Reviewed by Brandon Robshaw in Slightly Foxed Issue 56.
An Extraordinary Ordinary Bloke
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’ . . .
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 56, Winter 2017
An Extraordinary Ordinary Bloke
The Orwell of the essays has a pungent literary personality. He’s dauntingly knowledgeable, decided in his views and trenchant in their expression, a non-sufferer of fools, an enemy of pretension...Read more
I have a Russian wife. We work together – articles, talks, translations, books, to keep the wolf from the door. Sometimes, when a bigger than usual energy bill slides through the letterbox, or the...Read more
The Nightmare of Room 101
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. That first arresting sentence of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four transports us immediately into a world that is real enough...Read more
The Road to Room 101
Every time I go into one of those old-fashioned second-hand bookshops – the ones with rows of leather-bound copies of Punch and shelves full of long-expired novels and the sweet smell of decaying...Read more
In November 1922, George Orwell (or Eric Blair, as he was then) arrived in Burma, to take up a post with the Indian Imperial Police. He was 19, not long out of Eton, which he had attended on a...Read more
All Washed Up
Many years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I lived in Copenhagen where I was registered with the Foreign Ministry as correspondent for The Times. But I made my living washing dishes. The paper...Read more