Plumbing the mystery of the first-person Orwell

Diaries, by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison. 597 pp. Liveright. $39.95

We know from George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four that he thought of the diary as a potentially seditious form. Diaries are not illegal in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four because nothing is--Airstrip One's legal code has been abolished. But Orwell's protagonist, Winston Smith, understands the consequences of committing his private thoughts and personal observations to the page well before he lifts his pen to print the words "DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER." "If detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labor camp," Orwell wrote. As Smith prepares to scribble his first passage, he asks himself why he's keeping a diary, and surmises that it's a letter to the future, to the unborn.

Diaries aren't just generational time tunnels or rebellions against the state--they can also serve as self-dossiers, self-indictments, and confessions, as Smith also comes to learn. Orwell discovered the same during his adventures as a militiaman in the Spanish Civil War when police confiscated a wartime diary (or two) of his from his wife's Barcelona hotel room in 1937 during a raid. According to Peter Davison, an Orwell scholar and the editor of this volume, the diary may have been forwarded to Moscow--which considered him a Socialist enemy of communism--and added to the archive of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD.

Another Orwell diary that appears to be MIA dates from the mid-1920s, when he was working in Burma as a colonial policeman. It has never surfaced and probably never will--though Orwell published a fictionalized account of his Burmese tour of duty in the 1934 novel Burmese Days. The surviving eleven diaries have been collected here under the sensible title Diaries and annotated expertly by Davison.

Fantasize all you want about Orwell's lost volumes, but you're probably wasting your time. Orwell produced six novels, most of them loosely autobiographical; three nonfiction books; and hundreds of reviews, editorials, and essays, as well as pamphlets, poems, radio broadcasts, and war dispatches. He was a literary fat-rendering plant when it came to reducing the raw material of his notes and diaries into something more distilled, as well-known works such as Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia all attest. Had Orwell turned himself inside out and hauled himself up a flagpole we couldn't have gotten a better look at him.

So the possibility that Diaries may reveal a new and improved Orwell--or a new and diminished one--can be easily dismissed. That's the case whether you aligned yourself with Orwell's celebrator and intellectual inheritor, Christopher Hitchens, who wrote the introduction for this edition, or that other recently departed leftist public intellectual, Alexander Cockburn, who likened Orwell to a "snitch" for informing on Communists (which he did).

Diaries combines both the lengthy, staccato logs and lists Orwell kept of his domestic life (number of eggs laid by his hens, the size of his garden harvest, the weather, the price of staples, the arrival of a milking goat, birds spotted on a walk) and his more considered entries, and for its publication we can all be grateful. But as your consumer adviser, I must add that this book isn't "new." It was published in the United Kingdom two years ago, and many of the best passages were previously published. Every time I underscored a memorable sentence in this American edition and plugged it into Google Books, I found it in an existing Orwell title.

For example: "I cannot get them to treat me precisely as an equal, however," Orwell complains of the proletarians while collecting material in 1936 for what will become The Road to Wigan Pier. You can find that diary entry in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell (1968) and The Complete Works of George Orwell (1998). "Our broadcasts are utterly useless because nobody listens to them," he states on October 5, 1942, about his work for the BBC in India. Google Books locates that entry in multiple Orwell volumes. Likewise, "Evidently most English people have no idea that there are French books which are not pornographic," which he wrote on August 27, 1931, is gettable in various Orwell books.

Or, if you don't have time for a trip to the library or the money to buy these volumes, consult the Web. Great sections of the best of the Orwell diaries, including his hop-picking escapades, his Wigan Pier journey, and his war journals, have been posted with permission on the Orwell Prize website. These entries also include Davison's notes and annotations.

Of course, some Orwell enthusiasts might seek Diaries in hopes that it maps the path he cut from first observations to finished works. These readers will come away brokenhearted. Orwell appears to have had two writing modes: publishable copy and domestic lists. According to Davison, Orwell would type up his diaries from his handwritten copy, making revisions on the fly or adding them after with a pen. (Sometimes wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy did the typing.) Diaries proves that the best writing happens in the brain--before a pen is picked up or a keyboard pounded--not through revisions.

Orwell semi-endorses this idea in a diary passage dated March 30, 1948, as he reflects on the difficulty of building a decent paragraph or even a working sentence while ill. He knew his way around being sick--disease was his lifelong companion. Cyril Connolly, a friend from childhood, recalled Orwell being a "chesty" and "bronchial" kid, which Orwell attributed to "defective bronchial tubes and a lesion in one lung." Orwell encouraged advanced respiratory breakdown via his lifelong tobacco habit, acquired in his teens. In Burma, he came down with dengue fever and suffered chronic bronchitis. Biographer D. J. Taylor wrote that Orwell had "four bouts of pneumonia" by the time he turned thirty-four, a life-endangering malady back in the days before antibiotics. Later came Orwell's influenza and the tuberculosis that would combine with his cigarette habit to ruin his lungs and finally kill him on January 21, 1950, at the age of forty-six.

Exiting sick bay in 1948, Orwell wrote:

When it is a case of a long illness, where you are weak & without appetite but not actually feverish or in pain, you have the impression that your brain is quite normal. Your thoughts are just as active as ever, you are interested in the same things, you seem to be able to talk normally, & you can read anything that you would read at any other time. It is only when you attempt to write, even to write the simplest & stupidest newspaper article, that you realise what a deterioration has happened inside your skull. At the start it is impossible to get anything on to paper at all. Your mind turns away to any conceivable subject rather than the one you are trying to deal with, & even the physical act of writing is unbearably irksome. . . . You have also no command of language, or rather you can think of nothing except flat, obvious expressions: a good, lively phrase never occurs to you. And even when you begin to re-acquire the habit of writing, you seem to be incapable of preserving continuity.

This self-diagnosis says more about the craft of writing than any dozen manuals on the subject for sale at bookshops.

Elsewhere in the collection, Orwell does produce the raw material of closely observed reportage with considerably less anguish. Take, for example, the extended description of descending into the double blackness of the mines with "coal-cutters"--the finished account of which ends up in Wigan Pier. Orwell's chronicle of miners quarrying and transporting coal deposits to the surface echoes Herman Melville's dissertation on whale disassembly in Moby-Dick, and his prose glows lovingly on the miners as they perform their labors. "Above ground, in their thick ill-fitting clothes, they are ordinary-looking men, usually small and not at all impressive," Orwell wrote. "Below, when you see them stripped, all, old and young, have splendid bodies, with every muscle defined and wonderfully small waists. I saw some miners going into their baths. As I thought, they are quite black from head to foot. So the ordinary miner, who has not access to a bath, must be black from the waist down six days a week at least."

The diaries, which span from 1931 to 1949, are not continuous: There are no entries between late 1931 and early 1936, none from 1937, and nothing between late 1942 and May 1946. The page count of his diary entries appears to spike when he's working on one of his assigned books, like Wigan Pier, or a magazine piece, in the case of the hop-picking notes, which he promptly refashioned for a New Statesman essay, or when he's preoccupied with one subject in particular and needs to clear his mind by formulating lists. Some of the lags can be attributed to hard work on other writerly fronts, such as his time during World War II as a BBC propagandist and a war correspondent for The Observer, which had him reporting from Paris after the liberation, as well as from Germany.

In his "domestic" diaries from Morocco (1938–39) and the island of Jura in Scotland (1946–47), Orwell gathers and stacks the mundane observations the way matchbook collectors fill cabinet drawers with their stashes. This love of lists surfaces frequently in his published work, most notably his 1946 essay "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," in which he catalogues the detritus surrounding a lowly reviewer. Cigarette butts, cups of half-drunk tea, unanswered letters, and unpaid bills, as well as the stack of books awaiting review. Orwell is something of a naturalist in many of the domestic pages, spotting and naming birds and noting their mating calls, and dilating briefly on the hunting strategies of otters he's watching.

I suspect I know what was going on here. In a February 3, 1936, passage, from his domestic diaries, Orwell the diarist slides a note through the time tunnel to Orwell the novelist, reminding him to someday use the "most melancholy noise" ever, which is broken ice rocking up and down. "Mem. to use in novel some time and to have an empty Craven A packet bobbing up and down among the ice," he wrote. (Craven "A" was a brand of cigarettes.) I've searched Orwell's work thoroughly to see if the message was acted on, but have failed to locate it. On the other hand, it doesn't take much prospecting to find him transmuting observations about livestock into fiction.

In his introduction, Hitchens comments that you'd never deduce from reading the Morocco pages that Orwell was simultaneously conceiving and writing his novel Coming Up for Air, which is about England before the Great War. "I am as usual taking careful notes of everything I see, but am not certain what use I shall be able to make of them afterwards," Orwell wrote in a September 29, 1938, letter. Evidently, the Moroccan climate was supposed to calm his lungs as his journals steadied his mind.

For someone so chronically ill, Orwell doesn't devote many of his diary entries to the state of his health. Even when writing from a hospital bed, he avoids whinging. "Have not been well enough to enter up diary," he wrote on December 19, 1948, more in apology than self-pity. Perhaps he wasn't a stoic but had merely normalized his bloody coughing fits the way he normalized air-raid warnings in London during the Blitz, calling them "a great bore." Or perhaps he was able to make peace with regular bouts of sickness because he equated illness with the creative act: "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness," he famously observed in his 1946 essay "Why I Write."

FOR ALL OF ORWELL'S unflinching encounters with casual brutality in the world at large, the diaries do illuminate one dark and private secret: the author's own bigoted views of Jews. Orwell clearly maintained two sets of books, privately slagging Jews in his notebook while publicly condemning bigotry in his 1945 essay "Antisemitism in Britain," in which he denounced anti-Semitism as "an irrational thing." At one point in his travels around London during the Blitz, Orwell visited three subway stations that doubled as bomb shelters. There, he wrote, he found "a higher proportion of Jews than one would normally see in a crowd of this size. What is bad about Jews is that they are not only conspicuous, but go out of their way to make themselves so. A fearful Jewish woman, a regular comic-paper cartoon of a Jewess, fought her way off the train at Oxford Circus, landing blows on anyone who stood in her way." Deeper in that entry, he wrote, "What I do feel is that any Jew, i.e. European Jews, would prefer Hitler's kind of social system to ours, if it were not that he happens to persecute them."

In his hop-picking diary, he teed off on a "little Liverpool Jew of eighteen, a thorough guttersnipe." Orwell doesn't even dignify the Liverpudlian with a name, calling him "the Jew" throughout.

I do not know when I have seen anyone who disgusted me so much as this boy. He was as greedy as a pig about food, perpetually scrounging round dustbins, and he had a face that recalled some low-down carrion-eating beast. His manner of talking about women, and the expression on his face when he did so, were so loathsomely obscene as to make me feel almost sick. We could never persuade him to wash more of himself than his nose and a small circle around it, and he mentioned quite casually that he had several different kinds of louse on him.

I don't know what's more remarkable here: Orwell's self-confidence about his Jew-dar, his calculations of the proper percentage of Jews who should be escaping death by rushing to the stations, or his assessment of the filthy, greedy, pushy people he has identified as Jews.

Orwell's novels mention Jews, but don't excoriate them. On the basis of his published record, does Orwell thereby qualify for the same indulgence that some awarded to H. L. Mencken because his anti-Semitic comments were largely confined to his unpublished works? Do we reach for the other rationales that have been floated in defense of unconfessed anti-Semites in the literary world: that his offenses were committed in a less enlightened time, that England wasn't a very friendly place for Jews in the first place, that his phobia of Jews appears to have been fragmentary, etc.?

In his introduction, Hitchens writes that he recoiled at the range of Orwell's prejudice against Jews to be found in these diaries--but offers little in the way of judgment beyond his own visceral response as a reader.

One might have expected Hitchens--who has written eloquently on anti-Semitism and his own Jewish heritage--to address these issues in his introduction. All he allows is that Orwell expressed disgust and repulsion at all stupid and dirty people, directed his misanthropy and xenophobia at other groups, and that this was a "stage in Orwell's own evolution" toward greater tolerance. (Davison takes a neutral, basically silent corner.) Hitchens mistakenly treats the issue as an embarrassing tic in a revered thinker and writer. That's a shame: By issuing Orwell a get-out-of-jail-free card, he avoided deeper engagement with what it meant to be a public advocate of tolerance and a private bigot, a subject that was in his metier. The dateline on the Hitchens introduction is a little more than two months before his own premature death, so we can spot him a bundle of points. Still, by letting his hero off easy, Hitchens lets his readers down.

Davison informs us that Orwell invested little energy in preserving the manuscripts of his published work. The likely reason the Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four typescripts still exist, says Davison, is because Orwell didn't "live long enough to destroy them." But he valued these diaries, and made certain they survived, probably, like other literary diary keepers, in case his next novel called for the melancholy sounds of ice clanging, or he needed to wake memories of the Blitz, the souk, or the simple excitement of seeing the gold-crested wren for a new essay.

With the exception of Orwell's disparagement of Jews, Diaries parallels what you already know about the author: Readers conditioned to the full-scale confessional mood of the modern memoir and diary have been warned. Orwell was at home in his diaries, writing most for himself, not for posterity. He trusted these pages, whose primary subject was the world, not George Orwell, and certainly not the inner George Orwell, a room that appears to have lacked a public entrance. Writing, for Orwell, was an illness you didn't conquer in private any more than you did on the printed page. How many writers would assent to that view today?

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