Vol.1 In an Age Like This 1920-1940.
This book is the first part of a four volume series which includes letters, essays, book reviews and journals. This series is a good overview of Orwell's thought life and should be read before any systematic review of his works. They were edited by Orwell's last wife Sonia(reputed to be a gold digger by some)and include a good chronological appendix. The book is better edited than many essay collections of Orwell's works in that it has a detailed appendix giving some historical context to this collection of journals, book reviews, essays and letters.
Prefaced sections would have made the collection more readable to those not familar with the historical context of the writings. Orwell's letters show the compassion he often did not expressed in his writings. They always show concern and restraint in his professional and personal dealings.There are alot of letters to his early mentor Eleanor Jaques.
One letter in particular to his first publisher with whom he had serious legal problems shows no hint of resentment only kindness. Is is possible that we can know more about a man's personal life from his daily habits and expressions than from any professed ideology?
The collection of essays in this volume show us the forgotten legacy of Orwell as a descriptive writer that should have surpassed his mediocre novels. The Orwell of Depression era England seems more relevant today than the Cold War era Orwell of "1984" and "Animal Farm". The essays provide rich background material for those who wish to analyze Orwell's books. Source material for "Homage to Catalona" can be found in the essay "Spilling the Spanish Beans". An essay on common lodging houses tells us about the squalor of working class life in the coal districts...source material for "The Road to Wigan Pier". An essay about hanging tells us about the brutality of colonialism, later written about in Orwell's novel about Burma, "Burmese Days."
Some essays on societal issues show a disturbing lack of insight that I have noticed in some of Orwell's writings. "My Country Right or Left" written in August 1940, talks about a future revolutionary England that seemingly can not ever come into being. Orwell tells us it was an everyday reality to feel patriotism towards Chamberlain and for the future society that is to emerge. Shortly later, Orwell tells us about the red militas " billeted at the Ritz" and London gutters filled with blood. Orwell in the same paragraph tells us that... Only revolution can save England...but now that the revolution has started, and it may proceed quite quickly if only we can keep Hitler out. Was Orwell's "revolution" the election of Winston Churchill? In another essay, not in this book, Orwell talks about an emerging technocracy that would replace the peerage class system with a post war technical elite springing from the old working class...young Bomber Command pilots who will form a new elite and vote in the welfare state. This second revolution is not the first type nor is it in line with orthodox Communist thought nor is it even logical to posit two things as being true at once. Orwell described himself as a democratic socialist "as far as I understand what that means," yet did his rejection of dialectical materialism include a rejection of intellectual depth?
The reader will find the books reviews interesting as source material for future reading as well as an interesting time capsule into long forgotten controversies and popular culture. One review on a book written by the Dutchess of Atholl "Searchlight on Spain" reminds us of the odd radicalism of the english ruling class during the Depression. The duchess was pro-Soviet. Interestingly, the Mitford family produced the pro-Nazi Unity, who died during the Depression, and the pro-Red Jessica who haunted Cold War society. The reviews on Henry Miller selections seem to show an adversion to surreal and abstract subject matter. Orwell's essay on Dali, in another book, dismisses Dali as a crank and seems to avoid any detailed discussion of surrealism- a popular subject in the 1930's. A book review on Sarte in another collection avoids a discussion of existentialism. Orwell claimed simply that he did not understand Sarte. Was Orwell revealing a tendency towards mental sloth?
A journal Orwell kept of his Road to Wigan Pier experiences should be read before reading the book as an interesting travel journal on hop picking during the Depression. The hop picking journal appears in "The Clergyman's Daughter". This collection reveals much about a man who influenced the century he lived in, and a time that had a profound impact on ours.
Is it posible to know more about somebody from his small personal habits and viewpoints than any professed ideology? The material in these four collections contain many of the source material for Orwell's novels and reveal his lost genius as a gifted journalist and essayist. The Orwell of "1984" and "Animal Farm" fame seems strangely dated by the end of the Cold War; the Orwell in this collection strangely relevant by the current economic crisis. More historical footnotes would have been welcome in this collection.
Readers will find the hop picking episode in "A Clergyman's Daughter" outlined in journal format. The Spike...part of a system of temporary soup kitchens that dotted England. The Clink...a Depression era drunk tank which was featured in "Keep The Aspridistra Flying" as was the essay Bookshop Memories. The journal describing the grim details of coal miners lives and the economic benefit of coal mining was later incorporated into "The Road to Wigan Pier." In "Spilling the Spanish Beans" a brief essay on the crazy quilt of spanish politics almost midway into the Spanish Civil War gives insight into "Homage to Catalonia". Orwell on occassion in his writings reveals a dark sense of humor. I remember his refering to a Spike inmate as "a typical YMCA coco drunkard."
These richly detailed essays made otherwise weak novels interesting to read and journalism books like "Homage to Catalonia" masterpieces.
Orwell was always willing to live with his causes. Orwell's empathy with the outcasts of civilization belied a deep compassion which he could never communicate in his writings, but which his life bore stark testimony. Near the end...his body wracked by TB...he adopted a small boy, Richard, whom he never gave up. Sonia never took any interest in Richard's life after Orwell's death. The letters in this book show the deep concern and consideration Orwell showed for others.
The book reviews in this volume are rich time capsules of life and controversy in Depression era England. Orwell's review of "Searchlight on Spain" by the Dutchess of Atholl reminds me of the strange radicalism of the ruling class in England which Jessica Mitford later showed as an ardent Communist,and her sister Unity showed as a Nazi.
Some book reviews show a disturbing superficiality which marks Orwell's tackling of abstract subjects. An Authur Miller book "Black Spring" seems to be dismissed because it represents surrealism as did an essay in another book on Dali. Sarte was also dismissed quickly in a latter collection because Orwell confessed little understanding about existentialism. Was Orwell being a little too honest about himself?
An essay " My Country Right or Left" seems to expouse a Socialism without any dialetic or reason to come into being:
Only revolution can save England, that has been obvious for years, but now that revolution has started, it may proceed quite quickly if only if we can keep Hitler out.
That was written in August 1940. What revolution was Orwell talking about? The election of Churchill? Orwell quickly expoused loyalty to Chamberlain and loyalty to future revolutionary England as an "everyday phenomenon." This radical new type of reactionary revolution required more systematic thought than Orwell ever gave to it. Orwell's rejection of dialectic materialism in favor of democratic socialism "as far as I understand what that means" deserved more explaination to avoid a credibility gap which Orwell never overcame.
Orwell may have been refering to a class upheaval created by the technological demands of war, but many passages are not clear on this point. One example cited was young Bomber Command pilots becoming part of a post war technocracy that would alter the old peerage class system, but this is not the revolution of "red militas billeted at the Ritz" or the bloody London gutters Orwell sometimes refers to. Was Orwell's rift with Communism a function of his own lack of understanding as much as a principled stand?
This collection gives us much to ponder about a time that shaped the later part of the century Orwell lived in and one he helped define.
Vol.2 My Country Right or Left 1940-1943.
The war time diaries dating from May 1940 to November 1942 are my most treasured readings in this series. They are difficult to put down. The massacre at Lidice was actually announced to the english by german wireless! The general public in England seemed fairly non-involved as to the daily progress of the War.
Orwell's review of Mein Kampf was interesting in that it shows a subdued admiration of Hilter an his appeal to the german people to suffer rather than the hedonism that Capitalism and Socialism offered the english. Interesting perspective.
"The Lion and the Unicorn" had the same weakness that "My Country Right or Left" had above. The essays Orwell wrote on sociological issues suffer from a strange myopia. The revolution he predicted for England seems to exist inside a theorectical vacuum. Orwell's essays on language have an endearing giant quality to them typlified in "Literature and Totalitarianism"...the begining of 1984 newspeak...perhaps.
The letter to the editor of Time and Tide shows Orwell the Home Guard leader giving detailed military advice on the defense of England. Perhaps he was reverting to the old police days in Burma?
Vol.3 As I Please 1943-1945.
This volume speaks volumes for Orwell.
One letter to Gelb Stuve in this book stands out. Mr. Stuve had given Orwell a large set of russian books. Orwell confessed almost no knowlege of russian literature, but thanked him for a copy of "We.""We" is about a future dystopian state and became the model for "1984."
Orwell often reviewed obscure works which is a blessing to those who are looking for hard to find authors. A review of the macabre poetry of W.H. Davies is interesting simply because I have never heard of him until reading Orwell.
The greatest collection in this book is by far the old Op-Ed page written in the Tribune "As I Please." The page was broken into two to three parts each covering a seperate subject. This edition excluded some of these sections without any notations as to what was excluded...too bad. The selections include debates with pacifists, comments on the introduction of the first V2 rockets to London..." my house is still rocking", romance ads in english newspapers. These articles were enjoyed by readers every morning over a nice cup of tea. Buying roses at Woolworth's...the pictures never matched the color that bloomed...techniques of beer pouring in pubs. A treasure of english wartime pop culture.
The essays are, likewise, precious the popular art of tea making in a clay pot with leaves...never use bags. The disappearence of genuine english food...thus the humor associated with english cooking. The characteristics of an ideal pub...it does not exist anywhere.
One essay "The English People" suffers the simplicity problem that characterizes his sociological essays, but it is still good reading.
I am reading this book for enjoyment along with a strong cup of tea. Why don't you do the same?
I used a tea bag.
Vol.4 In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950.
The last book in this four part series. Perhaps the saddest. Orwell was nearing the end of his days as a victim of TB. Orwell had adopted a small boy Richard and refused to give him back for adoption depite the rigors of TB. The selection shows the Cold War Orwell of "Animal Farm" and "1984" in essays, book reviews and letters.
One essay on James Burnham is interesting because of Burnham's geopolitical views which were seen to be totaliarian and yet transfered him into the mainstream conservative movement in america as an assistant editor of The National Review. Orwell continued his dogged resistence to the Soviet Union against many on the Left who continued to see Communism as a progressive force because it was anti-capitalist.
There are entertaining essays and letters here with no shortage of chatty "As I Please" Op-Ed pages. An entertaining essay on the toad population in Orwell's garden was a repite from some of the ideological stuff that gets a bit thick. "The Cost of Paper" gives us insights into the dislocations caused by the War as late as 1946.
Orwell's review of Churchill's book "Their Finest Hour" is his last review and corresponds very closely with the war diaries he wrote(mentioned above). The review ends with 1940 and establishes Orwell in the odd position of a leftist who was a Churchill apologist or at least considered him a loveable figurehead made necessary by war.
The letters to Cecia Kirwan are particulary interesting because it was revealed years later that she was an intelligence operative who collected data on media figures thought to be Soviet agents. Orwell's letters indicate persistent atempts to invite her to Jura after she sent him a bottle of brandy. Recently released files show that Orwell gave the government information on friends who had possible links to the Soviet Union. Did Ms. Kirwan romance Orwell for informationn despite the large age diffrence between them?
The last entries are quite sad and come from a journal kept on his death bed. The last entry dated 17 April 1949 states " At 50, everyone has the face he deserves."
Well worth the time to read. I hope I don't sound trite.