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George Orwell's restless intellect

November 2, 2008 |  9:38 am

Georgeorwell_1010Two new collections of George Orwell's essays — "Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays" and "All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays" — are reviewed by David L. Ulin in Arts & Books this weekend. "Taken together," he writes, "these books reaffirm the author's status as one of the definitive essayists in English literature." The review explains:

What Orwell's after is less diatribe than dialogue. In his writing, politics and literature are in constant conversation, framing reactions to what he has lived through, what he has read. Throughout these essays, we are confronted with his humanism, which, as much as his intellect, motivates his work.

Ulin also notes that Orwell is a supreme observer of details.

For Orwell, the key is clear-eyed observation; "[O]ne can write nothing readable," he suggests, "unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a window pane." It's about the smallest details: the condemned man sidestepping a puddle on his way to the gallows in "A Hanging," the sight of a dead German — a dead human — in "Revenge Is Sour" that drives home "the meaning of war."

Those details, as originally observed, are being posted as if Orwell were blogging today. As Jacket Copy has noted before, Orwell's diaries from his travels from 1938 to 1942 are being posted, to the day, by the Orwell Prize. When we visited last, a taste of marijuana had left him nonplussed; today — or rather, 70 years ago today — he was on the road to Casablanca, observing rich and poor, considering land ownership and cultivation.

A good class Spanish goat costs almost the same as a cow, which gives one hint of the latter’s milking qualities. Fowls are like the Indian fowl. All animals abominably treated but astonishingly docile. Tools are extremely primitive. No spades or European forks, only hoes of the Indian style. Cultivation is made much more laborious by the lack of water, because every field has to be partitioned off into tiny plots with earth banks in between, to conserve water. Not only small children but also very old women work in the fields, women who must be at least 60, probably 70, clearing roots etc. with pick-axes. 

I haven't read the essay collections yet, but I find his blog fascinating.

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: George Orwell writing in Morocco / Orwell Prize