Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy, by John Rodden

Andrew Palmer is unimpressed by a critic whose style falls far short of the writer he so admires

February 20, 2020
George Orwell
Source: Getty

When Donald Trump was elected president of the US, sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four rocketed, a phenomenon that prompts John Rodden to reconsider the history of its author’s reputation. He offers interesting material on the role of chance, arguing that George Orwell’s early death was perfectly timed, and highlights some unlikely champions – notably the Catholic journal Commonweal. However, despite elaborate claims on the back cover (from two eminent critics, also named in the acknowledgements as “old friends”), there is no convincing attention to literary matters in 300 pages. A section on Orwell’s essay “A Hanging” offers lengthy quotations interspersed with descriptive paraphrase. The resulting summary, at six pages, is roughly the same length as the essay it describes; one would do better to simply read “A Hanging”. Rodden goes on to speculate whether the essay is fact or fiction, coming to the unsurprising conclusion that it’s a bit of both. Having concluded this, he reopens the debate five pages later…and arrives again at the same conclusion, like Winnie-the-Pooh on a Woozle hunt.

I take permission to be frank from Rodden’s own unkindness to other critics. He knocks Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick for being “weak on literary and stylistic matters”. Pot and kettle, I’m afraid. Rodden is happier when treating creative writing as a competitive sport: Orwell, he proclaims with vicarious pride, is “the most influential writer who has ever lived”. Several chapters seek to make connections between Orwell and his contemporaries. For example, Rodden makes much of the fact that Orwell and the novelist Jean Malaquais joined the same militia in the Spanish Civil War. This is an interesting nugget, certainly – but it turns out that Malaquais wrote nothing about Spain, so the chapter ends rather lamely; the coincidence is of little consequence. Rodden begins by claiming an “uncanny resemblance” and ends by marvelling at “the yawning gulf between the two men”. In another somewhat unconvincing chapter, Rodden tries to square his Orwell-worship with his Catholicism. He argues that Orwell was, despite his vigorous atheism, “a religious writer” because he expresses “Christian values” – implying that all decent impulses are in essence Christian and that only Christians wish for a kinder world.

The book is bewilderingly repetitive. It also reprises several ideas from Rodden’s numerous earlier books on Orwell. Scare quotes are applied to excuse ideas that don’t work, as in the phrase “The Orwell ‘paradox’ ” (it either is a paradox or it isn’t) and the description of Orwell as “every intellectual’s ‘big brother’ ”, a strange misuse of his famous phrase that shears it from its context. One might hope, from an Orwell acolyte, for clarity of expression. Orwell wrote that “Good prose is like a windowpane”, but Rodden’s windowpane is in need of a good scrub. Most perplexing is the use of metaphor. Where Orwell skewers his target with a pointed comparison, Rodden misfires. This happens even as he praises Orwell’s style: “It is…so fresh, direct, and clear that we feel we are holding audiobooks of our own making.” How does one hold an audiobook? Why “of our own making”? While there are moments of interest in this volume, it has the feel of a work in progress, which makes for a less than satisfying reading experience.

Andrew Palmer is principal lecturer in modern literature at Canterbury Christ Church University and co-author, with Sally Minogue, of The Remembered Dead: Poetry, Memory and the First World War (2018).


Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy
By John Rodden
Princeton University Press, 384pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780691182742
Published 25 February 2020

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Windowpane that sheds no light

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