On Orwell

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 8, 2011

A fascinating article by Simon Leys, with all sorts of interesting information. Here is a very good snippet testifying to Orwell’s power as a writer:

[Orwell writing here--ed.] 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.

This uncanny ability received its most eloquent confirmation when Soviet dissidents who wished to translate Animal Farm into Russian (for clandestine distribution behind the Iron Curtain) wrote to him to ask for his authorization: they wrote to him in Russian, assuming that a writer who had such a subtle and thorough understanding of the Soviet reality—in contrast with the dismal ignorance of most Western intellectuals—naturally had to be fluent in Russian!

And more:

Orwell was utterly stoic and never complained about his material and physical circumstances, however distressing they were most of the time. But from the information provided by the Letters, one realizes that his material insecurity (which, at times, reached extreme poverty) ceased only three years before his death, when he received his first royalties windfall from Animal Farm; while his health became a severe and constant problem (undiagnosed tuberculosis) virtually since his return from Burma, at age twenty-five. In later years he required frequent, prolonged, and often painful treatment in various hospitals. For the last twelve years of his short existence (he died, age forty-six, in 1950) he was in fact an invalid—yet insisted most of the time on carrying on with normal activity.

His entire writing career lasted for only sixteen years. The quantity and quality of work produced during this relatively brief span of time would be remarkable even for a healthy man of leisure; that it was achieved in his appalling state of permanent ill-health and poverty is simply stupendous.

Orwell the realist:

Orwell’s revulsion toward all “the smelly little orthodoxies that compete for our souls” also explains his distrust and contempt of intellectuals: this attitude dates back a long way, as he recalls in a letter of October 1938:

What sickens me about left-wing people, especially the intellectuals, is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen. I was always struck by this when I was in Burma and used to read anti- imperialist stuff.

If the colonial experience had taught Orwell to hate imperialism, it also made him respect (like the protagonist in a Kipling story) “men who do things.”

And here, an instance of Orwell’s sense of justice:

Orwell’s sense of fairness was so scrupulous, it extended even to Stalin. As Animal Farm was going into print, at the last minute, Orwell sent a final correction—which was effected just in time. (As all readers will remember, “Napoleon” is the name of the leading pig, which, in Orwell’s fable, represented Stalin.)

In chapter VIII…when the windmill is blown up, I wrote “all the animals including Napoleon flung themselves on their faces.” I would like to alter it to “all the animals except Napoleon.” …I just thought the alteration would be fair to [Stalin] as he did stay in Moscow during the German advance.

Read the whole thing.

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