May 27, 2008


Reconsiderations: The Fiction of George Orwell (BRENDAN BERNHARD, May 28, 2008, NY Sun)

In the popular imagination, Orwell the icon, the tubercular truth-teller and counter-politician with the spindly mustache, is inseparable from Orwell the writer. Yet perhaps this has become a caricature, since his fiction resonates at least as much on a personal, individual level as it does on an ideological one. His novels are almost all about deeply estranged, lonely people who long to be part of a society they nonetheless despise. As "rebels," they are as alien to the popular Hollywood version as one could imagine. Pickled in self-hatred, they loathe their own separatism, and believe that to live apart from the mainstream is a perversion and a form of willful sterility. This is one reason why Orwell always placed his hopes in the working classes, who maintained their own traditions and rituals and tended to stick together.

A characteristic example of the Orwellian rebel is Gordon Comstock, the middle-class protagonist of "Keep the Aspidistra Flying." Driven by a masochistic desire to steep himself in poverty and the life of "the masses," he quits his job at an ad agency to dedicate himself to poetry, yet remains uneasy in his conscience. "Most copywriters," he reflects bitterly, "are novelists manqués; or is it the other way around?" Like Winston Smith, he too ends by embracing Big Brother, or at least his own knack for writing the advertising slogans that festoon 1930s London. Likewise, the pigs who lead the revolution against their human overlords in "Animal Farm" ultimately befriend their former enemies and become morally and visually indistinguishable from them.

Orwell's radically disconnected heroes who long for connection loom more powerfully than ever because, thanks to new technologies, society increasingly aggregates itself in communities of the like-minded, leaving the non-joiners, the Groucho Marxists who "wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member," out in the cold. Orwell the man was a joiner of a prickly sort, most famously by fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Yet his fiction expresses a profound fear both of belonging to the group and of keeping one's distance from it.

Despite his reputation as a political writer, the rare happy moments in his novels tend to belong to couples rather than groups, and are usually romantic in nature. Think of the lovers' trysts shared by Gordon and Rosemary in "Aspidistra," or the mythic power of those between Winston and Julia in "1984." Think, for that matter, of the beasts frolicking in the fields with sensual abandon as they celebrate the start of revolution in "Animal Farm."

The happiest moment in Aspidistra is actually the point where Gordon realizes the stupidity of his pretended estrangement from a society he loves:
Our civilization is founded on greed and fear, but in the lives of common men the greed and fear are mysteriously transmuted into something nobler. The lower-middle-class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture and their aspidistras--they lived by the money-code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency. The money-code as they interpreted it was not merely cynical and hoggish. They had their standards, their inviolable points of honour. They 'kept themselves respectable'--kept the aspidistra flying. Besides, they were alive. They were bound up in the bundle of life. They begot children, which is what the saints and the soul-savers never by any chance do.

The aspidistra is the tree of life, he thought suddenly.

And, just as all Orwell's fiction can be read as a rebuke to his politics, the very title of Coming Up for Air is ironic for a putative Socialist, since it involves trying to recapture life in a pre-WWI English village:
[I]t wasn't that I wanted to watch my navel. I only wanted to get my nerve back before the bad times begin. Because does anyone who isn't dead from the neck up doubt that there's a bad time coming ? We don't even know what it'll be, and yet we know it's coming. Perhaps a war, perhaps a slump--no knowing, except that it'll be something bad. Wherever we're going, we're going downwards. Into the grave, into the cesspool--no knowing. And you can't face that kind of thing unless you've got the right feeling inside you. There's something that's gone out of us in these twenty years since the war. It's a kind of vital juice that we've squirted away until there's nothing left. All this rushing to and fro! Everlasting scramble for a bit of cash. Everlasting din of buses, bombs, radios, telephone bells. Nerves worn all to bits, empty places in our bones where the marrow out to be.

I shoved my foot down on the accelerator. The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had done me good already. You know the feeling I had. Coming up for air!

Not very "progressive" that...

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 27, 2008 8:33 PM

The Robert Bierman film of the book is wonderfully done -- Richard E. Grant is a fine actor and the production is excellent. Highly recommended. A beautiful story.

Posted by: Qiao Yang at May 28, 2008 1:44 AM

Sorry; the film is titled "A Merry War".

Posted by: QY at May 28, 2008 8:46 AM