Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Frank Kermode, New York Review of Books

During his years as literary editor and columnist on the left-wing weekly Tribune George Orwell wrote, in addition to his journalism, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Tribune suited him very well, letting him do as he pleased, offering a measure of political agreement but also a background against which his boldness and oddity stood out very clearly.

The bold and odd Orwell is in the news at present: a memoir has been published describing his friendship with a young girl back in 1914, when he was eleven and she thirteen. They met when Jacintha, wandering around her father's estate, came upon Eric Blair (to give him his true name) standing on his head in a field. Asked why he was doing so, he explained that it was a good way to get noticed. So it proved, and a close friendship developed. Whenever Eric was home from school (Eton) they would take long walks, or go fishing, or discuss poetry and the occult. He gave her a copy of Dracula, a crucifix, and a clove of garlic. Happy days, in an idyllic setting that will recur in the "Golden Country" of Nineteen Eighty-Four!

Orwell's biographers knew about this youthful affair, but it now appears that Jacintha broke it off when Eric, aged eighteen, tried to rape her. When he went off to be an imperial policeman in Burma she did not reply to his sad letters, and on his return in 1927 she still did not relent. Years later, in 1949, when he was desperately ill, a widower with a young adopted son, he appealed to her to come and see him. Apparently Nineteen Eighty-Four had so shocked her that she decided against it, but she attended his funeral in 1950. Orwell never mentions her in his published work.


The sexual manners of eighteen-year-old boys are rarely polished, and it may be that Eric was a rough rather than a criminal suitor, but Orwell's biographer Gordon Bowker thinks otherwise: "The sudden pounce...remained his preferred mode of seduction."[1] Either way the entire episode is suggestive. By all accounts Orwell's normal demeanor was perfectly civil, just what could be expected of a man of his class and education, but there were occasions when it must have seemed, not least to other members of that class, to be as odd as standing on one's head to attract attention.

As to the allegation of violence, it is true that it had inevitably been part of his job in Burma; and in later life this quiet man did express violent political opinions and spoke of his own "intellectual brutality." He condemned the English public (i.e., private boarding) school system, but not the almost universal practice in such schools of corporal punishment, which he thought a useful preparation for adult life. He defended the bombing of civilian populations. And so on. Yet he had unusually strong sympathy with the destitute and the suffering and could imagine extremes of desolation, as in the famous essay on a hanging, where he remembers how the condemned man stepped aside to avoid a puddle on his way to the gallows; in that act Orwell "saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide."

Leonard Woolf describes how, as a young colonial administrator in Ceylon, he supervised the hanging of four men. The event itself was more horrible than the one Orwell witnessed, and Woolf was sickened by it, but the account we remember is Orwell's, because of its imaginative participation in the victim's humanity. A lesser-known instance of this imaginative power can be found in an essay of 1940, in which he says that nothing in the First World War moved him as deeply as the sinking of the Titanic had done: the ship suddenly up-ended and sank bow-foremost, so that the people clinging to the stern were lifted no less than three hundred feet into the air before they plunged into the abyss. It gave me a sinking sensation in the belly which I can still all but feel.

(He was ten years old when the Titanic sank.)


Orwell's experiences as a police officer in Burma had much to do with his revulsion from imperial rule and the exploitation of colonial populations. He was himself born in India into a ruling-class family, but he was soon committed politically to the left; the evolution of his political beliefs is still a matter of argument, but it was obviously related to his unillusioned sympathy with the poor and the outcast, and to his need to break free of his own class and speak his own mind. A believer in socialist democracy, he found little evidence of a desire for it on the British left.

Except for a brief spell in the Independent Labour Party (a dwindling minority party, usually at odds with the Labour Party, the main hope of the left), he preferred independence, his freedom to criticize all parties. For example, the trade unions, the main financial supporters of Labour, naturally saw it as their first duty to better the condition of their members. But Orwell reminded them that simply by doing so they inadvertently helped increase the poverty of vast colonial populations. He was the enemy of all forms of privilege, oppression, racism, and totalitarianism.

As Britain and France refused to intervene in the Spanish civil war (which in the opinion of many made them pro-Franco and pro-Hitler), Orwell, along with two thousand other British volunteers, fought on the Republican side, believing that the inevitable struggle with fascism should take place then and there, in Spain. He was wounded in support of the working-class cause, but his Spanish experiences reinforced his dislike of communism. He wanted his own brand of revolutionary war, and in 1939 hoped that the one which was obviously just about to begin might be it. Meanwhile the palpable danger of that moment stimulated his own patriotic feelings. He ceased to oppose the war but without ceasing to detest the British ruling class. He wanted it to be recognized that capitalism didn't work; that capitalists were indeed as odious as Nazis; that in his admittedly beloved country gross disparities of income between the callous rich and the near destitute made a joke of the precious idea of equality. There had been a moment in revolutionary Barcelona when that idea seemed to have become thrillingly real, but almost at once the gap between rich and poor widened again.

Born a member of a highly privileged class, Orwell had lived with the poorest of the poor in London and Paris. The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) gave an account of the period during which he experienced the poverty of the depressed industrial north. It was published by Victor Gollancz, a fellow traveler whose Left Book Club had attracted astonishing numbers of subscribers. Orwell's book sold 40,000 copies, but Gollancz, always nervous, insisted on adding a foreword to reduce its political force. Later on, fearing the reaction of the Russians, he refused to publish Homage to Catalonia, and later still turned down Animal Farm for similar reasons. Since Orwell was bound to him by contract Gollancz was able to hinder its publication by anyone else.[2]

The manuscript survived the German flying bomb and rocket attacks on London in the summer of 1944, and appeared after a year of delay, just as the war ended. Britain had a "Russophile" period when the Soviet armies were beating the Germans in the East, and Stalin was for a while thought rather lovable. Failing to agree, Orwell, who had joined a foreign republican army and got himself shot, was again standing on his head, concerning himself more with the terrible destruction of working-class homes in London's East End than with the advances of the Allied armies in Europe.


By this time he was writing his Tribune column, "As I Please," normally produced weekly. He was known to be a remarkably productive writer, much admired for the vigor and clarity of his prose. He reviewed a great many books, including novels and poetry, but probably most of his energy went into political journalism. Though surely to be counted as one of them himself, he had a certain prejudice against other left-wing intellectuals, "fashionable pansies" whose education had cut them off from the real world of work. "The left-wing opinions of the average 'intellectual' are mainly spurious," he asserted, calling the poet Stephen Spender "a parlor Bolshevik"; though he admitted that when he met Spender he quite liked him, and confessed himself liable to these episodes of "intellectual brutality."

His relationship with W.H. Auden is more interesting. This "gutless Kipling" wrote in his poem "Spain" ("one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war") of a need for "the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder." To Orwell this is a good example of what is to be expected from the "utterly irresponsible intelligentsia." Speaking as a man who has seen murder done, and who thinks it ought to be avoided, he scorns "a brand of amoralism" that "is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled." Auden changed the line ("the deliberate acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder") but thought Orwell's comment "densely unjust"; for unless you are a pacifist this is indeed what you must consciously accept when fighting a war.

Although he wanted on principle to dislike Auden, Orwell (who had once known A.E. Housman's poems by heart) found some of his verse hard to resist. He quotes with approval the concluding lines of "Spain" –
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon
– lines Auden himself came to regard as a blatant lie, a lapse into a false rhetoric. Elsewhere he quotes a stanza from "September 1, 1939," again without mentioning that Auden had disowned that poem. He also picked up more innocent lines that may have stuck in his memory like Housman's: in "A Hanging" the guards hold the prisoner in "careful caressing grip," an expression that echoes Auden –
Now through night's caressing grip
Earth and all her oceans slip...
– though it isn't clear whether, in this case, Auden was not the borrower.

What should not be overlooked is the fact that this political journalist took an informed though tough and idiosyncratic interest in literature. He defended Kipling and praised Jack London. He wrote well about Dickens when that writer was out of fashion. He took on Tolstoy in a perverse and stimulating essay about King Lear. He thought T.S. Eliot a once-good poet who had fatally ceased to write memorable lines, perhaps because he had accepted a religion that forced him "to believe the incredible." He wrote about No Orchids for Miss Blandish and Vogue magazine, about boys' school stories; about the vulgar seaside cartoonist Donald McGill and the Surrealist Salvador Dalì. He made something of a hero out of Henry Miller. His great exemplar was Jonathan Swift, though he did not agree with Swift that happiness was impossible to human beings. He would spend much time deciding what was right and what was not in the theories of James Burnham, which left a mark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One of his most enduring interests was in the cultivation of pure and direct English, where his concern almost matched the intensity of Swift's. Sixty years later I remember resolving that the essay "Politics and the English Language" (1946) should be a kind of touchstone (allowing for some Orwellian quirks) for my own writing, a memory clouded by the necessary admission that I have not used it often enough.


Evidently Orwell was well equipped, in 1943, to take on the literary editorship of Tribune. He could write interestingly about pretty much anything, and had often appeared in its pages already. When Tribune got started in 1937 Orwell was in Spain. He returned wounded and sick and in a bad time. Homage to Catalonia, his book about the Spanish civil war, failed; the Spanish Republic was defeated, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact was the immediate cause of his abandoning his antiwar position. Rejected for military service on medical grounds, he celebrated his restored patriotism in the great essay "England Your England," written in February 1941: "As I write," it begins, "highly civilized beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me." In this essay he celebrates what he always insisted on, often against the evidence – a certain gentleness and decency (a favorite word) in the texture of English life. Only a month earlier he had, as it were, stood on his head in praise of Henry Miller's complete indifference to conventional morality and nationalist sentiment. His interests were fascinatingly various.

He had been writing occasionally for Tribune, along with other papers, as well as working in the Indian service of the BBC – trying to project a favorable image of Britain and keep the Indians happy with their standing in the Empire, which German propaganda was trying to undermine. It was when he grew tired of what seemed to him a futile job in a disagreeably bureaucratic organization that he joined Tribune.

The relevant history of the journal is sketched with authority by Paul Anderson in his introduction to this book. Tribune was more important than its circulation (at its peak around 40,000) might suggest. In his new job Orwell was dealing with persons of present and potential power. The paper was partly financed by Stafford Cripps, who had been Churchill's ambassador to Moscow; after the landslide election of 1945, he was close to the center of the Labour government and virtual controller of the austere postwar economy. Aneurin Bevan, who as minister of health in the postwar Labour administration was to be the godfather of the National Health Service, was for a time editor of Tribune. When Orwell left to work as a war correspondent in Europe his Tribune column was taken over by Bevan's wife, Jennie Lee, who was elected to Parliament in 1945 and was later famous for her generosity and charm when serving as arts minister under Harold Wilson. And Orwell would have had everyday encounters with other important left-wingers like Michael Foot, later the leader, and now the grand old man, of the modern Labour Party.

He still disapproved of much that orthodox Labour stood for, and in certain respects he also disagreed with Tribune, not least in his unrelenting opposition to Stalinist Russia. But he could work and be valued there simply because, as Foot has said, he was the sharpest thorn in the side of editorial complacency, the greatest of modern iconoclasts, a new and much more humane Swift with a deadly lash for all hypocrisies, including socialist hypocrisies.

He could write things in Tribune that would have had difficulty achieving print elsewhere; and sometimes he even agreed with the policy of the paper, as when it attacked Churchill (something Bevan was always willing to do) or, in 1943, demanded a second front in Europe. He also agreed with Tribune's opposition to the notion that a defeated Germany must be punished and dismembered, and on the need or duty of Britain to liberate India with all possible speed. "Tribune is not perfect," he wrote,
but I do think it is the only existing paper that makes a genuine effort to be both progressive and humane – that is, to combine a radical socialist policy with a respect for freedom of speech and a civilised attitude towards literature and the arts.
Such was the atmosphere at Tribune when he joined it. The paper survives, but its greatest years probably coincided roughly with Orwell's tenure.


In the column "As I Please" he could, as the title indicates, say whatever he liked, whether political or not. He contributed eighty columns, starting in 1943, breaking off early in 1945, and resuming at the end of that year. The last "As I Please" appeared in April 1947. During the four years when he was, with intervals, writing his column, the world of which he was to take such note as he pleased changed considerably: the war in Europe ended, the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, India and Pakistan were liberated. The American armies went home and the British settled in for several years of economic crisis, discomfort, and rationing in excess of what they had suffered in the six years of war. The cold war began.

Orwell was busy. Besides writing Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four he contributed his "London Letters" to Partisan Review, and occasionally wrote for Dwight Macdonald's Politics. The column must almost have seemed a way of relaxing. To read through the eighty items as they are now presented is to get some insight into a writer of restless, unclassifiable intellect. Some pages vividly recall wartime London. The first column describes the behavior of two drunken GIs in a London tobacconist's shop.

Their conduct was not exceptional. Even if you steer clear of Piccadilly with its seething swarms of drunks and whores, it is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes. On the other hand the Americans have their own justifiable complaints— in particular, they complain of the children who follow them night and day, cadging sweets.
Trivia, but such encounters really mattered because Anglo-American relations mattered. These issues were rarely discussed in print. Most people in Britain, says Orwell, don't even know that American servicemen are not liable in the British courts for offenses against British citizens; and most are also quite unaware of the extent of anti-British feeling in the US. He also notes, correctly, that British soldiers resented the fact that American soldiers were paid five times as much as they were, and suggests remedies for this dangerous imbalance. (They didn't work.) White American soldiers, he discovered, were horrified to discover that white English girls danced with their black comrades, and succeeded in getting a dancehall proprietor to start a "whites only" policy.

Injustices large and small attracted his attention. An Indian journalist living in England needs support when he protests against being drafted into the British army. The iron railings that had protected the communal gardens of well-to-do London squares until requisitioned and torn down for munitions were now being replaced by wooden palings; so bits of London that had been liberated for the use of all were, as the war progressed, ominously returning to private use.
He would comment on the quality of radio programs, on price rises, on the inadequacy of British houses, on the rudeness of shop assistants who seem to enjoy having nothing to sell, on the mysterious shortage of clocks and watches. But it's not all complaining: a rosebush from Woolworth's that years before cost sixpence, the price of ten cigarettes, still blooms abundantly; a Regency church in North London is worth getting off the bus for another look.


Much of the charm of these columns obviously depends on their variety and their nearness to home. The writer finds a good book in a pile outside a bookseller's shop, or describes his own pamphlet collection, or wanders off in another direction and thinks about London's Victorian sewage system.

Some of his reactions are unpredictable. As one would expect, he detests anti-Semitism and Sir Oswald Mosley, whose fascist movement was strongly anti-Semitic. Mosley was interned in 1940 but let out in 1943. Orwell thought it right that he should have been locked up when there was a threat of invasion – and shot if the Germans actually landed – but he defended Mosley's release in 1943, for he could no longer do any harm, and anti-Mosley demonstrations had become protests against habeas corpus.

He pays some attention to complaining letters to the editor. Two subjects guarantee indignant responses from readers: any hostile comment on the Catholic Church (much disliked by Orwell), and any expression of friendliness to Jews. Readers write to complain that his attitudes are generally too negative, that he is always running things down. He replies that in the England of 1944 there's not much around to praise, Woolworth roses apart. Or he will give his views, always simple and intelligible, on some current argument – the case of Ezra Pound, for instance – before describing how he tested a barmaid's theory that dipping your mustache in your beer makes the beer go flat.

One week he reports that he's reading a life of Tolstoy, a book on Dickens, Harry Levin's on Joyce, and the autobiography of Dalì. As the months pass and the Normandy landings are more obviously about to occur, he says very little about the fighting but comments on the uselessness of flimsy surface air-raid shelters. Never a man to complain of austerity, he explains that he would like clothes rationing to continue long after the war, indeed "till the moths have devoured the last dinner-jacket."

In one contentious column he refuses to condemn civilian casualties in mass air raids on German cities:
Why is it worse to kill civilians than soldiers? Obviously one must not kill children if it is in any way avoidable, but it is only in propaganda pamphlets that every bomb drops on a school or an orphanage. A bomb kills a cross-section of the population; but not quite a representative selection, because the children and expectant mothers are usually the first to be evacuated, and some of the young men will be away in the army. Probably a disproportionately large number of bomb victims will be middle-aged. (Up to date, German bombs have killed between six and seven thousand children in this country. This is, I believe, less than the number killed in road accidents in the same period).

On the other hand, "normal" or "legitimate" warfare picks out and slaughters all the healthiest and bravest of the young male population. Every time a German submarine goes to the bottom about fifty young men of fine physique and good nerves are suffocated. ...Heaven knows how many people our blitz on Germany and the occupied countries has killed and will kill, but you can be quite certain it will never come anywhere near the slaughter that has happened on the Russian front.

It took Orwell to say such things in May 1944, and a journal as tough as Tribune to publish them.

In lighter moments he identifies herbs on London bomb-sites or inquires whether melons were grown in seventeenth-century England. Now and again he sets his readers a "brain-tickler." Spot three errors in this passage from Timon of Athens:
Come not to me again, but say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beachèd verge of the salt flood
Who once a day with his embossed froth
The turbulent surge shall cover.

Not being obsessed by the war, he had time and space for other topics. The invasion of June 6 is not mentioned in the issue of June 9, which was probably written before the news broke, though that hardly applies to the column for June 16, which is mostly about a radio program called The Brains Trust, along with a plug for Dwight Macdonald's Politics. June 23 has a long piece on the centennial of the birth of Anatole France, a complaint about the work of two detested Catholic humorists, plus a bit about a book on the voting record of members of Parliament.

When the first comment on the progress of the war comes on June 30, it concerns the flying bombs launched by the Germans soon after the Normandy landings – a nasty business, but relatively domestic in scale. Orwell does note the absurdity of complaints that they were "an indiscriminate attack on civilians," considering what the Allied air forces were doing in Germany.

However, he also records his personal reactions: the flying bombs were exceptionally disquieting because unlike other projectiles, they gave you time to think before their bombs went off. When you heard the drone of the approaching bomb your first reaction was to want it not to stop, but to pass over you before the motor cut out. "You are hoping that it will fall on somebody else." This is "the bottomless selfishness of the human being."

The V2 rockets which replaced the flying bombs were also interestingly eerie, but in a different way: you heard them coming after they had struck. These relatively local issues concerned Orwell, while the Battle of the Bulge, the desperate German offensive of the last winter of the war, escaped notice. His silence on the liberation of the camps is also rather puzzling. There are references to the campaigns in Burma, a war zone that had special interest for him. In February 1945 he does speculate about the fate of Japan when the European war is over, though of course he did not foresee the atomic bombs. "There will be a peace of exhaustion," he conjectures, "with only minor and unofficial wars raging all over the place." In October he does consider the Bomb, pointing out that since its manufacture calls for so huge a technological effort only large states will be able to make it, and they will balance each other's threat, so prolonging a "peace that is no peace."

In the opinion of his present editor, the most controversial column was about the Warsaw Rising of 1944. Orwell attacks the British press and intellectuals for saying that when the Russians, instead of moving to support the rebels, held back, they were right to do so:
What I am concerned with is the attitude of the British intelligentsia, who cannot raise between them one single voice to question what they believe to be Russian policy, no matter what turn it takes, and in this case have had the unheard-of meanness to hint that our bombers ought not to be sent to the aid of our comrades fighting in Warsaw.
His solicitude about the English language is a recurring topic. He admires Samuel Butler's style, of which Butler said he never thought about it, and believed that to do so would be a loss to himself and his readers. Orwell thought the best style would be as transparent as a windowpane. Then the thought could be unambiguously conveyed. The cliché smears the pane and is the enemy of truth. Secondhand language was dishonest, and honesty, he believed, was the best policy. "The advantage of a lie is always short-lived."

At his most combative, even when you think him wrong, he is honest. He hates hearing that something must not be said because to say it would "play into the hands" of some supposedly sinister influence or opponent. Propagandists might try to browbeat critics into silence by calling them "objectively reactionary," and "it is a tempting maneuver...but it is dishonest," and "the speaker loses touch with reality." The Germans and Japanese lost the war because they avoided reality, could not admit what was plain to the dispassionate eye.

Many of the problems Orwell wrote about are still unsolved: immigration, the low birthrate, Scottish separatism, inequitable arrangements for the selection of juries, and so on. In 1946 Orwell could say, in a particular powerful and gloomy column, that "when one considers how things have gone since 1930 or thereabouts, it is not easy to believe in the survival of civilisation." It seems no easier now, and for the reasons he gives. But this excellent series of columns doesn't end quite so solemnly. With a strange propriety it ends with a quiet chat about pidgin English in the South Pacific.

He went to Jura, a remote Scottish refuge, and began Nineteen Eighty-Four. The appendix on Newspeak, which resembles Swift's painful collections of "polite conversation," is the culmination of his distress at the loss of meaning in language; the book as a whole was called "terrible" (i.e., terrifying) by Orwell's friend William Empson. Nevertheless on the World Book Day just past in the UK, it made the top ten in a list of "books the nation cannot live without," putting Orwell after Austen, Tolkien, Charlotte Brontë, J.K. Rowling, Harper Lee, and Emily Brontë but ahead of Philip Pullman and Dickens. The Da Vinci Code came in forty-second. The domestication of such a book as Nineteen Eighty-Four would be a worthy topic for another "As I Please."

[1] Gordon Bowker, "Blair Pounces," Times Literary Supplement, February 23, 2007.
[2] Orwell's death in 1950 did not end the political opposition. In a recent book, Orwell Subverted: The CIA and the Filming of Animal Farm (Penn State University Press, 2007), Daniel J. Leab writes about the part of the CIA in the making of the animated film version of Animal Farm, released in 1954. The CIA, then embarking on its cultural campaign against Soviet communism, partly financed the film, exerting constant pressure on its makers, so that the film became cold war propaganda. They imposed an entirely new ending on the story. Leab gives a full account of the matter, explaining how interference with the script affected the actual making of the film. With the techniques of animation then available the slightest change called for endless redrawing, and the changes to the end were an expensive nightmare.

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