What would you say if someone who knew nothing of George Orwell, beyond his name, were to ask you to recommend one of his books?
You might suggest Animal Farm. It’s his most famous work: a witty satire on the Russian Revolution but with much wider application, written in Orwell’s distinctive plain, vivid style, full of active verbs and concrete nouns. A pleasure to read though it undoubtedly is, however, it’s a slight work – modestly described by Orwell himself as a fairy story, it is barely 30,000 words long and does not exhibit the full range of his talent or ideas.
Or you might say Nineteen Eighty-four. His last novel is a brilliant dystopian vision of a totalitarian Britain, drawing on the dictatorships of mid-twentieth-century Europe as well as Orwell’s contemporary experience of post-war austerity Britain; it’s bleak, it’s grim and it’s bitterly funny. It bestowed two new phrases upon the English language – ‘Room 101’ and ‘Big Brother’ (both of which became the titles of television programmes: can any other writer rival that?). Yet one feels it is not fully developed as a novel: the characters, except for the protagonist Winston, are lightly sketched in, and it’s as much a vehicle for ideas as it is a work of art.
We can rule out his earlier novels. They are all very well worth reading; but they are all flawed in various ways. No, the book we should direct our enquirer towards is a collection of George Orwell’s essays. That is where the reader will discover the quintessential Orwell. Bernard Crick, who edited the definitive Penguin collection, makes the point neatly in his introduction: giving the essays top billing clears up the puzzlement of those ‘who believe that Orwell is a great figure but cannot honestly say that any one of his books measures up to his fame’.
The Orwell of the essays has a pungent literary personality. He’s dauntingly knowledgeable, decided in his views an
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