My Country Right or Left: Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters Vol. 2
by George Orwell (1940-43)
When I started this Orwell was my favorite author ever, and one volume of his most personal writings have done nothing to change that status. His typically clear, incisive prose is on full display, while his perpetually calm and reasoned attitude — especially when speaking about his contemporaries — continues to give him an aura of being the only adult in a room full of squabbling children. It’s very hard to disagree with him when he uses such plain logic.
Orwell’s opinion on other writers and famous figures is fascinating and often transformative, highlights being H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Twain, Churchill and Gandhi. His tone towards these folks is one of straightforward modesty, though he does occasionally lapse into a strange mixture of bullheaded arrogance and idealistic naiveté (especially as regards Socialism). The most glaring example of this is his repeated certainty in the first years of WWII that Britain could only win by undergoing revolutionary class upheaval, a prediction which turned out almost shockingly narrow-minded. I couldn’t help feeling simultaneously amused and sad at knowing just how wrong his “end of capitalism” proclamations have turned out. He’d sure be horrified today, wouldn’t he?
Specific highlights are “No, Not One,” “Pacifism and the War” for a glimpse at what those he criticized thought of him, and “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” which recalled his excellent and under-read Homage to Catalonia (see my review). But really the whole thing is valuable as a prolonged glimpse into one of the great minds of Western Civilization during such a volatile period.
It actually surprised me that his Wartime Diaries included at the end of the book were perhaps my favorite part, just because they provide such an amazingly clear window into not only the complex political machinations behind the simplified history that we all learn (e.g.: propaganda; British domestic politics and popular wartime attitudes; Anglo-Indian relations; the tense and turbulent relationship between Britain and Russia), but also because of their vivid and often beautiful portrayal of what life for a common citizen during those times must have been.
There’s a span between pp. 420-28 where Orwell describes the horror of air raids and food shortages, and it’s absolutely amazing to think that actual people suffered through these things only 70 years ago. It’s especially powerful for a U.S. audience, since we can literally not comprehend how it must have felt to be subject to threats on our very sovereignty. To put it in terms a North American could understand: it would be like knowing 9/11 is happening beforehand and then experiencing it every night, all night long for months on end. Orwell’s portrayal is riveting, but only because he writes without pretense; his goal is only to describe popular morale and give examples but his innate talent makes it so much more. Some of his more poignant entries:
19 October 1941: The unspeakable depression of lighting the fires every morning with papers of a year ago, and getting glimpses of optimistic headlines as they go up in smoke.
22 January 1941: The onion shortage has made everyone intensely sensitive to the smell of onions. A quarter of an onion shredded into a stew seems exceedingly strong. E. the other day knew as soon as I kissed her that I had eaten onions some 6 hours earlier.
4 March 1941: At Wallington. Crocuses out everywhere, a few wallflowers budding, snowdrops just at their best. Couple of hares sitting about in the winter wheat and gazing at one another. Now and again in this war, at intervals of months, you can get your nose above water for a few moments and notice that the earth is still going around the sun.
Overall this book is important not only for Orwell completists but as a historical document. The diaries alone are a treasure in this respect. For ardent fans of Orwell as well as WWII history buffs it’s a must-read, but even casual fans or poli-sci enthusiasts will appreciate his political and economic views. I plan on reading the next two volumes, though probably not the first as I am more interested in seeing how his thought develops, now that I know where he was at in his mid-30s.