‘Of course he shot the fucking elephant.’ The sharpness of Sonia Orwell’s defence of the authenticity of the event on which her late husband based one of his most famous essays tells its own story. Without the experiences enjoyed or endured by Eric Blair, Etonian, colonial enforcer, schoolteacher, down-and-out, grocer, infantryman, there would have been no George Orwell, writer. But much of what we know about Blair, we know from Orwell. And it’s not just a matter of what he did when and where. It’s a matter of why he did it at all. Orwell exists because Blair was the sort of person who thought little of sticking his neck out in a good cause (when he did just that, from a trench on the Aragón front during the Spanish Civil War, someone put a bullet through it). Like it or not, ‘Orwell’ is a brand: ordinariness, common decency, speaking plain truths to power, a haggard, prophetic gaze. It is surely some or all of those qualities, rather than any particular political prescience, which have been invoked by the remarkable spike in the sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four following Kellyanne Conway’s notoriously unblushing embrace of ‘alternative facts’. Orwell didn’t foresee Trump. But if Trump were ever to find out about Orwell, he would probably tweet against him. ‘Really dumb @AnimalFarm. A total loser – no clue!’ Such a reputation takes a lot of preserving.
Orwell, in short, may have become more important as a symbol than for anything he actually wrote. Both of these books seek to reverse that suspicion, one by tethering the symbol to some distinctly fallible human flesh, the other by subjecting Orwell’s political prose to the kind of scrutiny ordinarily reserved for the novels of Henry James.
John Sutherland has been reading and rereading Orwell ever since the 1954 BBC dramatisation of Nineteen Eighty-Four alerted him to the novel’s existence. So he feels under no constraint either to bless or to damn a writer whose ‘inextinguishability’ will ensure that he continues to be read long after detractors and zealots alike have fallen silent. The organ which is the subject of this offbeat biography belonged in the first instance to Blair, even if its subsequent fame owes rather a lot to Orwell. Blair, it would appear, ‘was born with a singularly diagnostic sense of smell. He had the beagle’s rare ability to particularise and separate out the ingredients that go into any aroma.’ Orwell became something of a ‘nasal virtuoso’. Meta-beagling turns out to be Sutherland’s own rare ability. Dogged does not begin to do justice to the tenacity he has shown in pursuit of his subject’s pursuit of pong.
Odour is front and centre in Orwell’s work, and Sutherland has provided some helpful ‘smell narratives’ that enable us to follow an oblique path through some of the best-known texts (fiction and documentary) from one hotspot of rankling secretions to another. Unsurprisingly, given the genres Orwell favoured, bad smells predominate: ‘sour’ sweat and ‘sweetish’ (or ‘sickly’) excrement top the bill, but there’s an honourable mention, too, for machine-age effluvia such as petroleum vapour. Still, we’re not to suppose that extreme olfaction only ends in nausea. It’s crucial, for example, to the Orientalism of Burmese Days, animating as few other sensations could the embrace in which John Flory wraps his ‘house concubine’, Ma Hla May. ‘A mingled scent of sandalwood, garlic, coconut oil and the jasmine in her hair floated from her. It was a scent that always made his teeth tingle.’ Sutherland devotes considerable attention to the aphrodisiac effect on Orwell of sweet-smelling open spaces. Edenic lovemaking in a ‘golden countryside’ embellished with wild peppermint is George Bowling’s dream in Coming Up for Air; and Winston Smith’s, too, in Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’ve sometimes thought that Orwell’s famous distinction between good, bad and good-bad books could be applied to the odours that pervade the ones he himself wrote. To my mind, it’s the good-bad smells that reveal the most. These would certainly include the aromas which greet those protagonists who have gone missing from the bourgeois fold, on their not quite reluctant return to it at the end of the novels: glue, in A Clergyman’s Daughter; mackintosh, in Coming Up for Air. These are uncanny smells, at once ancient and modern, familiar and abject.
As the notorious comment about the readiness with which people of his own background and generation were prepared to believe that the working classes smell makes plain, Orwell’s hypersensitivity should be understood as the product of a specific place and time. Sutherland gives due weight to social context, but his main theme is the smell of mortality, rather than that of class difference. The most provocative conclusion he draws concerns the cavalier attitude Orwell routinely displayed towards his own health, or lack of it. This recklessness has attracted the attention of previous biographers. D.J. Taylor sees in it a ‘detachment from physical sensation’ that can sometimes appear ‘faintly inhuman’. Sutherland’s suspicions are darker still. Virtually everything Orwell did in life, he notes, ‘was bad for his lungs and his lifespan’. So why did he do it? The 1942 essay ‘How the Poor Die’ recalls a time in Paris, in February 1929, when his lungs collapsed, and he was taken off to a pauper’s hospital, which had (inevitably) a ‘foul smell, faecal and yet sweetish’. That Orwell had let it come to that, Sutherland suggests, might hint at ‘suicidal pathology’. A further twist in the biographical smell narrative finds Orwell working for the BBC during the Second World War, in the cubicle next to William Empson. Orwell immediately propositioned Empson’s partner, Hetta Crouse, but to no effect. ‘It was the smell, Empson grimly implied.’ Sutherland reports that Hetta and Orwell’s first wife, Eileen, were in agreement about the deterrent of ‘George’s disgusting body odour’. It’s a startling reversal. Orwell, for so long the collector of aromas, had become his own prize specimen. Mr Common Decency, it seemed, was capable of a level of performative self-neglect worthy of New York’s erstwhile Dada punk-queen, the Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven. In the final pages of his book, Sutherland returns to ‘How the Poor Die’, and to the stink of ‘natural’ death. Is that what Orwell, in his last days, now confirmed as tubercular, was so keen to avoid? ‘The odour of mortality,’ Sutherland concludes with a flourish. ‘Write on the unofficial death certificate, “suicide”.’
Or Orwell is an altogether different proposition, as its 61 pages of industrial-strength endnotes make abundantly clear. Alex Woloch’s purpose is to remedy the relative neglect visited on an ‘iconic political writer’ by ‘literary theory and criticism’ – despite, or perhaps because of, their increasing preoccupation with politics. Whereas Sutherland prefers to stay out of disputes about the kind of socialist Orwell was, Woloch attributes to him an explicit and more or less unwavering political intention. The horizon of his argument is established by Orwell’s remark, in ‘Why I Write’ (1946), that ‘every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly and indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.’ Some, at least, of literary theory and criticism’s long-standing antipathy to intention will have to be revoked. Still, it was not so much the ‘for’ and ‘against’ that needed explaining as the medium of their expression. ‘Why I Write’ insists that, however polemical its intention, a book or magazine article must constitute an ‘aesthetic experience’ if it is to have any effect. ‘What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.’ The art of political writing lay in the effacement of personality: ‘Good prose is like a windowpane.’
Woloch is by no means the first critic to take Orwell’s political writing seriously as art, or to doubt that it ever resembled a windowpane. He has, however, raised the debate to a new level by the originality and scope of his analysis of the books and essays Orwell published in the ten years up to 1946, and by his attention to detail. His argument rests on two propositions. First, ‘experience’ and ‘reflection’ confront each other dialectically in Orwell’s political writing, to the extent that its subject is as much the ‘dynamic and mercurial process’ of thought provoked by a particular topic as the topic itself: a bold claim, given our settled conviction that he sought out reality as a matter of pride (Seeing Things as They Are is the title of the Penguin ‘Selected Journalism’). Second, continual thought about thought, far from disabling the political will, is the best way to put it into practice: any politics worth having – any democratic socialism – is a struggle, an aspiration. In Woloch’s view, the art of Orwell’s writing about politics lies in its scepticism concerning ‘any final, stable or permanent expression of political belief’.
Irony, understood at its most basic level as an awareness of the gap between actual and stated meaning, is the key term. The small irony built into Orwell’s writing – the failure of ‘middle-class words’ adequately to represent ‘working-class reality’ – re-enacts and thus exposes the large irony built into the capitalist system: the failure of the stated meaning of labour (its definition as a wage or salary) adequately to represent its actual meaning (as experience, or moral value, or reason for solidarity). Woloch hits his stride with a compelling analysis of the four pages or so in The Road to Wigan Pier devoted to a description of the long, gruelling ‘commute’ the miners undertake to and from the coalface. The significance of this, Orwell notes, is something ‘one is always liable to miss’, for the precise reason that it has already been missed: nobody gets paid to commute, even though the time it takes is company time. By Woloch’s account, Orwell can only begin to address that failure by failing himself. ‘The writer’s difficulty in “getting to work” – or of representing the working class – converges on (but is not equated with) the miner’s efforts to get to work, understood as one of the many aspects of labour that are rendered invisible by capitalism.’ Orwell’s irony is thus ‘intrinsic’ to his ‘socialist commitment’. The example of the commute, with its uncanny doubling or mirroring of form and content, becomes a powerful model for an examination of his political writing immediately before, during and after the Second World War: The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia, the essay collection Inside the Whale, and the weekly ‘As I Please’ columns he contributed to Tribune between 1943 and 1947. It’s just become harder to maintain that Orwell matters primarily as a symbol.
That said, Woloch’s Orwell, aficionado of the dynamic and mercurial, embarked on a ‘restless movement within writing’, has a good deal of the New England philosopher about him. He’s a reservoir-haunting Hertfordshire Thoreau, with some Hebridean boot camp thrown in; or a scruffy, beanpole Emerson at large on Southwold Common, primed for a hit of transparent eyeball (beats a windowpane). But how restless is the movement within Orwell’s writing? There are habits fundamental to it that seem unlikely to fluctuate or turn back on themselves because they articulate a fixed, ineradicable class identity. Take the first sentence of Chapter 2 of The Road to Wigan Pier: ‘Our civilisation, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realises until one stops to think about it.’ What draws Woloch’s attention to this sentence is the arresting quality of the ‘quiet, colloquial’ phrase ‘one stops to think’. But the use of the generic ‘one’, twice in quick succession, when the generic ‘you’ would be possible, and in many contexts more usual, does not strike me as ‘quiet’ and ‘colloquial’. Rather, it amplifies, as it does so often throughout Orwell’s political writing, the sound made by a confident generalisation. ‘Our civilisation, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal.’ In The Language of George Orwell (1995), Roger Fowler went into a good deal of detail concerning the ‘authoritarian force’ of the generalisations (many of them sustained by a generic ‘one’) on which the political writing relies. Woloch does not engage fully with this less sanguine view.
Orwell, of course, was fiercely aware of the limitations of his own accent and idiom. It’s possible to argue that some of the wartime essays, in particular, aim to create an ironic or dialectical distance between the Olympian ‘one’ that directs the argument and a more inclusive ‘you’ located differentially within a various readership. Others don’t, however. The final paragraph of ‘In Front of Your Nose’, which rather belies the essay’s title by packing 15 uses of the generic ‘one’ into ten sentences, is virtually unreadable. Equally unappealing is the way Orwell falls back, at times of crisis, on a narrow range of class-specific exclamations (you can almost hear the drawl). In ‘A Hanging’, the early essay in which he found his voice as a writer, a dog’s gambolling interference in a sombre procession to the gallows is a ‘dreadful thing’. In The Road to Wigan Pier, the commute to the coalface seems like a ‘frightful business’, while the ‘northern slums’ are uniformly ‘fearful’. By the 1980s at the latest, as reference to episodes of Yes Minister will bear out, such expressions had come to be seen as an unbuttoned off-duty accompaniment to the kind of Standard English that Orwell himself memorably described, in one of his ‘As I Please’ columns, as ‘stripe-trouser’.
Then there’s the uneasy moment in Down and Out in Paris and London when Orwell records, verbatim, his own astonished response to the discovery that the average workhouse cell lacks amenities. ‘But I say, damn it, where are the beds?’ Woloch devotes several illuminating pages to the passage’s epistemological intricacies. But it turns, nonetheless, on a mannerism: on an ‘I say’ rapidly reinforced by a ‘damn it’. It’s no doubt unfair of me to be reminded of the melancholy response of the distinctly upper-crust narrator of Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands to his companion’s gentle hints that espionage was never meant to be a walk in the park. ‘“I say, Davies,” I said …’ He is, after all, the sort of Foreign or India Office type Eric Blair once thought he might end up as; and he begins his story with a joke about the plight of the proverbial ‘obscure Burmese administrator’, which Eric Blair did end up as. These mannerisms – geared, it would seem, to crises of representation – might amount to an ironic manoeuvre. But they look more like reflex.
Woloch, of course, doesn’t mean to dress Orwell up as Emerson or Thoreau. In their different ways, both these books give us further reason to admire Orwell’s enduring impatience with the transcendental in all its forms. The writer who declared in ‘Why I Write’ that he would always ‘love the surface of the earth’ and ‘take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information’ was freed from the English conviction that cleanliness is next to godliness, Sutherland believes, by the influence of his French mother. Similarly, Woloch’s emphasis on irony as commitment can help us to get a better grip on one of the most compelling themes of Orwell’s 1940s political journalism: its critique of the ruthlessness of ‘perfectionist ideology’ (the phrase is from ‘Writers and Leviathan’). Orwell tirelessly sniffed out renunciation in order to unmask it as a bid for power. The critique of renunciation emerges indirectly in essays on Swift and Tolstoy. The ‘essential thing’ about both men, Orwell thought, was their chronic inability to believe that life on this ‘solid earth’, rather than some ‘deodorised’ version of it, could be made worth living. Both essays (neither is among his most pithy) drift away from literature to brood on the ‘totalitarian tendency’ of movements like anarchism and pacifism which aim to establish purity of motive as the sole basis for political action.
For if you have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary dirtiness of politics – a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to draw any material advantage – surely that proves that you are in the right? And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise.
In this case, the non-stripe-trouser generic ‘you’ makes it that much harder for the reader to feel certain the censure has no personal application.
One of Orwell’s most trenchant objections to Tolstoy was that he had failed to understand the function of the Fool in King Lear. The Fool is ‘integral’ to the play, Orwell insisted, both as chorus and as a ‘foil to Lear’s frenzies’ (which are, as he points out, frenzies of renunciation). Peter Davison, general editor of the 20-volume Complete Works, felt that Orwell should be thought of as, among other things, a comic writer. I’m not so sure. None of his best works is a bundle of laughs. But I do think that he sought to play the fool, on occasion, as a foil to frenzies of renunciation. Homage to Catalonia, generally regarded as proof both of his political acumen and of his dedication to immediate experience, could also be said to mark his debut as a stand-up comedian. Chapter 3 of the book’s first or documentary part describes conditions in the trenches on the Aragón front. Its topic is the menace to the impromptu warrior of almost everything in his immediate environment except the opposing army. The trains he plans to catch invariably leave late, except when they leave early, just to make sure that he can’t rely on them leaving late. His unit has been supplied with rifles that go off if the butt is tapped on the ground and grenades so erratic they make little distinction between the person throwing them and the person they are thrown at. Then there’s the dud shell that gunners on both sides have been lobbing backwards and forwards for so long it’s acquired a nickname. The evidently apocryphal nature of this last tale only enhanced Orwell’s desire to tell it.
He tried to take a photograph of some machine-gunners with their gun, which happened to be pointed directly at him:
‘Don’t fire,’ I said, half-jokingly as I focused the camera.
‘Oh no, we won’t fire.’
The next moment there was a frightful roar and a stream of bullets tore past my face so close that my cheek was stung by grains of cordite. It was unintentional, but the machine-gunners considered it a great joke.
The joke is a good one, because it exposes – or enacts – a kinship among technologies: a camera, like a gun, measures out its survey of the world by the shot. When munitions fail in Homage to Catalonia, it’s as if a shutter had opened and closed fruitlessly. ‘Click! A dud cartridge.’ And yet, joking apart, Orwell came to look back fondly on these weeks spent, for the first and last time in his life, he thought, ‘among people who could roughly but not too inaccurately be described as revolutionaries’. Or, rather, joking not apart. If democratic socialism were to avoid becoming a ‘perfectionist ideology’, it would have to acknowledge its own bathos.
Orwell continued to play the fool. Animal Farm, in his view the closest he had come to a fusion of political and literary purpose, goes out of its way to incorporate jokes that have no allegorical bearing at all. The farmyard cat, for example, who puts in some notable appearances, is so far removed from any reference to Stalinism that she doesn’t even merit a name. She constitutes a feline running (or curled-up fast asleep) gag, her somnolence a fool’s comment on frenzy. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith puts all of his little faith in the proles as the only possible source of resistance to the Party. Their great virtue is that they don’t know how to renounce. Just to make sure that they are not going to become the object of a perfectionist ideology, Orwell puts them through the sort of bathos-test he had subjected his militia comrades to in Homage to Catalonia. Winston’s tentative emergence from his Party cocoon into the ‘labyrinth of London’ is staged as a comic set-piece. Setting off across the slums surrounding what had once been St Pancras Station, he encounters a pair of ‘monstrous women’ with ‘brick-red forearms folded across their aprons’ who seem just to have resumed the conversation they left off in The Waste Land (‘“It’s easy to criticise,” I says, “but you ain’t got the same problems as what I got”’). Next up is a Blitz scene that might have been produced by Ealing Studios were it not for the severed hand Winston discovers on top of a mound of rubble and casually boots into the gutter. His slum tour continues with a futile attempt to extract information from an old man in a pub. None of this is side-splitting; and its condescension can’t easily be attributed to Winston alone. But it seems clear to me that Orwell wanted to subject political intention to a testing not only by smell, or by irony, but by something closer to music-hall routine. In his writing, anyone who wants to qualify as a saviour – himself included – has first to do time as the butt of low comedy.