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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.