Friday, 26 September 2008

Damien Le Guay, Figaro magazine

[…] La France connaît le romancier George Orwell, mais est en train de découvrir sa pensée politique. Viennent de paraître 80 chroniques, écrites par Orwell entre 1943 et 1948 et regroupées sous le titre de A ma guise. Elles sont autant de leçons de journalisme. On y retrouve son esprit d’enquête sur le terrain, avide de ces détails qui en disent long. Là, il s’en prend d’une manière générale à la bêtise des journalistes, et en particulier aux intellectuels de gauche qui, lors du soulèvement de Varsovie, en août 1944, s’alignent sur la propagande soviétique. Orwell est d’une gauche libre, non inféodée à Moscou, d’un socialisme antitotalitaire, soucieux avant tout de préserver les libertés individuelles. Cette conviction lui vient de son engagement durant la guerre d’Espagne. […]

France knows George Orwell the novelist, but is only now discovering his political thinking. Eighty columns written by Orwell between 1943 and 1948 are now published in translation for the first time under the title “As I Please”. They are all lessons in journalism. You get a real sense of his commitment to inquiry on the ground, a hunger for details that speak volumes. He lays into the stupidity of journalists, especially the leftist intellectuals who, during the Warsaw uprising in August 1944, swallowed Soviet propaganda. Orwell is a from a free left not subservient to Moscow, an anti-totalitarian socialism concerned above all to preserve individual freedoms. This conviction stems from his engagement during the Spanish Civil War.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Jean Birnbaum, Le Monde

[…] De 1943 à 1947, George Orwell tient une chronique hebdomadaire dans Tribune, un journal dont les idées se situent à la gauche du Parti travailliste. Intitulées A ma guise, ces chroniques traitent de sujets très divers, depuis l’arrivée du printemps jusqu’aux annonces matrimoniales, en passant par la fête de Noël, l’état de la presse, la hausse des prix ou encore l’antisémitisme. La plupart de ces textes étaient déjà disponibles en français, mais les éditions Agone ont eu la bonne idée d’en publier l’intégralité en un seul volume.

Semaine après semaine, Orwell pose sur ses semblables un regard à la fois généreux et franc. Il répond aux courriers de ses lecteurs, et par exemple à cette dame qui fait valoir que consacrer une chronique à l’éloge des rosiers revient à s’attarder sur un “sujet bourgeois”... De même n’hésite-t-il pas à mettre en garde les candidats au concours de nouvelles que lui et son journal ont organisé : “Je dois dire tout de suite que la grande majorité des cinq cents ou six cents nouvelles que nous avons reçues étaient, selon mon opinion, très mauvaises…”

Là encore, le chroniqueur prend soin de distinguer entre l’humilité du peuple et la morgue des puissants : si l’agressivité des receveurs d’autobus doit être mise au compte d’une “névrose provoquée par la guerre”, les propos xénophobes de deux hommes d’affaires s’expliquent avant tout, selon lui, par la “méchanceté active” liée à leur condition.

C’est un peu caricatural, dira-t-on. Oui, mais Orwell n’est ni philosophe ni sociologue. Pour lui, l’écriture n’a qu’une vocation : briser la solitude des hommes, les aider à créer des liens. “Comment rendre les gens conscients de ce qui se passe en dehors de leur petit cercle, voilà un des principaux problèmes de notre temps, et une nouvelle technique littéraire va devoir être inventée”, assure-t-il. Loin de former un programme doctrinal, ses textes désignent le point de fragilité propre à toute espérance socialiste : privée de son élément émotionnel, la révolution est sans âme ; coupée de ses ressources fraternelles, la politique est sans entrailles.

From 1943 to 1947, George Orwell wrote a weekly column for Tribune, a leftwing Labour Party newspaper. Entitled “As I Please”, they treat a wide range of topics, from the arrival of spring to wedding announcements, through Christmas, the state of the press, price increases and even anti-Semitism. Most of these pieces are already available in French, but Editions Agone have had the good idea to publish them in full in a single volume.

Week after week, Orwell is both generous and frank with his readers. He responds to letters from them, for example to a woman correspondent who argues that devoting a column to praising roses is to dwell on a "bourgeois subject" ... Similarly, he doesn’t hesitate to tell contestants in a short story competition he had organised for the paper: " I will say at once that of the five or six hundred stories that were sent in, the great majority were, in my judgment, very bad "

As a columnist he takes care to distinguish between the prejudices of the people and those of the powerful: if the aggressiveness of bus passengers must be put down to a "neurosis produced by the war", the xenophobia of two private businessmen is down primarily, he says, to their status making them "actively malignant".

It's a bit grotesque, to be honest. But Orwell is neither a philosopher nor a sociologist. For him, writing has a purpose: breaking the solitude of men, helping to create links. " This business of making people conscious of what is happening outside their own small circle is one of the major problems of our time, and a new literary technique will have to be evolved to meet it," he says. Far from forming a political doctrine, these articles show the fragility of any socialist hope. Deprived of its emotional element, the revolution has no soul; abandon solidarity, and politics has no heart.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Ian Pindar, Guardian

This excellent collection carries with it a characteristic aura of cigarettes, cups of strong brown tea and counting out one's change. It is peculiarly Orwellian, although it speaks of the lot of any jobbing freelance in the 1940s. His 80 "As I Please" columns are impressive, even before we discover that he was simultaneously writing Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. What contemporary columnist could produce a volume of such consistently high quality? And in contrast to modern practice, Orwell kept his private unhappiness out of his columns, preferring instead to discuss fascism, propaganda, V-2s, the railings around London squares, melons in Elizabethan literature and washing-up. It is the timbre of his voice that seduces: decent, plain-speaking, opinionated but fair-minded. Many anthology favourites are here ("Books v Cigarettes", "Decline of the English Murder"), as well as his most controversial column, accusing English left-wing intellectuals of being "boot-licking propagandist[s] of the Soviet regime".

Peter Robins, Daily Telegraph

"As I Please", the weekly column that George Orwell wrote for Tribune in the 1940s, shows him at his most attractive: in direct and economically humorous prose, he ranges from the Cornhill magazine to the future of warfare, always ready to argue seriously with readers' letters and unafraid to attack Tribune's advertisers. Orwell is not a wholly reliable prophet (on the verge of the baby boom, he worries about Britain's declining population) but this holds up better than most collections of fugitive pieces. Paul Anderson's notes clarify the occasional bouts of Fleet Street infighting.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Tom Templeton, Observer

George Orwell's war-time Tribune columns, published together for the first time here, provide a window on the grimy world of the Blitz. By the time the war started, Orwell had lived a bit: he'd already joined the Burma police, gone down and out in Paris and London and fought for a Marxist militia in the Spanish civil war. He'd settled into his easy, demotic writing style, and had the confidence of having predicted the war against fascism.
Between 1943 and 1947, the years these columns span, he wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and his journalism exhibits all the disdain for humbug, and the clarity and independence of thought that shine through his novels.

Many of his observations are as relevant today as they were in the forties: the snobbishness of advertising; the prevalence of faux-scientific superstition ("That a swan can break your leg with a blow of its wing"); the lame jokes in Punch ("Jokes that are funny usually contain that un-English thing, an idea"); and that perennial of the political commentator, the "quite fantastic ugliness" of most politicians.

In a famous piece on the dreariness of book reviewing he observes, "everyone in this world has someone else whom he can look down on ... the book reviewer is better off than the film critic." That might have changed, but with the benefit of 60 years of hindsight, Orwell's fabled prophetic powers seem in good nick. Worried that no objective account of the second world war will ever exist, he anticipates - in a feat of deduction based on the creation of the atomic bomb - the prospect of a couple of superpowers "in a permanent state of cold war", and calls for a European Union to spare Britain from having to choose between them.

Orwell can be profoundly moving too. On the subject of utopias he concludes that the real objective of socialism is not happiness but brotherhood: "Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles ... not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another."