Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-05-21
- Reviewer: Staff
Reviewed by David Brooks. George Orwell has become a literary saint because of his moral commitment and intellectual honesty. In his diaries, edited by Davison (co-editor of Orwell’s Complete Works), you see those two virtues coming into formation. In the early part of his career, Orwell spent much of his time living down and out with the poor, recording their habits and conversations, and his own efforts to stay nourished and alive. Orwell made judgments to himself, and his tone could be especially nasty when a Jew did something he disapproved of. But in general he is not in a judging mode, and he is certainly not describing his inner feelings. He often simply notes things: how much dried milk poor mothers get, how much beer they serve their children, what coffee shops allow tramps to sit undisturbed.The highlight of these diaries is the years of WWII. The diaries show Orwell working through the ideas that became Animal Farm. He spent the middle of the war years churning out propaganda at the BBC, and compares life there to “something halfway between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum.... Our radio strategy is even more hopeless than our military strategy.” But at the same time, Orwell was thinking deeply about the world of spin and propaganda. At one point, he notes: “All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth.” In April 1942, he despairs: “We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgment have simply disappeared from the face of the earth.” The diaries are not always scintillating reading. Orwell’s journal entries can be described as horror interrupted by gardening. For long stretches, he simply records the weather, how the beans are coming in, how much weeding he did. But when times got hard, his pen came alive—in the 1930s with the poor, in the early 1940s during the war, and in the late 1940s, as he grew ill. The characteristic Orwell voice is there—the intense clarity, the obsessive need to get some sort of honest rendering of reality. This book is not for beginners. It is for Orwell aficionados who already know the man’s life. Christopher Hitchens (Why Orwell Matters), who followed so faithfully and well in his footsteps, provides a fine introduction. Despite the longueurs, it is a pleasure to be around Orwell’s mind and his perfectly clear prose style. Illus. Agent: Bill Hamilton, AM Heath, U.K. (Aug.) David Brooks is an op-ed columnist at the New York Times and author of The Social Animal.
The man behind Big Brother
Some sources maintain that 1984 and Animal Farm together have sold more copies than any two books by a 20th-century author. Whether or not that is a verifiable truth, it speaks to George Orwell’s enduring importance as a writer that such a claim could even be made. Consider the writers whose sales he is being measured against: Proust, Joyce, Hemingway, James, Mann, etc.—a lengthy and formidable list to be sure. Given that these works are tied to a political reality that crumbled two decades ago, it is a testament to Orwell’s extraordinary talent that we still find his books so riveting and relevant.
Pre-eminent Orwell scholar Peter Davison tells us that the writer, whose real name, of course, was Eric Blair, was against the notion of his biography being written. So it is ironic, Davison points out, that Orwell’s Diaries “offer a virtual autobiography of his life and opinions.” These diaries, which cover the years 1931 to 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, at the age of 46), are being published in the U.S. for the first time, nearly three years after appearing in the U.K. Christopher Hitchens, a great admirer of Orwell, supplies an introduction—his last commissioned piece before his own untimely death in December 2011.
Orwell's diaries offer a glimpse of one of the 20th century's most original minds.
Diary entries are, by nature, spontaneous and unpolished, although some of these were typed up by Orwell’s wife from his handwritten notes, suggesting that they may have “improved” in the process (Davison has preserved much of Orwell’s idiosyncratic spelling and grammar). No matter; the writing retains a casual quality, while still capturing Orwell’s genius for a certain kind of descriptive, politically attuned prose.
The diaries parallel some of his better-known books (although not, alas, his two most famous). They begin with his exploits living rough and picking hops in Kent, learning firsthand how poor, migrant agricultural workers lived. His yearning to observe and report carries over to the journals of his time spent among coal miners in the north—the source material for The Road to Wigan Pier—and a trip to Morocco during the Spanish Civil War that informed Homage to Catalonia.
Some of the most absorbing entries come from the war years (Orwell was rejected for military service because of poor health, but worked as a journalist and for the Overseas Service of the BBC). They capture the keen socio-political perception that is on full display in his best published writing. “The unconscious treacherousness of the British ruling class in what is in effect a class war is too obvious to be worth mentioning,” he writes in June 1940, adding that, “with individual exceptions . . . the entire British aristocracy is utterly corrupt and lacking in ordinary patriotism, caring in fact for nothing except preserving their own standards of life.”
By retaining the authenticity of Orwell’s original, the Diaries include a fair amount of chaff—weather reports, gardening and husbandry records—that has little significance beyond showing us the true nature of this man, who, Davison points out, was an inveterate writer of lists. There are also many charming line drawings, reproduced as Orwell sketched them. It is easy enough to skim the domestic ephemera, though, and get to the heart of the matter: the evolution of one of the most important writers of his time.