Similarly a visit to Paris in 1928 was not so much to enjoy the sensation of washing dishes, which he memorialised in Down and Out in Paris and London, but to join the ”bohemian” world of Parisian literary society. There may however be a further explanation for his travels into the lower world. Orwell really did feel the need to escape from his confined and somewhat dingy personality; like T.E. Lawrence he suffered from self-loathing. He wanted to immerse himself in dirt and stench.
On his return to England he contributed reviews to the Adelphi and other periodicals, interspersed with bouts of vagrancy and casual ”low” labour such as hop-picking. He kept a diary, perhaps with the intention of presenting something sensational to the reading public. He also took up teaching for a while, and became interested in matters religious. He gives the overwhelming impression of not quite knowing what to do or how to handle himself. He had not yet found his great theme. He had not found his vision. The publication of Down and Out in Paris and London (under the name of George Orwell, adopted so that he would not offend his family) did not materially change his isolation or his tendency to self-pity.
Despite what seems to have been several strongly felt relationships with young women, he was essentially solitary; he was always on the margins, on the edge of a crowd or in the corner of a room. He did not impress anyone as particularly significant or interesting. He was considered merely to be odd; ”strange” was the adjective most often used about him. There are also unexplained gaps in his life – silences, absences, call them what you will – which suggest a most elusive persona. If he had any distinctive quality, it was that of the willed ascetic – gaunt, hollow cheeked, prematurely aged. Bowker pertinently quotes Orwell´s description of Herman Melville as ”a kind of ascetic voluptuary”. He might have turned into a frustrated ”literary man”, a medium-sized novelist or essayist, if it were not for his journey to the north of England at the beginning of 1936. He was by no means a committed socialist before this pilgrimage, and in fact seems to have had no coherent political philosophy at all. He seems only to have been led by curiosity about the conditions of an area badly affected by economic depression and by some instinctive belief that you can see a civilisation more clearly in the shadows which it casts. The Road to Wigan Pier is in many ways instructive, therefore. He regarded the victims of the world with a certain sympathy, derived in part from self-pity, but he never felt in any sense close to them. He remained a public school boy on a slumming expedition.
There is perhaps one act which does mark him out as an English radical. With his new wife (who receives no less than her fair share of attention from both biographers) he opened a small shop in an English village. With that act he can join the radical confraternity of English writers such as Blake the hosier and Bunyan the brazier. He was eminently self-reliant and practical, with a gift for making and fixing things. It is aligned with his plain style – the word ”workmanlike” has often been used to describe it – and with his general pragmatism in social and political matters. That is why he is continually worrying away on the subject of religion. He really should have been a Dissenter – a Muggletonian or an Anabaptist – and his lack of religious faith profoundly irked him.
He was not destined to be a shop-keeper, however, and soon after his marriage he decided to volunteer for the International Brigade fighting against General Franco in Spain. Taylor suggests that ”he wanted to fight” rather than simply to write a book. Taylor also suggests that it gave him more than an opportunity. It gave him a vision. He could see humankind in extremis. He could shake off what he considered to be the greyness of England. His decision is connected also with what Taylor calls his ”self-absorption”. The fighting could shake him out of his own grey self as well. Perhaps he wanted to be shot. He was. He learned something about authoritarianism, too. In Spain he suffered from the feeling that ”your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police”. All his life, according to Gordon Bowker, he feared political assassination. Paranoia is very much the vice of the secret man, or of the man who wishes to remain secret. He held himself back, with an immense taciturnity and gravity. He exhibited a wilful refusal to engage with other people, an emotional blockage which can be mistaken for ”reserve” but was actually more pathological than that. It has to do with his secretiveness, and his streak of cruelty.
His health had never been vigorous and, on his
return to England, he suffered increasingly from disorders of the lungs. He spat
blood and lost weight. On the outbreak of the Second World War his damaged body
meant that he could do nothing forceful or brave. He was on the margins again,
bewailing ”the strange boring nightmare” in which he found himself. He continued
to write essays and articles on such subjects as boys´ comics and seaside
postcards. Bowker acutely describes him ”as one of the first serious writers
about English popular culture”. All his life, in fact, Orwell was steeped in
nostalgia and its concomitant, wishful thinking. He was a conservative in
everything except politics – conservative, that is, in everything that really
matters. That is why he relished the opportunity of joining the newly
established Home Front, and became a member of the St John´s Wood volunteers.
By this time he had written Homage to Catalonia as well as Down and Out in Paris and London and several now unfashionable works of fiction – unfashionable, that is, compared to the works that eventually made him famous. He dismissed his novels as pot-boilers but that did not stop him writing them. Towards the end of the War he began Animal Farm, that medieval beast fable brought up to date. But he had great difficulty in finding a publisher for it, since most reputable houses turned it down on the then apparently reasonable grounds that it might offend Stalin. On its publication, however, it was an immediate success.
But he was at the same time beset by pressing domestic problems. He and his wife had just adopted an illegitimate child, when his wife died of cancer. He hired a young woman to look after the child, and then embarked on a number of not very serious romances with not very suitable women. As he grew older and his tuberculosis increased in virulence, he took the characteristic decision to retreat to a remote Scottish island, where he might subject himself to a way of life so intense that it became a kind of punishment. In fact his doctors believed that his last bout of illness was caused by his exertions in the Inner Hebrides. Nevertheless it was here that he set to work on 1984. He completed it just in time. His death-bed marriage to his second wife has been extensively documented, and it loses nothing in the retelling here.
Both biographies in fact have their share of virtues. There are differences of fact, but they do not require a duel to settle them. Was the juvenile Orwell educated by Catholic nuns (Bowker) or by Anglican nuns (Taylor)? Was the child minder for his adopted child paid £5 per week (Taylor) or £1 per week (Bowker)? Bowker has the interesting story that, during his time at Eton, Orwell killed a contemporary by making a wax image of him and breaking its leg. Taylor has the less sensational account of an image made out of soap, with no mention of an untimely death. Bowker pays more attention to Orwell´s sexual life, to which Taylor more modestly alludes. Bowker in fact believes Orwell to have been ”homo-erotic”, which may of course account for his dislike of homosexuals. Such matters are the small change of biographies, and do not really alter the larger picture of a man and writer in permanent internal exile.
The following George Orwell books are all published by Penguin: Down and Out in Paris and London (£5.99; offer £5.09) Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (£5.99) Animal Farm (£5.99) Homage to Catalonia (£5.99) Nineteen Eighty-Four (£5.99) The Complete Works Of George Orwell Volumes 1-20 ed. Peter Davison (Seeker & Warburg, £750; offer £600) Orwell´s Victory by Christopher Hitchens (Penguin, £7.99; offer £6.79) The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling (Penguin, £6.99; offer £5.94) ¯ 0870 160 80 80
8 June 2002
Saved from friend and foe
Allen Lane, Penguin, £9.99, pp.150, ISBN:071399584X
SPAIN BETRAYED: THE SOVIET UNION IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR
edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov
Yale, £27.50, pp. 537, ISBN 0300089813
Only one possible subject existed ‘for a good novel on the Spanish war by a writer with Malraux’s previous political awareness’, the American art critic Clement Greenberg told a friend in 1939,
the Barcelona uprising of May 1937. We’ve come to a place where politics must enter any conceivable aperēu, and Barcelona sums up the whole political content of the war.
event, Malraux did write a novel about Spain, as did Hemingway, but neither took
up the subject that so excited Greenberg. That was left to George Orwell, not in
a novel but in a personal memoir. Homage to Catalonia was notoriously both
reviled and a complete failure at the time. It made Orwell an anathematised and
hated figure for the Communists and their penumbral galčre, who treated him and
his book either with poisonous abuse or with what used to be known in Vienna as
the Totschweigtaktik, death by silence. By the time Orwell died in 1950 the book
hadn’t even sold out its first edition of 1,500 copies, and it only gradually
acquired its reputation as one of the 20th century’s central political and moral
As Christopher Hitchens says in Orwell’s Victory, many English writers engaged in public controversy of one sort or another during the 1930s and 1940s, but in almost all cases ‘the political statements made by these men would not bear reprinting today’. Everything Orwell wrote does, though even now not everyone has come to terms with what he wrote about Spain, or what Greenberg had meant about ‘the whole political content of the war’. Partly that’s a sentimental hangover. For the generation of the 1930s, the Spanish war was ‘the emotional experience of their lifetime’, in A. J. P Taylor’s words, and there are still those for whom, as E. J. Hobsbawm has said, the war remains ‘the only political cause which, even in retrospect, appears as pure and compelling as it did in 1936’. But emotional experiences are often misleading, and a more detached observer might say of the war what Algernon says of the truth, that it was rarely pure and never simple.
To begin with, Spain is different. Auden’s ‘arid square, nipped off from hot Africa’ is in some ways barely European: not for nothing are the Spanish the only people apart from the English who speak of the rest of Europe as ‘the Continent’. And its political culture was unique. The characteristic Spanish movements of Right and Left, Carlism and Anarchism, had no parallel in any other country, and until the civil war the Spanish Communist party had been just one, rather unimportant, groupuscule on the Left. The war itself was not an epic contest between democracy and fascism (or indeed Christianity and godless Bolshevism, according to taste), it was a local conflict rooted in peculiarly Spanish conditions, and the passionate partisanship of the outside world was to some extent an exercise in projection, even for Orwell. Fighting for the Spanish Republic was nevertheless a matter of choice and conviction for him (and it distinguished him from many of his tub-thumping enemies on the Left), but it was more like chance that took him not, along with most foreign volunteers, into the International Brigades and the defence of Madrid but into the militia of POUM, the revolutionary Marxist, ferociously anti-Soviet party led by Andres Nin in Catalonia.
This in turn allowed him, as well as serving bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front, to witness the events in Barcelona that spring when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange. The Communists represented this as the malign work of ‘Trotsky-fascists’ and other rotten elements, which justified suppressing them, a view still being purveyed by Raymond Williams as late as 1971. In a breathtakingly dishonest passage, he said not only that ‘most historians’ took the view that the revolution being fomented by POUM and the Anarchists was an irrelevant distraction, but that
some, at the time and after, have gone so far as to describe it as a deliberate sabotage of the war effort. Only a few have argued on the other side, that the suppression of the revolution by the main body of Republican forces was an act of power politics, related to Soviet policy.
historians’ existed in Williams’s imagination; ‘only a few’, of course, includes
Orwell; and just how veracious a witness he was — not to say how inapt the word
‘pure’ is — can be seen in gruesome detail in Spain Betrayed. This is another
volume in the Yale ‘Annals of Communism’ series which draws on the Moscow
archives at last made available with the collapse of Soviet Russia, and which
has become one of the most important publishing projects of our time. One could
perhaps have done without the polemical title, and one could certainly have done
with more commentary to elucidate the raw documents. All the same, these reports
sent to Moscow by Comintern agents in Spain speak rivetingly for themselves,
excruciating jargon and all (what fun the author of ‘Politics and the English
Language’ would have had with them).
Any military aid from Stalin to Spain had been sent on his own terms and for his own reasons. His intervention may have been intended in part as a sop to his nervous admirers in the West, alarmed by the Moscow Trials; or so Schulenberg, the German ambassador in Moscow, thought at the time. And Gerald Howson has shown in his book Arms for Spain how Stalin, with cynicism startling even by his standards, used a currency-exchange scam to sell the arms at enormously more than they were worth and strip the Republic of its gold reserves. But the deeper purpose of Russian intervention was to enable Stalin’s ‘advisers’ in Spain to infiltrate police, army, ministries, and then to fracture and ultimately destroy other parties in the Popular Front so as to take control of the government. In Spain, that is, Stalin and his servants practised the very ‘salami tactics’ — chorizo tactics? — used a decade later to take control in east Europe.
These documents amply confirm that the Communists devoted more energy to destroying their supposed allies than to fighting Franco. One of the most senior apparatchiks in Spain was Anatoly Nikonov, deputy head of Soviet military intelligence, who told Moscow in February 1937 that it was impossible to win the war ‘if these scum within the republican camp are not liquidated’. POUM were ‘the rottenest unit of the entire republican army’, who needed to be destroyed. Palmiro Togliatti, later the widely admired leader of the Italian Communist party, likewise insisted that the Anarchists were ‘scum’ who would need to be dealt with by ‘large-scale action’. And so they were: the correspondence proves beyond doubt who was responsible for the Barcelona events. Reporting to Marshal Voroshilov in Moscow on 15 April, Georgi Dimitrov, the head of the Comintern, said that the Communists in Catalonia had decided not to wait
‘passively’ for a ‘natural’ unleashing of the hidden government crisis, but to hasten it and, if neccessary, to provoke it.
as this violence and treachery were, even that wasn’t the heart of the story.
Orwell later wrote with controlled bitterness about the Italian militiaman he
had met on his first day in Barcelona, who had almost certainly died
subsequently, ‘and in the peculiar conditions of our time, when people of that
sort are not killed by the Gestapo they are usually killed by the GPU’. And yet
he also acknowledged the complexities of the situation, and the mistakes his
friends in Catalonia made. What really transformed his consciousness was
something else. One former Communist used to say that the worst thing about
communism hadn’t been the brutality, it had been the lies. Orwell’s harsh
experiences at the front, culminating in a near-fatal wound, affected him less
than the fantastic torrent of falsification, misrepresentation and plain
mendacity which surrounded those Barcelona events. It was that which chilled him
to the core, and gave him his great subject for the rest of his too short life:
‘This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling
that the very concept of objective truth is dying out of the world.’ Thanks to
his Spanish experiences, he foresaw ‘a nightmare world in which the Leader, or
some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past’: in other words,
Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four, were both germinated in Barcelona in 1937.
The abuse he suffered for telling the truth continued after his death in 1950. And yet, almost as dismayingly, Orwell became the object of a posthumous cult of devotion, and of much intellectual grave-robbing. In his little firecracker of a book, Hitchens attempts to rescue his hero and place him, as one might say in Kipling’s words, where neither foes nor loving friends can hurt him. Like all true admirers, Hitchens dislikes the canonisation of Orwell as St George of England and the cloying veneration he has inspired, but he addresses his harshest words to the detractors. The questions he deals with aren’t new, and while Hitchens must be admired for prolificity he also exemplifies economy of effort, eschewing the long, detailed work of scholarship (in this case, on the self-same subject, John Rodden’s admirable The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making of ‘St George’ Orwell) for a short Philippic, which is plainly as much about Christopher Hitchens as about George Orwell. That is especially so when he deals both in sorrow and anger with ‘the sheer hatred of Orwell that is still to be found in some quarters’.
Some of what he writes is a little too glib. Orwell was consistently right about ‘the three great subjects of the 20th century’, Hitchens says, ‘imperialism, fascism and Stalinism’. But to lump those three together is to make a category mistake. Socialism and fascism, communism and National Socialism are political creeds, tendencies or movements, which may properly be praised or blamed in those terms. ‘Imperialism’ is not a tendency or movement, it is an historical episode or a fact of life, with malign as well as benign consequences, and to praise it in itself as virtuous or to condemn it as vicious is meaningless. As for ‘Stalinism’, this is a term always to be on one’s guard against. There’s a useful verbal game to be played. Whenever you encounter that word, immediately repeat the sentence, substituting ‘communism’ for ‘Stalinism’; and then again — since Stalin, after all, claimed to be, and was regarded by his followers as being, a great socialist ruler — substituting ‘socialism’. The effect is most instructive, as well as enjoyable.
In a chapter on ‘Orwell and the Right’ Hitchens laments the body-snatching practised by neo-conservatives like Norman Podhoretz (who wrote an essay 20 years ago called ‘If Orwell Were Alive Today’, and answered his question, roughly speaking, ‘Orwell Would Be Me’). He deals politely with the feminist critics, less so with post-modernists and in particular with the simply grotesque personage of Claude Simon, whose award of the Nobel prize in 1985 was one of the most dismal moments in recent literary history, and whose ‘novel’ The Georgics is a lengthy and base slander of Orwell.
Writing about Orwell’s Englishness, Hitchens is at once illuminating and at something of a loss. He has lived in America for more than 20 years, he never had much affinity for that kind of Englishry in the first place, and he is no longer quite pitch-perfect when dealing with his native country. Describing Orwell’s brave defence of P. G. Wodehouse against the wartime campaign of abuse, Hitchens says that Wodehouse was ‘pelted with calumny by every red-faced and roast-beef demagogue in the scepter’d isle’, which is journalistic bluster, and wrong anyway: Wodehouse’s chief calumniator was a Daily Mirror columnist, while his other brave defender was Evelyn Waugh, not quite the point Hitchens wants to make.
Of course the appropriation of Orwell as an English icon by such as John Major was absurd. Or perhaps one should say by his speech-writers: had our Unknown Prime Minister ever read the Orwell essay he misquoted as ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’? What Orwell actually wrote in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ wasn’t a limp invocation of Olde Albion but one of his most astute passages:
The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries in the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings — all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?
pin-tables and the clogs may have gone, but the bewildering contrasts and the
muddle are still there, and the passage, mutatis mutandis, is just as valid now.
Although Hitchens sees this, and just about recognises Orwell’s combination of
radical principle and conservative disposition, he has little temperamental
affinity with it, or with the Orwell who was patron saint of the fogeyism of the
Left (still found lurking in the Guardian, ‘Radicals for cricket, railways and
real ale’). We live at a time when it has been truly said that the Right has won
politically but the Left has won culturally; Orwell would have preferred it the
other way round.
But the longest, the most important and the best chapter in Hitchens’s book returns to that hatred for Orwell on the political and cultural Left, where his very name ‘is enough to evoke a shiver of revulsion’. As Hitchens eloquently shows, this hatred is hateful and the revulsion revolting. It’s one thing to disagree with Orwell or to dislike him. It’s another continually to traduce and misrepresent him, and Hitchens is coldly scornful about
the sheer ill will and bad faith and intellectual confusion that appear to ignite spontaneously when Orwell’s name is mentioned in some quarters.
To illustrate this he provides a sottisier of ludicrous but also monstrous attacks on Orwell by E. P. Thompson, Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, Raymond Williams and Conor Cruise O’Brien, none of whom seems able, or willing, to read his plain meaning at all. First prize is shared by Said and Williams. Reviewing another book of Hitchens’s here last spring (this is not meant to be an annual event), I suggested that he was too gentle with Williams, and it is gratifying that he now writes much more sternly about that ‘overrated’ figure:
Orwell will be reread and appreciated — I was about to say ‘long after Williams has been forgotten’ but I forbid myself the cliché and prefer to say — whether Williams is read and remembered or not.
would borrow instead a phrase from Byron, and say that Raymond Williams will be
read when George Orwell is forgotten, but not until then.
In all of this there is a strong personal element. As is well known, Hitchens himself has recently undergone something of a Damascene — or should one say Barcelonan? — moment after 11 September when he turned with repugnance from his old comrades, not only insisting that American military action was necessary, which was arguable, but that the screeching of ‘America had it coming’ or ‘the West must take the blame’ on the Left was simply abject and contemptible, which was unarguable. Maybe this was a moment waiting to happen. For years past cynics have been predicting that Christopher Hitchens would follow the usual Left-to-Right path taken by Kingsley Amis or Paul Johnson or indeed his own brother Peter Hitchens. This hasn’t so far come to pass, and I rather hope it doesn’t — one in the family seems quite enough — but he has certainly gone through a critical development, and now says that he no longer calls himself a socialist (although he still misses it ‘like an amputated limb’, poor bunny. A stiff drink often helps to ease the pain in such cases.) In any case, Hitchens can speak for himself, but I suspect that what he has really discovered is not that the Right is right and the Left is wrong so much as ‘all the folly of a fight/ With a common wrong or right.’
And yet the process is not yet quite complete. In an otherwise excellent recent article on another subject Ferdinand Mount digressed to say that ‘Nothing surprised me more than the vicious attacks on Isaiah Berlin both before and after his death,’ and he named Hitchens as one of the attack dogs. Nothing surprised me less than the savagery of the attacks on Berlin — or on Camus, or Silone, or Koestler, or Orwell. This is a wholly predictable if remarkably devious rearguard action, by which it will be conceded that there was such a thing as ‘Stalinism’, which wasn’t an altogether pretty business, but that this must in no way whatever be held to reflect adversely on Marxism or Bolshevism — or on anyone who supported Stalin during his long reign. Hence the vitriol directed at those radicals and liberals who either recovered quickly from ‘Russian flu’, or worse, like Orwell, never succumbed to it in the first place. He said some very shocking things, but none more so than what he wrote in his diary in 1940:
Such horrors as the Russian purges never surprised me, because I had always felt that — not exactly that, but something like that — was implicit in Bolshevik rule.
the Left will never forgive him for that recognition of the truth.
There is a final answer to that torrent of lies, and to that chorus of defamation; and a truly wondrous contrast. All the evidence makes it clear that the Communists not only wanted to crush the independent Left in Catalonia but planned show trials there on the Moscow pattern. It’s entirely possible that if they had got their hands on Orwell he would have been one of the victims; as it was, Nin was arrested and tortured to death without providing the appropriate ‘confession’. But then came an extraordinary whirligig of time’s revenges, historical irony married to poetic justice. Beginning with Vladimir Antonov-Oveseenko, Soviet advisers in Spain were recalled to Russia and themselves purged (as Orwell noted, you have to see the funny side of this), and in the years after 1945 the same fate awaited others who had served the Comintern in Spain, like the Hungarian Laszlo Rajk and the Czech Artur London. With their help, their countries were taken over by the means which the Communists had honed so skilfully in Spain; and then the old guard was ‘liquidated’.
All of this was witnessed by a younger generation in eastern Europe, who understood it not least because of Orwell. The most glorious compliment he was ever paid is in The Captive Mind, the great little book published in 1953 by Czeslaw Milosz after he had left for the West. He describes how he and other Party functionaries in Poland had been bowled over by Nineteen Eighty-four:
Because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to possess, it is known only to certain members of the Inner Party. Orwell fascinates them through his insight into details they know well ... Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.
In other words, as Hitchens says, only a couple of years after Orwell’s death,
his book about a secret book circulated only within the Inner Party was itself a secret book circulated only within the Inner Party.
Has any other writer ever known
such posthumous vindication?
And as if Milosz weren’t enough, there are all those others who have saluted Orwell with a reverence born of intimate awareness: Vaclav Havel, Rudolf Bahro, Miklos Haraszti, Leszek Kolakowski, Milan Simecka and Adam Michnik, the men who lived under ‘actually existing socialism’ and survived to bear their own witness. What a roll of honour to set beside Orwell’s dismal detractors! And how much it justifies Hitchens’s title! The lies and libels Orwell’s enemies poured over him were all useless, when the truth prevailed in the end. Yes, it was a famous victory. They lost. He won.
Trouble with girls
George Orwell portrayed women as devious, fatuous or frumpish. But he was no misogynist, argues Christopher Hitchens in an exclusive extract from his new book
Saturday May 18, 2002
Orwell and me
Margaret Atwood cried her eyes out when she first read Animal Farm at the age of nine. Later, its author became a major influence on her writing. As the centenary of George Orwell's birth approaches, she says he would have plenty to say about the post-9/11 world
Monday June 16, 2003
Read these articles here
Another pages about George Orwell in this site here and here and here and here
A page about Sonia Orwell here