I’ve read a fair amount of George Orwell’s nonfiction work over the last couple of years, and been really impressed with his writing. Unfortunately, this collection of four essays was a bit of a disappointment.
The eponymous essay that kicks off the book is decent enough, as Orwell discusses how he wanted to be a writer from a young age, and how writers are motivated by the same urges, regardless of what they write. He talks about how his writing became more political, and how politics play a part in every writer’s work at some level. It’s an interesting insight and break down of his career up until this point in 1946.
The second part is “The Lion and the Unicorn”, where Orwell reflects on England and the English. He discusses his belief of what constitutes the English national character and his attitudes towards it. Written during the early years of the Second World War it also includes commentary about the inter-war years, British politics and the ineptitude of the ruling class.
The problem is, that it all peaks far too early. Beginning with the sensational opening line “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” it never captures that level again, while there are some nice observations it’s all rather long winded and I found it hard going. It also feels like a commentary on a society that I don’t recognise, these aren’t universal truths on show but rather a snapshot of a social order which was never completely the same after the war.
I think the problem with this essay is that Orwell is rather too engrossed in analysis and commentary, and it loses the personal level that runs through his best work. In fact, my favourite of the pieces is “A Hanging”, which tells of an execution in Burma, where Orwell served as a police officer. While Orwell once described it as “only a story”, he would have witnessed executions and there’s an air of reality which is hard to shake. The short, stark piece captures the way this terrible event has adopted a certain formality and monotony, but also the impact it has on the officers involved. It’s powerfully evocative and definitely the stand out.
On the whole I found this book a bit of a dud. While “A Hanging” is superb the other pieces have only brief moments that landed for me, and some I found rather drawn out and hard to engage with. Perhaps I’m just not in the right head space at the moment, but this is the first time since my failed attempts at 1984 that I’ve been left cold by Orwell’s writing, “A Hanging” aside.
Verdict: Two of the four essays are average, one is a chore and only “A Hanging” really worked for me. Orwell’s intelligence is on show, but he loses his way and it lacks the small, personal edge that is one of my favourite things about his writing. 4/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.