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.

Cut to the present day: ‘In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea ...’ And all the rest of it – minus, we hope, the months. No, not a lot has changed. Yet all the same, I can’t help wishing that George the hangdog reviewer could drop by and see me now. Piled on the rickety (and getting more rickety by the second) desk in front of me are 20 luxuriously handsome volumes: the Complete Works of George Orwell – novels, essays, journals, letters, memos, projected income tax returns, the lot. And in among them somewhere are his book reviews: all seven hundred of them, splendidly reprinted, plus ferociously microscopic annotations, plus every Letter to the Editor that they provoked, plus any notes that Orwell scribbled to the periodicals that had commissioned them. There are lists, too, of how much, or how little, he got paid.

An ennobling monument indeed to the reviewer’s craft – and at the same time a present-day reviewer’s headache, or backache. The 20 vols add up to something like eight thousand pages. They weigh 35 pounds and, piled up, they measure 2 feet 6 inches, the same height as, since you ask, this desk. Each of them has a gigantic letter ‘O’ displayed on its front cover. Thus, when you lay the whole set end to end, you get a curious visual effect, as of astonishment: an astonishment which Orwell, it seems likely, would have shared.

After the counting, the measuring, the weighing and the gasping – what next for the reviewer? Even the most moth-eaten of pen-pushers might, I’d guess, feel just a bit nonplussed when faced with a scholarly pile-up of this magnitude, however much he/we might wish to hail the editorial labours of Peter Davison and his assistants. Davison has been working on this edition for almost twenty years and, as he has not been slow to tell us, has had to overcome a succession of irritating setbacks – mostly to do with the shoddiness and indecisiveness of publishers, it seems, but also to do with Davison at one point almost cracking under the strain. In a recent article in the Observer, he describes how, with 3188 pages of text set and proof-read, he began to feel sharp chest and stomach pains. ‘My wife was certain that I was spending too many hours crouched over my desk.’ A few weeks later, Davison had to have a sextuple heart by-pass, after which he felt that he was ‘living on borrowed time’. It all sounds rather like Orwell trying to finish his ‘bloody book’ (1984) against medical advice. Orwell, of course, had endless runins with publishers (all of them discussed in huge detail in this new edition) but his were child’s play compared to Peter Davison’s. All in all, we have to say: here is a job heroically well done.

At the same time, though, We Still must ask: what does Davison’s edition offer that we don’t already have? The answer is: not much. Not much, that is to say, that can be thought of as essential. The first nine volumes of the 20 – Orwell’s fiction, in texts edited by Davison – have been available in paperback for several years: they were first published in 1986. The other 11 volumes, in which Orwell’s non-fiction writings and various other prose remains can be located, add little that really matters to the existing four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, published in 1968. Indeed, one of the chief effects of this new, monster compilation is to intensify one’s admiration for the 1968 selection, put together by Ian Angus with help from Orwell’s widow, Sonia. (Angus, it should be said, has had a hand in editing the 20 vols.) Unerringly, it seems to me, Angus chose the very best from Orwell’s vast non-fiction output: not just the best essays (after all, nearly every one of Orwell’s essays has something in it worth rereading) but also the best of his book reviews and columns. Nobody should get the idea that his four volumes have been ‘superseded’.

Certain items – mainly letters – were not available to Angus, but even if they had been, I’m not sure how many of them would have been selected. With one or two striking exceptions from his final years, Orwell was less expansively ‘personal’ in his letters than in his published writings. There is other new material (‘new’ in the sense that it has not been published before in full but merely quoted from): some dreadful early poems; the office details of Orwell’s BBC sojourn as an Eastern Service talks producer; the Communists’ Spanish War deposition in which he and his first wife were denounced as pro-Fascist undercover agents; the list he made of British fellow-travellers and pinkos – a list which, we learn here, was now and then made use of by the Foreign Office’s Information and Research Department.

Kingsley Martin: Decayed liberal. Very dishonest; Stephen Spender: Sentimental Sympathiser and very unreliable; Ian Mikardo: I don’t know much about him, but have sometimes wondered; Richard Crossman: ??Political climber. Zionist (appears sincere about this). Too dishonest to be outright FT.

Nearly all of this, however, has been known about for years and made use of in biographies of Orwell. So, too, have the Notes on which he based his Home Guard lectures (‘Note behaviour of bullets ... Habit of coming round corners’), his radio scripts, his wartime and domestic diaries, his infantile contributions to school magazines (‘Awake! oh you young men of England/For if, when your country’s in need,/You do not enlist by the thousand/You truly are cowards indeed’ – this written c.1914). For the first time, we get the complete texts of such marginalia. These early items are signed ‘Eric Blair’ and I suppose it’s good to be reminded that the country is now ruled by Orwell’s kinsman, or clansman. Is there a family-tree connection? Would Orwell – at 95 – have been a Blairite? And this question, once it crops up, releases a bombardment of sub-questions. Would Orwell have been a Gaitskellite, would he have edited Encounter? What would he have said about Vietnam, about Kennedy, about 1968? What would he say now about Bill Clinton? And, on a lower level still: would he have stopped smoking, bought a computer, written essays on the X-Files? The wish to know what Orwell would have been like nowadays, if he had lived, is not entirely frivolous, but should we ever wish to market a new parlour-game, all the material we’d need is surely printed here.

And then there are the book reviews, and the columns Orwell wrote for Tribune and the Evening Standard. Only once or twice, with these reprints of the journalism, did I find myself wondering why this or that piece had been left out of the four volumes – or the CEJL, as we must learn to call them. For instance, there is Orwell on Eliot’s Four Quartets and Orwell on Leavis’s The Great Tradition. Enticing on the face of it, you’d think; in truth, though, neither of these pieces is quite up to Orwell’s normal standard. Indeed, the Eliot piece is somewhat crass. In it Orwell sets out as prose the passage beginning, ‘So here I am, in the middle way,’ in order to show that Eliot’s lines are ‘so prosaic in language that if they were printed in prose one would never know that they had originally been intended as verse’. There are times when Orwell’s common sense can seem a bit too commonsensical.

And this perhaps will turn out to be the real usefulness of Davison’s huge, lovingly constructed edifice. By giving us everything, the off-form lows as well as the reputation-making highs, it enables us from time to time to get fed up with Orwell; and fedupness can, in his case, shade into a certain fondness, a fondness which Orwell at his public best so rarely seemed to need, and certainly did not solicit. Aired repeatedly, high-minded convictions can take on the aspect of human-size neuroses: the anti-Soviet watchfulness, for instance, or – now and then – the fidgety mistrust of anything resembling censorship or propaganda. After a few volumes of sustained exposure, we learn to see these demons looming everywhere, as Orwell did, and in the end we start to think of them as much more his than ours. Would we have thought this at the time? How can we tell? We can easily imagine, though, that for troubled leftists in the late Thirties to mid-Forties, Orwell’s scolding certitudes – his ‘honesty’, his ‘decency’ – may well have grated on the nerves; and not just because he was so good at sniffing out hypocrisies. A natural sceptic, Orwell rarely seemed to be in doubt, and he had no patience with the routine ifs and buts of political discourse. Quite a few people who knew him commented on his schoolmasterly demeanour, a demeanour that comes through more strongly in his humbler writings than it does in the big essays. He often argued from instinct and then, forced to defend himself, would mumble that ‘inquiry shows that most people ...’ or ‘the general consensus of opinion seems to be ...’ In other words, he Knew that he was right.

And had he been able to, he would happily have proved it. If Orwell were alive today, he would surely be one of those disputants who likes to have ‘the figures here in front of me’, or close to hand. From Wigan onwards, he was forever making lists. He kept a Fishing Log when he went fishing, an Eggs Laid Log when he kept chickens (both logs are, of course, reprinted here), and he could not read a newspaper without measuring the distribution of column inches: ads v. news. He divided the books in his library into Books Borrowed/Books Bought/Books Reviewed. His Notes to his Literary Executor are remarkably meticulous, detailing the publishing histories of his writings, including individual essays. Over the years, he put together a large collection of political pamphlets and was always on the look-out for new items. He was also pretty keen on gardening and carpentry. Orwell the nerd? There was, it must be said, a make-it-tidy side to him, and – as with the pedagogic manner – this print-everything edition tends to give it a prominence which it perhaps does not deserve.

All the same, some of Orwell’s lists are rather moving, especially when we remember how ill he was much of the time, and how absurdly busy – as a writer. Maybe these tabulations were for him a means of keeping the lid on an unstable temper. Or were they his way of readying himself for some imminent, Orwellian tribunal (you asked to see my papers, here they are)? Whatever the impulse, they can from time to time induce a sense of pathos. Was Orwell never, so to speak, off-duty? Was there no social problem that he could think of as, well, not his problem? These were questions which he sometimes asked himself; hence his recurrent dream of rural self-sufficiency, the ‘Golden Country’ of 1984, the Henley of Coming Up for Air, the Hebridean adventure which, according to some people, killed him. There is a passage in his War Diary for 1942 in which his rusticrecluse yearnings and his social-scientific cast of mind are touchingly conjoined:

Thinking always of my island in the Hebrides, which I suppose I shall never possess nor even see. Compton Mackenzie says that even now most of the islands are uninhabited (there are 500 of them, only 10 per cent inhabited at normal times) and most have water and a little cultivable land, and goats will live on them. According to R.H. [Rayner Heppenstall], a woman who rented an island in the Hebrides in order to avoid air raids was the first air-raid casualty of the war, the RAF dropping a bomb there by mistake. Good if true.

There are few personal revelations in these 20 volumes. We are given some sad and dignified letters written to Orwell by his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, but Orwell’s letters to Eileen, we are informed, have not been traced. This is a pity because he has sometimes been accused of responding somewhat coldly to her early and quite unexpected death. It is true that the letters we do have which report on his bereavement are not particularly feelingful, but then they were semi-business letters, or letters to people who were not close to him.

But was anybody close to him? The question has been asked before and this edition leaves us none the wiser. There are no great biographical surprises. All the well-known ‘turning points’ remain in place: Eton, Burma, Wigan, Spain and so on. Thanks to the Eileen letters, we know more than we did about his first marriage – well, more about Eileen – but the relationship is still something of a puzzle. Michael Shelden, in his 1991 biography, had various theories and was confident that both Eileen and Orwell had extra-marital affairs – she more than he, perhaps. And Orwell, in a letter published here in full, explicitly confirms this general picture, though he names no names and does not seem to think the matter is of much importance.

I have very little physical jealousy. I don’t much care who sleeps with whom, it seems to me what matters is being faithful in an emotional and intellectual sense. I was sometimes unfaithful to Eileen, and I also treated her very badly, and I think she treated me badly too at times, but it was a real marriage in the sense that we had been through awful struggles together, and she understood all about my work etc.

In his will, he wanted to forbid a biography and he would have hated the idea of our attempting to sniff out his ‘inner life’. Perhaps he didn’t have an inner life; perhaps he just never found the time. Or, much more likely, perhaps there was for him no sensible distinction to be drawn between lives inner and lives outer. One thing seems certain, though: there can be few literary personalities whose private indistinctness would remain so obdurate after the kind of going-over Orwell gets subjected to in this edition. Apart from a couple of rash love letters – to women he wrongly thought he might be able to seduce: one early on, just after Spain; the other very late, when he was sick and lonely in the Hebrides – he is hardly ever, in these volumes, found susceptible to introspection or self-doubt. But this was his fate, seemingly: to be efficiently on guard. And our fate too, he’d surely say, should we presume to claim his legacy.