Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Observer Years: Orwell

(Observer Books, £8.99)

Students of the English language, and for that matter politics, will be well aware of George Orwell’s published books. Orwell was, after all, kind enough to leave us some essays which outlined his thoughts on the literary process, and sets for us some rules on good composition. 

A wise man once told me that Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ and ‘Why I Write’, should be part of all aspiring non-fiction writers’ essential collections and memorised to heart before their pen has ever been set to paper.

Those who have read Orwell’s books may be less familiar with his work as a journalist and as a prolific critic of literature. Writing for an eclectic range of titles, including: The Adelphi, The New Statesman, New Writing, Horizon, Tribune and Contemporary Jewish Record; Orwell’s collection of articles and essays should be regarded with the same reverence that his polemic books enjoy.

In the ‘Observer Years’, Orwell’s insightful contributions to the Sunday newspaper from 1942 to 49 have been comprehensively compiled. In 2 sections, divided between articles and reviews, this book is ideal to dip into for brief distraction - what I term as a bathroom book - but it should be noted that it is difficult to put down.

The first part of the book contains Orwell’s articles, which range from Indian independence, the threat of Communist Russia, to political profiles. The larger part of this section, however, is a series of war reports dispatched from Europe as the Allies made their bloody way to Germany following D-Day. It is these that particularly catch the eye, as Orwell observes with his unnerving sharpness of thought, the complex post-liberation muddle of French politics. With his unswerving attention for detail, he regards the ruinous state of occupied Germany and the difficulties ahead in reconstructing this obliterated nation.  He also looks ahead to the 1945 General Election and curiously for Orwell, a man known for his strong convictions, does not make any firm prediction for the outcome.

The second part of this book concerns itself with Orwell’s book reviews, and whilst not as informative as his war reporting, does illuminate a keen intellect and an analytical mind. His reviewing style does not become mired with the miniature of the books detail, but instead Orwell analyses the themes and contrasts them with other authors’ ideas.  In many cases he looks at two contemporary books which tackle the same issue, with either similar or opposing conclusions.  It is clear that Orwell must have been a fertile reader, and whether tackling poetry, politics or potholing, among much else, his background knowledge was remarkable.

It is easy to understand how Orwell gained his reputation as a free thinking and uninhibited critic, as he does not shy from rebuking renowned authors. He dismisses ‘Vessel of Wrath’ by H G Wells as a collection of overpriced scraps, which are littered with tired and discredited ideas. Many critics would have been more reticent when reviewing a book from a feted author like Wells, and Orwell’s closing paragraph which acknowledges the prior greatness of his works, serves to rather emphasize the lack of esteem with which he held this particular offering.

The main virtue of ‘The Observer Years’ is to remind the reader that George Orwell was first and foremost a journalist. It was his abilities in the art of reporting which shaped all of his works, including his fiction. He had the gift of being able to describe what he saw with clarity, interpret a confusing world for his readers and then project the implications into the future.  This book may not be for everyone, but it is well worth reading.

1 comment:

  1. So well put! 'Why I write' is one of my fave essays!- Orwell has had a big impact on me!
    His writings are still so useful. I also love the irony in his short peices- 'to kill an elephant'- very funny :)