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.
17 responses to “Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers”
I had never heard of Georges Orwell for something else than 1984 before this week.
Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers recently reviewed ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ and I have added it to my list after her review.
What you write confirms it is interesting.
I haven’t read Down and Out in Paris and London and that’s the one I want to read next too.
Have you heard of Albert Londres? You may be interested in reading his books too.
I’ve just bought “Promenades dans Londres” (Walks in London) by Flora Tristan. She describes the life in London in 1840. She visited the poor neighbourhoods too. It seems interesting, I plan to read it soon.
No I haven’t heard of Londres. Off to investigate. Thanks!
Fantastic review Guy. I really admire the way you make the both the life and the book about it so compelling (as also in your Simenon bio review). Some really striking quotes here. The Emma Larkin book sounds well worth checking out as well.
I agree with you: Orwell is a giant and his voice continues to have weight and relevance. I’ve read some but want to read much more of his stuff: Burmese Days and Shooting an Elephant are on the wishlist. I have Keep the Aspidistra Flying to read which I hope will make an interesting companion / comparison with Patrick Hamilton.
The author has some intense parallels between Orwell’s life and the lives of his fictional heroes–I thought esp. when it came to Gordon Comstock (Keep the Aspidistra Flying). There’s a film version of that BTW.
Anyway, I have my favourite passages marked to return to.
I’ve got to get back to Hamilton….
Great post Guy on what sounds like a fascinating book. I have read a bit of Orwell – novels, memoirs and essays – and plan to read more. I too like the idea that we “need Orwell more than ever”.
I have the Emma Larkin book but hadn’t read much about it. You have enthused me to levitate it up the pile.
The Emma Larkin novel is reviewed here elsewhere if you are interested. I also have a more recent book from this author yet to get to–Everything is Broken
The title of the Larkin book reminds me of another I read a few years ago: In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong. It’s an account of the latter years and collapse of the Mobuto regime in Congo / Zaire. There’s no real literary connection beyond the title but it’s well worth a look. A similar aftermath-of-colonialism theme applies.
Looked up the book you mentioned and it sounds excellent.
As a teenager I used to love Orwell, I read tons by him, though never Down and Out as it happens.
I was hugely impressed by Homage to Catalonia, but I loved best Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The subject was outside my experience, but the truth in the story was evident and it held real power for me.
This sounds great, though I’m not generally a reader of lives. Nice review though Guy. It reminds me I should revisit Orwell, and Aspidistra.
An Aspidistra/Hamilton comparison would be interesting. Any odds on your throwing Maclaren-Ross into the mix?
Orwell’s complete essays and letters make for compulsive reading. As a stylist, I have always admired his tremendous simplicity, clarity, and directness. I try to imitate him in my expository writing. I’m sure I fail miserably, but his prose is my signpost.
Orwell’s take on film was both interesting and amusing. It was as if he considered it largely worthless. Can’t help but wonder what he’d make of the big Hollywood blockbusters these days–I’m sure he’d hate them.
I love the guy, I really do, but he could be a bit of a stick in the mud, it’s true. “In Dickens, Dali, and Others”, he makes a lot of good points, but you can’t help thinking he’s just not able to relax and have some fun…
Max, I’d love to, and I look for him every time I’m in my local but alas no sign. So it’s Book Depository to the rescue (again) – but I’ll hold off I think till I read the Orwell.
Lichanos: Yes I know what you mean. When I read about some of the harsh conditions he put himself into (with TB), I concluded that he had some desire to punish himself.