George Orwell's ambiguous place in the hearts of the English is a curiosity. Why are we not all queuing to adore and pay homage? The case in favour is obvious. To read even one of Orwell's minor essays is not just to savour a uniquely lucid and limpid literary style, but to be confronted with all that is most sensible and good in human beings. Orwell embodied decency, honesty, plain speaking and common sense. He was brave. He despised cant (the decline of the use of the word is a sign of its ubiquity, not the reverse). He advocated writing that was clear as a protection against the deceptions peddled by politicians ("If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxyI and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself"). He denounced oppression, whoever the guilty party, and was acutely sensitive to hypocrisy and lies (although just how sensitive is contentious - Ben Pimlott: "Orwell sniffs orthodoxy at a 100 yards"; Timothy Garton Ash: "He can spot a double standard at 500 yards"). Blessed with so many virtues, he capped them all with humility. Although Christopher Hitchens in Orwell's Victory rejects the description, Orwell was regarded by some who knew him as a saint - and if the word is divorced from God or church, it is not an inappropriate epithet. At any rate, are these not qualities everyone can celebrate?
No, of course not. We do not warm to paragons of virtue. Orwell's standards were impossibly high. Anyone that good must be pious, we feel. By getting shot in the throat fighting against fascists in Spain, thereafter suffering chronic ill health and expiring shortly after completing that book of dire warning, Nineteen Eighty-Four , Orwell left a nasty suspicion that he died to save us all. Orwell blew the whistle on the 20th century, but like all whistleblowers the thanks he gets includes a large measure of opprobrium. An industry has grown around scrutinising Orwell's shining armour for chinks. Did he really shoot an elephant? Did he submit a blacklist of fellow travellers to a Foreign Office department? Could an Old Etonian know anything about the working classes? Hasn't the collapse of Soviet Russia negated Nineteen Eighty-Four ?
Hitchens looks to North Korea to vindicate Nineteen Eighty-Four , but he need not have gone so far. He also shows how the animosity towards Orwell largely originates in his insistence - incomprehensible to many people today - on telling the truth as he saw it, which inevitably required him to offend all sorts of interests and shibboleths. The leftwing intelligentsia of his day, pro-Soviet Russia and anti-England, guilty in Orwell's eyes of a fondness for orthodoxy and susceptible to power worship, came in for a special drubbing. "It is unquestionably true, that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during 'God Save the King' than of stealing from a poor box," wrote Orwell - for a saint he could be awfully wicked. The right fared no better. Such a patriot and violent anti-communist must surely be of their number; but his patriotism was open-eyed not jingoistic, the qualities he ascribed to the English at best a mixed bag ("artistic insensibility, gentleness, respect for legality, suspicion of foreigners, sentimentality about animals, hypocrisy, exaggerated class distinctions, and an obsession with sport"), and in any case he supported the emergence of a "classless, ownerless society" in England.
In fact, any politician who clutches Orwell to his bosom soon finds out he is a porcupine. "[A]cceptance of any political discipline seems to be incompatible with literary integrity," he claimed, and probably would not have balked at leaving out the "literary". It could not be otherwise. Orwell was spectacularly off-message - any message. As Hitchens says, he was "the outstanding English example of the dissident intellectual who preferred above all other allegiance the loyalty to truth". His final offence was to die without the well-stuffed bank account even socialists like to end up with. "Money has become the grand test of virtue," Orwell wrote in 1933, opening the way for millions to judge him vicious.
In Orwell's Victory , Hitchens lines up some of the more outspoken Orwell doubters and gratifyingly shoots them down. A particular bête noire is the late Raymond Williams, author of Culture and Society , with whom Hitchens has crossed swords in previous polemics. He persuasively demonstrates that Williams was willing to suspend academic impartiality when writing about Orwell, and suggests why that might have been. Other opponents - Claude Simon, Edward Said, E. P. Thompson - are similarly tossed and gored. Whether Orwell needs such protection is debatable, but Hitchens clearly has fun nailing the doubters, and it is fun to read too.
Other chapters deal with Orwell and England, Orwell and feminism, that "blacklist", Orwell's novels and Orwell's fate at the hands of postmodernists. Orwell as literary critic is somewhat underrepresented, which may be related to the only serious criticism Hitchens has to make of his subject. This occurs when two of the planets in Hitchens's heavens collide: Orwell and W. H. Auden. Both have permanent spots in the Hitchens literary pantheon, but Orwell tactlessly starts a domestic squabble by taking exception to Auden's reference to the "necessary murder" in his poem "Spain", published in 1937. It is an ugly concept that Orwell was right to comment on; but Hitchens reacts by rushing to Auden's defence with the sort of biased critical language (Orwell "took venomous aim" and "sneered") for which he has previously censured Williams. Why would Orwell suddenly abandon the standards of fairness cherished by Hitchens just to have a pop at Hitchens's favourite poet? It is the partiality of Hitchens, not Orwell, that is in question, but it does not seriously mar an entertaining book that overflows with thorough argument and conscientious research. Hitchens is no saint: but perhaps there are no saints any more.
Christopher Wood is a freelance journalist.
Author - Christopher Hitchens
ISBN - 0 713 99584 X
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £9.99
Pages - 150