George Orwell: A Life in Letters

I have surprisingly little to say after reading a 500 page compilation of letters by George Orwell.

[Home] [Donate] [About]

This volume does not include all of George Orwell's letters. It's a "selection of" or compilation of George Orwell letters. The subjects covered in Orwell's letters relate to stuff like the Spanish civil war, politics but also a lot of Orwell's personal details so I would only recommend this to hard core Orwell fans. If you are new to Orwell as a non-fiction writer you are better off reading the four volumes of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. The reason for this is that there aren't any proper essays in A Life of Letters and there is a lot of repetition too as Orwell relates the same things to many of his friends.

Reading this volume shattered a bit the illusion that I had built up in my mind of Orwell as a solitary writer. Also I was surprised to hear him being wary of world war II, and getting some predictions wrong too. The letters read like telephone calls, or rather it's like listening to one half, one end of a telephone call.

Some of the personal stuff involves women. After his wife's death Orwell tried to court some women but they didn't pay any attention to him until his last two novels, Animal Farm and 1984 became big hits. There's a lot about Orwell's adopted son, Richard, whom Orwell seemed very fond of, which I didn't really care much for. A lot of attention is given to animal farming on the Island of Jura and whatnot which I didn't care for much either. What I was more interested in was to get a glimpse behind the publishing of some of his novels and books.

Orwell doesn't say very much about the contents of 1984 because he didn't want to speak about it until he finished it. Unfortunately there wasn't much time left for him to live after he wrote it. He didn't seem to expect to die while he could still write his letters anyway. One new thing which I did learn that was that Orwell was aware and interested in Lysenkoism and so that it was an inspiration for 1984. There's some fun stuff about Animal Farm tho, like the Americans refusing to publish it cause stories about animals were not popular in the US. There's a lot of little interesting factoids about novels but I don't think there is much in the way of analysis. Orwell was surprised at Homage to Catalonia not doing well because there was much interest in the Spanish civil war.

Apart from the novels and books there's some fun stuff like Orwell's list of possible quislings and communist collaborators which he gave to the British government. Some of them turned out to be soviet spies, or so the footnotes say. He does occasionally make the insightful but obvious comments that he is known for, like when he says that for whatever reason in his era all the important cultural figures came out of nations with higher populations. I don't think that that is the case any longer. Unfortunately there aren't that many of these observations here.

I didn't care much about to whom Orwell was writing these letters most of the time though the volume graciously provides some details about the recipients in the footnotes. I guess as a writer it was interesting to read Orwell's letters to his publishers/editors like Orwell's struggles to publish books politically inconvenient for the left. Anyhow this book served as a kind of autobiography, the biggest take away of which was that Orwell didn't lead a particularly interesting life, he just had interesting things to say but a lot of the stuff he did was boring. Maybe that's why people ask "What would Orwell Say?" rather than "What would Orwell do?" Or do people ask themselves these things anymore? I feel like Orwell is slipping out of the public's consciousness because he doesn't exactly pander to the left or the right which is what people desire. I don't think Orwell's views were ever popular with the

To be honest I am not sure why I am interested in Orwell enough to have read most of his non-fiction at this point. I always found Christopher Hitchens' answer in Why Orwell's Matters to be very unsatisfactory. According to Hitchens' the answer lay in the fact that Orwell got the three big questions of the 20th century right: Communism, Fascism, and Imperialism, but is that really that special? If you made a compilation of letters by say Bertrand Russel would it be substantially different on these issues? And yet I am still very fond of George Orwell and have remained so throughout my schizoid shifts across the political-autism-larp spectrum.

The biggest issue was that I was not invested in many of the supposedly important people that Orwell talked to and about. For example I have heard the name Arthur Koestler but it doesn't really mean anything to me and there are several letters to and from the Koestlers. Having said that I have made a mental note of checking out at least one of George Gissing's novels given that Orwell seemed to be so fond of him. I think that to fully get the context you would have to get immersed in the literary environment that Orwell was in.

The Rating: 6
6 out of 10