Friday, 7 August 2009

Richard Vinen, Times Literary Supplement

Orwell in Tribune: 'As I Please' and other writings 1943-47 edited by Paul Anderson (Methuen, £14.99)
Orwell and Marxism:The political and cultural thinking of George Orwell by  Philip Bounds (I. B. Tauris. £52.50)

More than any other British author of the twentieth century, George Orwell has escaped from his own time. Every schoolchild who gets as far as GCSE English will have read at least one Orwell novel, and the one that they are most likely to have read (Nineteen Eighty-Four) is, ostensibly at least, not set in Orwell’s own lifetime. Orwell was fascinated by children’s literature and some of his books have a special appeal to children (particularly, I suspect, boys in their early teens). This means that most people read Orwell before they have any sense of the period in which he wrote; indeed, before they have much sense of why it might matter to understand the period in which a writer worked.

Even the most sophisticated readers take Orwell out of context. In 1940, Q. D. Leavis argued that Orwell’s early novels (the ones with clear temporal settings) were "wasted effort". Ever since then, critics have judged him largely on his long essays, and these reinforce the impression of a man outside his own time – big enough to interpose himself between Tolstoy and Shakespeare at a time when his contemporaries were locked in petty Bloomsbury disputes. His admirers think of him as an emblem of universal integrity. Central European dissidents in the 1980s appealed to his memory, and committees of the great and good award an Orwell Prize to writers who have made their reputations writing about, say, Sweden since the 1970s. I doubt if a day passes when some politician or journalist does not denounce something or other as "Orwellian", a word that Orwell would have hated.

Orwell did not enjoy such special status in the eyes of his contemporaries. Much of his writing was made up of book reviews churned out to pay the bills. The flavour of this life is captured in a short letter that he wrote to T. S. Eliot asking whether Faber might be interesting in commissioning him to translate Jacques Roberti’s À la Belle de Nuit, a task that apparently required a command of low-life Paris argot. Some of his work seemed to fit into easily identifiable patterns. Cyril Connolly had admired Orwell since meeting him at prep school, but, in Enemies of Promise (1938), he stitched together quotations from Orwell, Hemingway and Christopher Isherwood into a single passage to show how indistinguishable "colloquial" writers could be.

Both these books are designed, in part, to put Orwell back into the context of his own times. The articles he wrote for Tribune between 1943 and 1947 are gathered into a single volume with an excellent introduction by Paul Anderson. They have all been published in previous collections and some of them, such as "The Decline of the English Murder", are already well known, but publication of the Tribune articles is useful because Orwell wrote for the paper at a time when he was writing Animal Farm and thinking about Nineteen Eighty-Four. His article on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a book which is sometimes seen as a model for Nineteen Eighty-Four, appeared in January 1946, though any reader of the Tribune articles will conclude that Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution was a more important influence on Orwell’s thinking. For most of this time, large parts of the British Left, including some of the other writers for Tribune, were pro-Soviet. More importantly, support for the Soviet alliance was part of the official policy of both Britain and the United States. In short, Orwell’s most famous books need to be understood against the backdrop of Yalta rather than that of, say, the Berlin airlift. The Tribune articles show how intermittent anti-Americanism, suspicion of the British ruling classes and distaste for the realpolitik of the great powers were blended with a personal dislike of Stalinism. Orwell repeatedly drew attention to facts about the Soviet Union that were inconvenient to the Western Allies; he wrote, for example, about the mass rape of women in Vienna by Russian soldiers. An article of September 1944 about the Warsaw Uprising is particularly striking; in it he asked why the British intelligentsia were so "dishonestly uncritical" of Soviet policy, but he also suggested that Western governments were moving towards a peace settlement that would hand much of Europe to Stalin.

If the Tribune articles tell us mainly about Orwell after 1943, Philip Bounds sets him against the fast-changing political backdrop to his whole writing career. In the mid 1930s, the Communist International turned away from "class against class" tactics to encourage Popular Front alliances of anti-Fascist forces. This position changed with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, then changed again with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. These gyrations produced odd consequences in Britain, a country in which there was not a large Communist party (though there were some significant figures who, as Orwell put it, believed in the Russian "mythos" ) and in which the most important leaders of the Labour Party were not tempted by an anti-Fascist alliance with the Communists. The Popular Front was supported by an odd coalition that ranged from Stafford Cripps to the Duchess of Atholl.

Orwell opposed the Popular Front, or, at least, he was rude about its English supporters. During the Spanish Civil War he fought with the non-Stalinist POUM rather than the International Brigade (joined by most Communists). He reversed his position overnight in 1939: he claimed to have dreamt of war and then come downstairs to see the newspaper reports of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact. He supported the war against Hitler and became an eloquent defender of patriotism though he also thought, at least in 1940 and 1941, that the British war effort might be combined with a revolutionary transformation of British society. His position was sometimes close to that of Trotskyists and he quoted the Trotskyite slogan "the war and the revolution are inseparable" with approval in 1941. Orwell’s interest in Trotsky, however, seems to have been rooted in a sympathy for outsiders and in the sense that, to quote his friend Malcolm Muggeridge, "Trotsky blows the gaff" on the Soviet Union. Orwell did not believe that Russia would necessarily have been less repressive if ruled by Trotsky rather than Stalin. He was not much interested in Marxist theory and his remark, apropos of T. S. Eliot, that Anglo-Catholicism was the "ecclesiastical equivalent of Trotskyism", was probably designed to annoy Trotskyites as much as Anglo-Catholics.

Bounds covers all of Orwell’s writing – the early autobiographical novels and exercises in fictionalized autobiography as well as the better-known works – and tries to trace the themes that run through them all. In particular, he argues that, for all of his anti-Soviet talk, Orwell was influenced by Communist or fellow-travelling writers. This influence was masked by his general cussedness and by a capacity for annexing the ideas of authors he had once denounced; for example, he wrote a savage review of The Novel Today (1936) by the Communist Philip Henderson. However, Orwell’s remarks about modernism in his essay "Inside the Whale" (1940) seem to owe something to Henderson’s assault on literature that avoids "the urgent problems of the moment". Orwell even transports the same rather laboured joke from Punch – about the young man who tells his aunt "My dear, one doesn’t write about anything; one just writes" – from his 1936 review to his 1940 essay. The changes in Communist strategy made Orwell’s relations with its cultural commentators all the more complicated. Sometimes he seemed to draw on ideas expressed by Communist writers during the "class against class" period to attack the Popular Front, and then to draw on the Popular Front’s discovery of national culture to attack Communists after the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact.

Bounds’s book is wide-ranging, stimulating and well written. I was not, however, entirely convinced by its arguments. This is partly because it is hard to prove influence. Bounds himself frequently admits that we cannot be sure that Orwell read a particular author whose ideas seem, in some respects, to run parallel to his own. Some Marxist authors whom Orwell had read seem not to have influenced him very much. He reviewed Christopher Hill’s The English Revolution 1640, though he himself did not go in for the celebration of seventeenth-century radicalism that was so common among English left-wingers – rather unconvincingly, Bounds attributes this to the belief that Orwell’s readers were likely to be "culturally ambitious members of the lower middle class".

Emphasizing Orwell’s roots on the Left means playing down his links to writers on the Right. Anthony Powell, a friend of Orwell, does not feature in this book at all. Bounds suggests that Orwell’s interest in conservative writers – notably Rudyard Kipling – sprang partly from a desire to answer a certain kind of Communist attack on them. Orwell wanted to show the peculiarity of English conservatism and to distinguish it from Fascism. He certainly underlined the difference between Kipling and Wodehouse and Fascists. However, there were times when he argued that Fascism itself might assume a particularly English form. In any case, he admired many right-wing writers – including, for example, Louis-Ferdinand Céline – for reasons that cut across his politics.

Bounds’s careful researches into relatively minor English Marxists can sometimes obscure the importance of the two most important left-wingers with whom Orwell was associated: John Strachey and Victor Gollancz. Neither of these men was a member of the Communist party, though both were close to it at times. Strachey’s The Coming Crisis (1932) presented a Marxist analysis, but Strachey, like Orwell, also admired the work of some authors on the Right: he described The Waste Land as "the most important poem produced in English in our day". Gollancz was a publisher and founder, along with Strachey and Stafford Cripps, of the Left Book Club, and it is tempting to present him as a kind of antiOrwell: devious, shrewd about money, politically conformist and an intellectual who was not intelligent. Orwell himself thought privately that Gollancz was "very enterprising about left stuff and . . . not too bright". However, relations between the two men were sometimes closer than Orwell cared to admit. Gollancz published Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and, according to one account, it was he who chose "Orwell" as Eric Blair’s pen name (the alternatives were "Kenneth Miles" and "H. Lewis Allways"). It is true that Gollancz, or the Left Book Club, turned down Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm, for fear of offending Communists, but the Left Book Club did publish The Road to Wigan Pier, though with an introduction by Gollancz himself in which he said that he had noted at least a hundred points with which he disagreed. It is also important to remember that there was a period, from September 1939 until the summer of 1941, when Orwell, Gollancz and Strachey were united by common distaste for what they called the Communist Party’s "betrayal of the left".

Should we see Orwell as primarily a political writer? He certainly came to see himself as one. In 1946, he wrote: "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written . . . against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism . . . it is where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books". However, not all his early work was "lifeless", and his later books are not entirely animated by politics. Throughout his career, Orwell saw that literature might be an end in itself. As a twenty-year-old policeman in Burma, during his brief attempt to flee from his destiny as a writer, he had read War and Peace and been seduced by its characters: "people about whom one would gladly go on reading for ever". He had begun the 1940s hoping to produce a three-volume family saga. Would he have returned to this apparently unpolitical work if he had believed that he would have time to finish it?

The fact that Orwell was very ill for much of the period when he wrote his most famous works, and that he died in January 1950 a few months after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, raises all sorts of questions. His most savage critics see his last works as reflecting the despair of a dying man – but, for my money, Burmese Days (1934) is the most despairing of his works. And how would he have reacted to the Cold War, and to seeing his own books used as weapons in that war? Perhaps most importantly, how would an author who had defined himself in terms of failure and obscurity have reacted to wealth and fame?

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Peter Stothard, Daily Beast

Classics are timeless—or so we think. In the case of George Orwell, the distinguished historian Richard Vinen points out in the TLS this week that he has “escaped from his own time”: "Every school child who gets as far as GCSE English will have read at least one Orwell novel.... This means that most people read Orwell before they have any sense of the period in which he wrote; indeed, before they have much sense of why it might matter to understand the period in which a writer worked.” A volume of his writings for the Tribune from the years before 1984, and a new study about Orwell and Marxism, put Orwell rewardingly back in his historical place–-and show how the timeless work of literature emerged from the messy business of writing to the moment.