Orwell's every word

The Complete Works of George Orwell

July 24, 1998

In many ways, George Orwell's image has grown as eerily omnipresent as that of Big Brother. A tall, average-looking man with a two-day facial growth, loosely attired in dungarees and flannel work shirt, he either gazes frankly into the camera lens, or averts his gaze just slightly, as if embarrassed by all the attention. His name, meanwhile, conjures up many abstract human qualities, especially to those who haven't read him. "Orwell", as in honest, brave, individualistic, and all that's good about the British people. "Orwellian", on the other hand, stands for everything Orwell spoke against: totalitarianism, fascism, bad faith, and the dictatorship that would have resulted had either Stalin or Hitler won the war. By embodying his own contradictions, Orwell's presence on corporate-owned book store shelves assures everybody that the Good Guys really triumphed. See, his books imply, freedom is the order of the day. Maybe nobody listened to him then, but everybody listens to him now.

Like Jack London, Orwell represents that moment in history when the airy abstraction of poetry came down to earth and walked like a man. It wore real trousers, drank real ale, performed real labour, and sensibly struggled in the wide, all-encompassing arena of realpolitik. And while Orwell's name may figure prominently on most A-level syllabuses, students can usually get away with reciting a few fundamentals, such as that Orwell took "urban rides" into Paris slums, Yorkshire mining camps and Spanish trenches, then went home and wrote memorable books about his experiences. In other words, he is more often remembered for being a great man than for writing great books. Orwell himself would not have welcomed this development.

The latest evidence that Orwell has become something of a monument to himself is the exhaustively researched, generally engrossing, and preposterously over-inclusive 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison. The books are handsomely set and bound, cost a good arm and a leg, and are decorated with a graffiti-like "O" on each darkly wrapped front cover. The cornerstone of this edition is an 11-volume collection of Orwell's journalism and letters which, along with nine volumes of fiction, have been carefully edited to restore Orwell's "original intentions".

The first volume of prose (volume 10 of the overall edition), entitled A Kind of Compulsion 1903-1935, includes numerous childhood letters from the then Eric Blair to his mum, schoolboy sketches, poems, playlets, and one particularly rousing tale of suspense titled "The Vernon Murders", which was found scrawled in a petty cash book while its author was still a teenage student at Eton. ("It was a stiflingly hot eveningI The air was full of evil suggestions, of thoughts of murder.") These exuberant writings fill nearly a hundred pages of text, and require little more from the most devoted Orwellian than a fast skim. There follow a series of fragments that may or may not have been written during Blair's unhappy years in Burma's imperial police, and some sketchy early political journalism from his Paris apprenticeship of the late 1920s.

By the end of volume 10 (which contains more than 300 letters, reviews and even galley corrections), Blair has changed his name to provide a libel-free byline for his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, and returned to England where he earns his perilous living as a full-time writer. From this point on, he publishes 80,000 to 100,000 words of journalism each year, and reviews hundreds of books, films and plays over the course of a decade. The man we know of as George Orwell is born.

These impressive volumes supersede the earlier Collected Essays, edited by Ian Angus and Sheila Orwell. But where the 1968 edition was designed to be read, the Davison edition is designed to be studied, and includes everything Orwell ever wrote, regardless of merit. Like many scholarly efforts in our information age, the Davison edition never attempts to lend narrative coherence to its subject's life. Rather it simply files, lists, tabulates and indexes every available fact or document. It is not necessarily a "better" edition than the Collected Essays. But it is undoubtedly more comprehensive.

Where the Angus-Orwell edition contains 68 selected reviews, the Davison edition reprints all 379 that Orwell wrote, some of which existed only in typescript until now. The Angus-Orwell edition contains 169 articles and essays, some expurgated to provide clarity of subject; the Davison includes 263 articles without removing a single word or squiggle of punctuation. And where the Angus-Orwell edition contains 226 letters, the Davison stirs in hundreds more, many of which are as succinct and unilluminating as the following note to Cyril Connolly on July 13, 1942, when Orwell was talks producer for the BBC: Dear Cyril, Did Anand ask you about reading a poem in our forthcoming magazine program "Voice"? You might let me know as we want to get the program all sewn up as soon as possible.

Yours, (Initialled) E.A.B.

Eric Blair

Or this even briefer note to John Middleton Murray, dated April 12, 1946: Dear Murray, Thanks very much. I'll be there on April 24th at 7.15.

All in all, the earlier edition contains more than 400 numbered entries. The Davison edition, however, contains nearly 4,000, including lists of books Orwell owned, meticulous descriptions of his financial statements, fragments of uncompleted prose and itemised notices of every time one of his essays or books was reprinted, translated or condensed for Reader's Digest. In short, the four-volume Angus-Orwell edition is solid enough to hold open that annoying door between the reception and den. But the Davison edition is capable of propping up any mid-size car on the road today for a tyre rotation and lube.

As the formidable data mounts up, the question arises: is all this additional material actually worth reading? The answer is simple. Much of it is not; much of it is. If we stick to the year 1940, for example, the Davison edition provides many unexpected bonuses. For one, it transmits a genuine sense of Orwell's wide grasp and prodigious industry. Although most writers might publish occasional pieces on specific subjects that interest them, Orwell made his living as a journalist and freely reviewed anything that came his way. Detective novels, literary novels, thrillers, science fiction, biography, history, sociology, you name it. Books that were supposed to be good but were not, and books that were supposed to be bad, but turned out to be a lot better than they looked. It was an excellent education for a man who loved books, and who possessed a healthy mistrust for the specious literary reputations assigned by what he called the "book racket". Orwell could not have found a better profession for allowing him to do what he loved: learn. He was not a man who liked to live with (or be too ashamed of) his misconceptions.

It is interesting to note Orwell's judgements on books by writers as diverse as Faulkner, Wodehouse, B. Traven, Nevil Shute, Upton Sinclair and even Aldous Huxley, and to hear his thoughts on Chaplin's classic film, The Great Dictator.

The most impressive aspect of these volumes, however, is that taken in their entirety, they suggest that Orwell may never have written anything resembling a bad sentence. Though at times he can be rather summary in his judgments, he is almost never pretentious or vain. And even when he is being dismissive, as in his evaluation of Denis Saurat's Milton: Man and Thinker, he rarely wastes words, and never neglects an opportunity to laugh: "This book with all its learning, does not remove the impression that Milton, considered as anything except a poet, was an uninteresting person." Orwell's opinions are often debatable, but unlike those of most reviewers, they always seem to be genuinely felt.

Some of the Davison volumes, however, prove pretty tough going, especially 13 through 15, documenting Orwell's years as news commentator for the BBC. In fact, after wading through all this administrative bumf, it is not surprising to learn that Orwell based his Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four on the years he spent trying to keep people informed on a government-sponsored radio station. There are also times when Davison seems in too big a hurry to add a hitherto neglected item to the canon, such as his inclusion of an essay titled: "Can socialists be happy?" which was originally published under the name John Freeman. "Freeman" is the sort of nom de plume Orwell might have relished, and the essay does refer to many of Orwell's favourite subjects. But it is also just about the worst piece of writing in this entire edition, studded with the sort of wooden, thesis-driven paragraphs you might expect from a class in freshman composition. As Davison provides no compelling evidence that this essay must have been written by Orwell, the world could probably live without it.

But even when these volumes seem bloated and extraneous, they continually provide insight into Orwell's very sensible working life. He is meticulous in his records, for example, and, unlike most novelists, competent with money. At all times his prose is rooted in the sensual particularity of daily life. And he seems as capable of running a review page as he is of changing a nappy, selling eggs at the market or preparing his taxes. "I have a sort of belly to earth attitude and always feel uneasy when I get away from the ordinary world where grass is green, stones hard etc.," he wrote in 1936. For Orwell, even literary metaphors should have hard edges to them, and not drift too far off the ground. And the worst thing that can happen to anybody is to become, or believe in, an abstraction.

Like many critics, Orwell praised in other writers what he wished other critics might praise in him. Which is probably why he developed an early appreciation for the "banned" books of Henry Miller. "The interest of Tropic of Cancer," Orwell writes in a 1936 review, "was that it cast a kind of bridge across the frightful gulf which exists, in fiction, between the intellectual and the man-in-the-street.I Books about ordinary people behaving in an ordinary manner are extremely rare, because they can only be written by someone who is capable of standing both inside and outside the ordinary man, as Joyce for instance stands inside and outside Bloom; but this involves admitting that you yourself are an ordinary person for nine-tenths of the time, which is exactly what no intellectual ever wants to do." To be "ordinary" was not contemptible to Orwell. It was something to which he aspired.

For the most part, Orwell's sense of fairness was his most rigorous attribute. He tried to respect the good work done by people he did not like, and even to like the sometimes decent people whose work he did not admire. (He even has a few kind words to say about Stalin and Hitler.) In contrast, it is hard to think of any contemporary left-wing scholar who would offer such spirited defences of artists as ideologically diverse as Wodehouse, Dali, Kipling and Pound, simply because he enjoyed reading them.

The most controversial item in this edition is the list of "fellow travellers" Orwell provided the IRD in 1949, just before he died of tuberculosis. And it is possible he was not even moved by the most noble of motives - one of the people he named was an editorial consultant at Cape who rejected Animal Farm, and some of the others (Spender, Priestley, Steinbeck) sound like petty literary back-biting. But the last thing Orwell should be remembered for is perfection. There is certainly no writer who questioned his own motives more harshly than he did.

In the end, Orwell was not a statue in the park, but simply a man who had things to say and who said them at every available opportunity. His novels were not always successful. His essays were not always persuasive. And his actions may not have always conformed to the highest ideals he set for himself. At his best, however, he never presumed to be better than he was. And even at his worst, he wrote some of the best prose of his generation. This handsome new edition of his work provides an excellent opportunity for readers to go back and discover (or rediscover) his best work for themselves.

Scott Bradfield is associate professor of American literature, the University of Connecticut.

The Complete Works of George Orwell

Editor - Peter Davison
ISBN - 0 436 20377 4
Publisher - Secker and Warburg
Price - £620.00
Pages - 8,500 (20 volumes)

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