Eric the Nerd

Ian Hamilton

  • The Complete Works of George Orwell edited by Peter Davidson
    Secker, £750.00, July 1998, ISBN 0 436 20377 4

In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing-gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it. He cannot throw the papers away because the wastepaper basket is already overflowing, and besides, somewhere among the unanswered letters and unpaid bills it is possible that there is a cheque for two guineas which he is nearly certain he forgot to pay into the bank. There are also letters with addresses which ought to be entered in his address book. He has lost his address book, and the thought of looking for it, or indeed of looking for anything, afflicts him with acute suicidal impulses.

The sorry creature described here is, alas, a book reviewer, as seen by George Orwell in 1946, the year in which illness and a sense of imminent prosperity forced, or allowed, him to cut down on his own burdensome reviewing chores. Orwell’s portrayal, called ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, goes on for three lengthy paragraphs, adding premature senescence, varicose veins, hair loss, hangovers and malnutrition to the reviewer’s already well-established plight. And there are other laid-on horrors too. The reviewer, when we encounter him, has not yet been able to get into his day’s work, even though it is 11.30 in the morning. He is repeatedly distracted – by ‘baby yells’, by ‘electric drills’ out in the street, and by ‘the heavy boots of his creditors clumping up and down the stairs’. There are also visits from the postman, who has lately delivered ‘two circulars and an income tax demand printed in red’.

So far, so recognisable – or just about. And Orwell, it must be conceded, did have good reason to feel sour. In 1945, a traumatic year in which his first wife died, he had himself reviewed over seventy books. In 1946, until he took a break, he had passed judgment on a further 30. And he was, of course, still perilously broke. The proceeds from Animal Farm had not yet started to come through. Even so, did the bed-sitting room have to be so squalid, the dressing-gown so threadbare, the table so defective and unclean? In paragraph three, Orwell’s wretch-reviewer opens his latest parcel of new books. There are five of them. One is a novel; the others range from Science and Dairy Farming to A Short History of European Democracy (which, says Orwell, is ‘680 pages long and weighs four pounds’). The reviewer has to write about all five of them by first thing tomorrow morning: 800 words on the whole batch.

From this point on, Orwell’s satirical sketch begins to crumble beneath the weight of its own laborious hyperbole. ‘Do I seem to exaggerate?’ he asks and then he does one of his characteristic ‘Ask anyone’ corroborations. ‘Ask any regular reviewer ... whether he can deny in honesty that his habits and character are such as I have described.’ Really, though, Orwell must have known that he was piling on the agony. After all, he had himself worked for several months as a literary editor, the one who dishes out the books, and in that role he seems to have been fairly choosy. His own reviews, although sometimes rather hurried, were formidably conscientious: on the whole, he took on books that genuinely caught his interest. Also, despite the glum theatricals of his ‘confession’, Orwell never stopped believing that reviewers had a vital function in the literary culture. What did get on his nerves, both as editor and as scribe, were the reviewer’s conditions of employment, conditions which he feared might ultimately lead to the collapse of standards. They might also lead to the collapse of George Orwell – and of anyone else who tried to do the job half-decently. ‘For if one says – and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week – that King Lear is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word “good”?’ His real beef was that too regular, too poorly paid employment could turn good reviewers bad.

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