The Essential Orwell

Frank Kermode

  • George Orwell: A Life by Bernard Crick
    Secker, 473 pp, £10.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 436 11450 X
  • Class, Culture and Social Change: A New View of the 1930s edited by Frank Gloversmith
    Harvester, 285 pp, £20.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 85527 938 9
  • Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties edited by Jon Clark, Margot Heinemann, David Margolies and Carole Snee
    Lawrence and Wishart, 279 pp, £3.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 85315 419 8

Professor Crick’s subject is important and his research has evidently been diligent. We now know a lot more about Orwell than we did, and the increment of knowledge is not always trivial. Why, then, is it impossible to commend this book with warmth? For two main reasons: first, in a work of such length the prevalence of carelessly written pages is a strong disincentive to continuing (and of course they are shown up all the more by their proximity to quotations from Orwell); and secondly, Orwell was a literary figure as well as a political thinker, and Crick’s literary touch is far from certain.

Take, for instance, the conclusion. It is sententious, but we may feel that two hundred thousand laborious words have earned the author the right to pontificate on the final page. ‘ “Our prerogatives as men,” wrote the young Auden, “Will be cancelled who knows when ... ?”, if we cannot radically alter our relationships with public power; but neither a transformed nor a reformed public realm will be worth having if individual creative values do not flourish, indeed fructify in abundance for the majority of people, not just for the chosen or even the self-chosen few ... ’ Crick often praises Orwell’s style, and even observes its progressive refinement. He must have been conscious throughout of a formidable reader over his shoulder: but he evidently did not ask himself how many faults Orwell would have found in that sentence. And there are many passages worse than that one, sentences that flop randomly onto the page, or make sense only by an act of charity on the part of the reader. I’ve chosen this one because it also contains a factual inaccuracy. The verses quoted were written not by the young Auden but by the young MacNeice, who went on to say that he was writing these lines ‘before/The gun butt raps upon the door’ – an encounter less abstract than ‘relationships with public power’. The poet is to that extent more Orwellian than Crick. As it happens, MacNeice’s poem is a poor one, but we remember it because he often wrote well, and because he, sometimes more accurately than Auden, caught the mood and posture of that moment, expressed a foreboding necessarily a bit spurious in the face of fears not yet capable of being fully imagined.

Other writers also suffer from Crick’s difficulty in reporting literature. Spotting a source for a famous line in Animal Farm, he misquotes Milton (‘And render me more equal, and perhaps,/A thing not undesirable, sometime [not something]/Superior ...’). Moreover it is untrue to say that ‘Orwell was to put this thought more pithily in Animal Farm.’ Eve is talking about the possible advantages of withholding her forbidden knowledge from Adam, not about totalitarian perversions of democracy. It is even more reprehensible for a professor of politics to misquote Hobbes’s most famous remark, about the horrors of living at a time when there is no state power to keep men in awe. The catalogue ends with the words: ‘And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. There are five partners in this ghastly firm, and to leave out ‘poore’ is to destroy the rhythm that made it memorable in the first place.

So it is not surprising that Crick has little of interest to say about Orwell’s achievement as a critic of literature. The essay on ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ is described as ‘a profound comparison of the didacticism of Tolstoy with the tolerant humanism of Shakespeare’, and indeed it is profound: but if you are doing Orwell in some depth you surely need to add that it is also, in some respects, profoundly silly (‘One wicked daughter would have been quite enough, and Edgar is a superfluous character; indeed it would probably be a better play if Gloucester and both his sons were eliminated’). This kind of thing is interesting because it shows that Orwell, in his literary criticism as in his other writing, sometimes yielded to the temptation of saying too much. Crick quite often catches him doing so. In one of the wartime London Letters to Partisan Review Orwell reported that when the authorities tore down railings for scrap they ravaged working-class parks and squares but left upper-class ones alone. When his wife pointed out that this allegation was demonstrably false, he answered that it was ‘essentially true’, rather as he accused pacifists of being ‘objectively Fascist’. Sometimes from ignorance, sometimes from a pamphleteer’s sense of the need for emphatic illustration, Orwell quite often said the thing that is not, quite. Getting some things wrong (or only essentially right) was probably the price he paid for getting some hugely important things right – the nature of totalitarianism, for instance. The struggle to get that vision of evil across, to give it very sharp definition, may be what led him to dogmatic excess or distortion in lesser matters.

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