Sixty-three years ago, in his essay "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," George Orwell wrote the following about yours truly:
"He is a man of 45, but looks 50. He is bald, has varicose veins and wears spectacles, or would wear them if his only pair were not chronically lost. If things are normal with him he will be suffering from malnutrition, but if he has recently had a lucky streak he will be suffering from a hangover. At present it is half past eleven in the morning, and according to his schedule he should have started work two hours ago; but even if he had made any serious effort to start he would have been frustrated by the almost continuous ringing of the telephone bell, the yells of the baby, the rattle of an electric drill out in the street, and the heavy boots of his creditors clumping up and down the stairs."
OK, he's mildly off. I'm female, well-nourished, and in my thirties. And there's no telephone bell, or baby, or creditors (thankfully) -- but there does happen to be a lot of construction, and if I were only two hours behind schedule, I would be in a much better mood.
Luckily, unlike Orwell's curmudgeonly reviewer, who invents reactions to books he has "no spontaneous feelings towards whatsoever," I've stumbled onto a conflicted little paradise of a literary world: All Art is Propaganda, a collection of Orwell's critical essays from the 1940's (compiled by the New Yorker's George Packer).
It can be a strange feeling, reading essays on authors and topics that were once the height of fashion and are now old hat (such as Dickens, Eliot, Miller and Kipling), but the questions that Orwell struggles with remain pertinent: where do politics and the personal blend? Where does the balance lie between aesthetics and duty? What is the role of language in keeping a public informed or misinformed?
The result is a tense read: in general, Orwell's insights are relevant, even contemporary -- he's not afraid to talk about sex and capital -- but the illusion is easily punctured by a comment or opinion that feels dated or offensive. Personally, I enjoy this type of reading; it challenges me to be articulate about my own belief system and reminds me that no one is immune to history, a sentiment I think Orwell would have agreed with.
What remains constant is the fact that Orwell is an incredibly original writer -- an amazing writer -- a writer whose world is constructed of language that is rarely trite and often humorous: Dickens's imagination is "like a kind of weed," the typical Victorian happy ending involves "family multiplying, like a bed of oysters," Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer is not just a piece of "naughty-naughty"...
For this reason alone, it's a world I intend to revisit.