August 16, 2012

George Orwell, “the moral compass of the 20th century”

Filed under: Books, Britain, History, Media, WW2 — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:15

A review of Diaries by George Orwell in the Wilson Quarterly:

The early entries cover Orwell’s days as a tramp, a period that provided material for Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and his subsequent investigation of poverty in the industrial north of England, from which he drew for The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). This volume’s lacuna is Orwell’s experience fighting the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Plainclothes policemen in Barcelona seized the one or two diaries that recorded those events, and delivered the work to the Soviets. Though the writings likely remain in the archives of the former KGB, Orwell transformed them into literature as well, with the extraordinary memoir Homage to Catalonia (1938).

Of greatest interest are entries from the periods of Orwell’s life that he did not turn directly into books. His World War II diaries are the highlight. Although all of the entries feature Orwell’s direct prose style, there are occasional hints of the novelist at work: “Characteristic war-time sound, in winter: the musical tinkle of raindrops on your tin hat.” And there are ominous passages that reveal his unusually clear view of the awful century unfolding, such as this one from June 1940 that prefigured his 1945 novel Animal Farm:

Where I feel that people like us understand the situation better than so-called experts is not in any power to foretell specific events, but in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in. At any rate I have known since about 1931 . . . that the future must be catastrophic. I could not say exactly what wars and revolutions would happen, but they never surprised me when they came. Since 1934 I have known war between England and Germany was coming, and since 1936 I have known it with complete certainty. . . . Similarly such horrors as the Russian purges never surprised me, because I had always felt that — not exactly that, but something like that — was implicit in Bolshevik rule. I could feel it in their literature.

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