Orwell spent five years as a policeman in Burma, and he was responsible for the kicking, flogging, torturing and hanging of men. He saw the dirty work of Empire at close quarters and “the horribly ugly, degrading scenes which offend one’s eyes all the time in the starved countries of the East” where an Indian coolie’s leg is often thinner than an Englishman’s arm.
By the end of the five years, writes Orwell, “I hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear… it is not possible to be part of such a system without recognizing it as an unjustificable tyranny….I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate.” (from Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers)
A few years ago I read the marvellous non-fiction book, Finding George Orwell in Burma. The author, Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) travelled to Burma (now Myanmar) to trace Orwell’s life in that British colony. The book became one of the best books I read that year and confirmed my interest in Orwell–a writer I’ve always intended to get back to. This brings me to Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers. The book is a compilation of twenty-one essays on the life and work of Orwell. Meyers also authored A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell, George Orwell: The Critical Heritage, the heavy-duty title George Orwell: an Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, and Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, a biography of Orwell written by Meyers as a response to a sense of dissatisfaction with other Orwell bios. I should add that Meyers has written forty-three books to date, but it’s clear that Orwell is one of the greatest interests of his life. The range of this author’s knowledge on the subject of George Orwell makes an irrefutable argument for specialisation.
The essays in Orwell: Life and Art were published, according to the introduction, “over a period of forty years,” and they cover Orwell’s life and work, analyses of his novels, and one essay even compares various Orwell bios. Since the essays were written at separate times for various audiences, some of the information is repeated, but for anyone interested in Orwell, the essays really are marvellous and substantial reading. Moreover, while the essays are by no means light reading matter, neither are they too esoteric. Meyers is extremely familiar with Orwell, his life and his work, and he isn’t afraid to make judgments at key points. Each of the essay is prefaced with some explanation from Meyers.
Orwell is, according to Meyers, a writer whose work “has had–still has–extraordinary political and cultural influence.” Reading the essays gives a strong sense of who Orwell was and the lifelong demons he struggled with. Meyers argues “we need Orwell more than ever,” and I couldn’t agree more. Here’s a quote from Meyers encapsulating Orwell’s work:
Orwell’s books deal with two dominant themes–poverty and politics–or as he put it, “the twin nightmares that beset nearly every modern man, the nightmare of unemployment and the nightmare of State interference.
Meyers admits that he’s “particularly interested in the life in the work, in the relations between biography, politics and literature,” and the essays approach Orwell from that angle. Meyers covers Orwell’s life from his childhood to his death, tracing elements of his life in these essays and always seeking to understand this strangely elusive, troubled author.
While I was familiar with some of the outlines of Orwell’s life, these essays gave a great deal of insight. One essay compares Orwell’s early years to “those of Thackeray, Kipling and Durrell in India, and to Dickens and Joyce in Britain.” Orwell’s father worked in the Indian Opium Department which Meyers describes in the essay’s foreword:
The production, collection and transportation of opium to China was the most vicious and indefensible kind of imperialistic exploitation.
Meyers adds that Orwell’s father’s profession added to Orwell’s innate sense of guilt. Orwell’s school years are outlined, and it’s difficult to narrow down a quote or two from this marvellous book, but here’s one that stuck with me:
Probably the greatest cruelty one can inflict on a child is to send it to a school among children richer that itself. A child conscious of poverty will suffer snobbish agonies such as a grown up person can hardly imagine.
My favourite essays concerns Orwell living ‘down and out in Paris and London,’ Orwell’s short-lived career as a BBC propagandist during WWII, and Orwell as a film critic. I was fascinated by Orwell’s poverty-stricken life in Paris, and one section of the essay mentions how Orwell noted the French reaction to the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, marked by massive street protests while a British bank employee wasn’t particularly concerned with guilt or innocence but thought that all anarchists should be hanged. There are some wonderful slices of Orwell’s life as a lowly employee in a posh hotel where he experienced an entirely different life from the one he’d led in Burma. Here’s another choice quote regarding the sharp divide between classes–those serving and those being served in:
“the luxury and squalor of the grand hotel where the splendid customers sit just a few feet away from the disgusting filth of the kitchen workers. The only connection between these two worlds is the food prepared by one for the other, which often contains the cook’s spit and the waiter’s hair grease.”
Orwell made an odd film critic, and Meyer notes that Orwell “rarely mentions the directors and is not interested in film as a distinct form of art.” Instead he was interested in “the political, social and moral content of film; their propaganda value; the way they reflect the progress of the war; and the difference between English and American cinema.” He loathed “american escapist films” but was fascinated by the reactions of the audience.
On a final note–I particularly liked the anecdote about Henry Miller saying that “it’s a pity” that Orwell didn’t write a “down and out in Shanghai.”
Review copy from the publisher courtesy of netgalley . Read on my kindle.