Diaries by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
GEORGE ORWELL: THE DIARIES, 1984 & ANIMAL FARM—–FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
George Orwell was an inveterate and compulsive writer of diaries, lists, news summaries and notebooks. He daily, even hourly jotted down his ideas, notes on friends and fellow writers, excerpts and clippings from newspapers, recipes, farming and gardening hints and records, biographical materials on leaders and activists in revolutionary and activist causes and running accounts of the march of events leading to the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Many of these materials found their way into his books, such as “1984,” “Animal Farm,” “Homage to Catalonia,” “The Road to Wiggan Pier,” “Burmese Days” and “Down and Out in Paris and London,” or provide a record of the genesis and creation of those works.
Most readers come to know George Orwell from his two most famous dystopian novels written at the end of his life at and after the conclusion of WWII. “1984” and “Animal Farm.” “1984,” of course is the classic account of a threatened totalitarian future dominated by the three major “superpowers,” Eurasia, East Asia and Oceania, each dominated by a sinister totalitarian party headed by an idolized “Big Brother,” and constantly scrutinizing both party and people for any signs of traitorous thoughts or deeds. “Animal Farm” is a classic allegory of the revolt of the animals on a farm against their human master’s exploitation, but which revolution degenerates into a brutal competition amoungst the revolutionary animals to determine which animals will succeed to the empty position of master exploiter, of which the pigs, constituting the inner party of the revolution, become “more equal than others” and thus become as bad or worse than the human farmer they had displaced.
Orwell’s Diaries reveal many of the personal experiences which led to his Love-Hate Relationship with socialist revolutionary party politics, action and reform and which came to inform his later writing and works such as “1984” and “Animal Farm.” I highly recommend The Diaries not only to those who have a particular interest in Orwell studies, his life and those famous works, but also as an extraordinary record and cross-sectioning of human history in the time of global crisis leading from WWI and the Russian Revolution, through the Great Depression and Spanish Civil War, and thence to global cataclysm with the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Fascism, Stalinist Communism, Japanese Imperialism and the near extinction of Western Civilization and democracy, averted by the narrowest of margins, all recorded through the eyes of one of the keenest observers of our times.
I personally had several points of contact with the events recorded in Orwell’s diaries. Of course before and during my university studies I had occasion to read both “1984” and “Animal Farm,” and was deeply influenced by my reading of the dismal saga of Winston Smith’s ultimately unsucessful struggle to preserve some remnant of his humanity and capacity for human love in that “Orwellian” nightmare world of “Big Brother,” thought police, doublespeak, surveillance and repression. The Diaries, of which many were lost or seized by KGB agents during the Spanish Civil War in which Orwell participated in the International Brigade, begin in their published form in the Depression year of 1931, with the “Hop Picking Diary,” an account of Orwell’s experience “On the Road” in the impoverished working-class ritual of removing from London for the Hop Picking season in the English and Welsh countryside. My grandmother, from a poor Welsh family relocated to London nee Morgan, told stories to my father and myself of going out of London for Hop Picking, which was grinding hard piece-work subject to a level of exploitation hardly making it worth while, but which was enjoyed by the working or non-working classes of the Depression as an outing and return to nature, an escape from the dirty and unnatural slums of East London. The “Hop Season” would bring a “Cockney Invasion” of the near countryside, unemployed workers alongside Gypsies, derilects and people “on the bum” which yet also yielded many happy memories such as country singing and dancing around campfires in the fields after exhausting days. Some went hop picking out of shear necessity, and for others it was a kind of working-class family tradition in the way of a working country holiday.
Orwell himself was of deeply ambiguous class origens in the heydey of the British Empire. His remote ancestors had been members of a privileged upper class, but his branch of the family had been downwardly mobile and at odd ends in more recent times. His father had been a minor officer in the Opium Department of the Imperial Police in India, where Orwell, like Kipling, was born. Being brought back to England as a child, Orwell (whose real name was Eric Blair, Orwell being a pseudonym adopted for his writings) found himself betwixt and between social classes, with educated middle-class origins but without the money to afford a public school and Oxbridge upper-class career, he had to settle for scholarship positions at lesser schools until finally gaining a scholarship to Eton, but being unable to finance university study. Thus he rubbed shoulders with the upper-class while being unable join them. After Eton he then followed his father’s footsteps and returning to India entered the Imperial Police in British Burma, which led to some of his famous early writing such as “Burmese Days” and “Shooting an Elephant.” Distaste for his role in the Imperial Police and a growing socialist consciousness and sense of solidarity with the working classes, plus a felt calling for writing and literature led him to throw up the colonial career and return to England, though on a precarious financial footing. Some of his forays into the “underworld” of poverty were driven by temporary necessity, and some by a quest to do social and literary research and exploration in the tradition of Jack London’s writing such as “The People of the Abyss,” which he admired greatly. The first diaries thus record his experiences “on the bummel” in city and country flophouses, Salvation Army shelters, busboy jobs, jails and workhouses, details of which would work themselves into many stories such as “Down and Out in Paris and London.”
During the Depression Orwell became a committed socialist, though independent of the mainstream Soviet-oriented Commmunist Party and engaged in extensive writing for radical journals. Thus succeeding parts of his Diaries give accounts of his research trips to investigate labor and living conditions in Depression England, such as the trip which led to his writing of “The Road to Wigan Pier,” an account of industrial and human blight and the struggle of British workers for survival. In the Diaries you will find thus meticulous notes of how much each person, including himself, spends each day for food, heat, clothing, rent and other necessities, set off against income. This may seem a bit quotidian at times, but we are always brought back in the tradition of Naturalism and Marxism to how such economic conditions shape and delimit people’s lives and shape wider history.
The bulk of the Diaries concern events from the time from the Spanish Civil War, in which Orwell was a volunteer soldier in the International Brigade fighting on the Republican side against Franco’s Facism, to Orwell’s recovery from war wounds and tuberculosis by sojourning in the warm climate of Morocco, to the season of the fatalistic drift into the World War, upon which he returned to England but was kept out of military service by his deteriorating health. Here again I had a point of personal contact with his story, as in Beijing, China I worked as a Professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University where I became friends with another older teacher, David Crook, who I saw daily in the offices or Foreign Expert Building or in swimming together at the Friendship Hotel pool. Crook told me of his encounters with Orwell in the Spanish Civil War. David had also in the Depression become a Communist Party member in Britain, but unlike Orwell part of the orthodox pro-Soviet wing. He like Orwell served in the International Brigade in Spain and was wounded in action. While there he was recruited by the KGB to spy on “deviant” ideological groups such as Trotskyites and Anarcho-Syndicalists and had Orwell under observation, which he many decades later came partially to regret. In Shanghai he was assigned to keep tabs on Trotskyist “deviationists” but as he learned more of them he found himself more and more in sympathy with the persons and ideas he was charged with placing under surveillance. Later David worked for British Intelligence during WWII in the time of the alliance with the USSR and was sent by the KGB to China where he met his wife Isabelle, a progressive activist from a Canadian missionary family, and worked with Mao before and after the revolution. He came from Yanan to Beijing after the Communist victory to help form the Beijing Foreign Studies University, for which we both worked, and where I knew his wife and children. He also suffered a partially “Orwellian” fate, spending five years in a Chinese Prison for being on the “wrong side” during the Cultural Revolution. But by the time I knew him he had acquired much of the equanimity of old age and had come to sympathize with some of Orwell’s critique of the excesses of the Stalinist version of communism, regretting some of his former activities,though remaining faithful to an ideal of democratic socialism, just as Orwell himself was to the very end.
Of the contents of the Diaries, many sections are divided into categories for notes and observations, such as Foreign & General, Social, Party Politics, Domestic & Personal, in which he kept a meticulous running account of both public affairs and personal afairs on a daily basis, which in toto give a stunning panorama of the world leading up to and beyond WWII, including activities of radical parties, mainstream politics and military affairs and persons and events in the literary world. Doris Lessing, the Nobel Prize winner in her epic “The Golden Notebooks,” also features a series of notebooks divided into such categories, including the protagonist’s psychological and sexual life, and given her involvement in similar left-wing politics it would not be surprising if she were aware of Orwell’s practices.
One initially disconcerting aspect of the Diaries is the great bulk devoted to “Domestic Diaries.”
In these we discover that Orwell in addition to writing, very often spent a good deal of his day in farming and gardening on a small scale to supplement his sporadic income. Thus the Moroccan Diaries include detailed accounts of how many eggs his chickens laid each day, how his vegetable and fruit crop progressed and management of goats and milk records. The same is true of the Wartime Diaries, in which he kept a small farm north of London during the Blitz, and during the time he was writing “1984” on the Scottish island of Jura, where he records how many rabbits he shot or
how many fish or lobster caught. I was initially a bit put off by the volume of entries dedicated to such things until I had the insight that Orwell’s rootedness in the farm and the rural natural cycles and order, the weather and domestic economy was an underlying source of his sanity in the face of an otherwise insane world, and a key to the preservation of his essential humanity. Like Thoreau in Walden, his rootedness in the natural world and the day-to-day chores of hands-on farming helps him critique the unnatural and sometimes monstrous and horrificly inhuman “human world.” His practical farming experience also leant credibility to his invocation of the farming milieu in “Animal Farm,” written during the war and published shortly thereafter after sensitivity to the demands of preserving the Soviet alliance abated.
The Wartime Diaries also reveal parts of his personal life that contributed to the making of the world of “1984.” His wife, ironically, worked in the Censorship Department during the British war years, giving him a model for Winston Smith’s experience in the “Ministry of Truth” of “1984.” Orwell himself, medically unfit for military service due to his tuberculosis despite have fought and been wounded in the Spanish Civil War, spent much of the war years in the BBC, especially in broadcasts to India and Asia directed at countering Axis and Japanese propaganda efforts to stir up rebellion there. Thus in the Diaries we have the extraordinary cross-section of his interaction with Britain’s leading intellectuals and writers such as Malcom Muggeridge, Stephen Spender, Cyril Connoly, T.S. Eliot and many others, his contacts with the BBC and official government circles in London, his contacts with radical and socialist leaders, parties and affairs and his work with the common people of London during the Blitz as a member of the Home Guard and air raid warden force. His upper-class contacts from his Eton days gave him tentative access to the highest orders of British society while his socialist contacts put him into continual contact with and sympathy with its lowest classes. All while he is charting the progress in meticulous notes of global events reshaping the world on a daily basis.
The final sections of his Diaries focus on the post-war years up to his death from tuberculosis in 1950. During this time he had become internationally famous for “Animal Farm” and was working on “1984,” which would make him a literary superstar, but only shortly to be enjoyed before his death. The final diaries record also his minute relation of his observations of his own mind and body as his medical condition worsened towards death. Orwell was a meticulous observer of his own self in all its dimensions, though the diary entries are seldom confessional in nature. They also relate the death of his first wife, his adoption of a war orphan as a son, and his final remarriage shortly before his death. They also relate his struggles with his publishers, who sometimes took financial advantage of him or his wife and estate upon his death, and sometimes distorted the presentation of his works for financial or publicity reasons.
Orwell’s literary legacy has sometimes been distorted and misunderstood, sometimes for financial or political reasons by his publishers or would-be interpreters. Right-wing promoters are often inclined to invoke Orwell’s name as a leading critic of communism, while conveniently overlooking the fact that he was a lifelong socialist and opponent of the right. An “Orwellian” case in point occured at the end of his life with the publication of the American edition of “Animal Farm” which sold over twenty million copies. In the flyleaf and promotional materials during the MdCarthy era he was made to suffer an ‘Orwellian” dose of “Doublespeak.” In his famous essay, “Why I Write” Orwell refers to the Spanish Civil War as being his “watershed political experience”, saying “The Spanish War and other events in 1936–37, turned the scale. Thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against Totalitarianism and for Democratic Socialism as I understand it.”
The mischaracterizing of Orwell’s thought by the American publisher, probably to enhance sales and make him palatable to more conservative circles included the following eposde of deletion and revisionism, with the publisher’s promotional materials stating: “If the book itself, Animal Farm, had left any doubt of the matter, Orwell dispelled it in his essay Why I Write: ‘Every line of serious work that I’ve written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against Totalitarianism … dot, dot, dot, dot.'(emphasis added). Orwell’s true words, “For Democratic Socialism” were vaporised, just like Winston Smith did such at the Ministry of Truth, and that’s very much what happened at the beginning of the McCarthy era and as the “pressures of the marketplace” just continued, Orwell being selectively quoted, “rebranded” and falsely appropriated by the right-wing conservative cause against which he had spent most of his life struggling.
Finally, I mention a further line of personal connection with Orwell’s works. “1984” and other of his works had a significant influence on my writing “Spiritus Mundi.” The Geopolitical and WWIII dimension of “Spiritus Mundi,” involving a fictive future crisis in which a rising China allies with a resurgent Russia and Iran to form a “New Axis” making a Pearl Harbor-like sneak attack on the Middle-East oil reserves to cut the West’s “Oil Jugular” drawing implicitly from the Geopolitical anti-vision of Orwell in his partitioning of the world between the three Machiavellian superpowers, Eurasia, East-Asia and Oceania. It also draws on Clancy’s “The Dragon and the Bear” in the sneak attack in that book of China on a weakened Russia, extending the action to the Middle-East in accord with other of his thrillers. In “Spiritus Mundi” the head of the CIA and National Security Director is also named “Admiral Orwell.”
All in all, I highly recommend “The Diaries” of Orwell as a powerful recreation of a world in crisis in multiple dimensions, bringing together under an extraordinary power of observation multiple dimensions of human experience and access to an extended variety of social classes through revolution, depression civil and world war and recounting the rise and fall of totalitarian excess and the survival of humanity by the barest of margins. “The Diaries” will inform your reading of the already familiar classics, “1984” and “Animal Farm” and draw you farther into the worldview of Orwell and an appreciation of his lasting place in World Literature.
For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence of World Literature:
For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…
World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Spiritus Mundi, Book I: The Novel: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CIGJFGO
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG
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