The second of two volumes of the British author’s essays, compiled by journalist George Packer.
Orwell the critic is not quite the equal of his counterpart, the chronicler of people, places and political occurrences and institutions. Still, this somewhat uneven volume offers four superlative examples of this consummate realist’s keen scrutiny of cultural touchstones and trends, milestones and minutiae. “Charles Dickens” is a long, heartfelt tribute that nevertheless eschews sentimentalizing the ultimate sentimentalist. Contrasting Dickens’s fiction and reportage with similar work from fellow Victorians (e.g., Thackeray, Trollope, Charles Reade), Orwell painstakingly identifies the sources and the enduring strengths of Dickens’s indomitable humanitarian sensibility and stubborn sense of social responsibility. “Inside the Whale” evaluates Henry Miller’s renegade masterpiece Tropic of Cancer as a cheeky response to 19th-century rustic idealism, and a groundbreaking dramatization of the impact of expatriate experience on modern prose style. A penetrating comparison of two very different literary masters (“Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”) interprets the Russian author’s criticism of Shakespeare as expressive of “the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitudes towards life.” Then there’s the great 1945 essay “Politics and the English Language.” In ringing tones that ought to shame every public figure who plays fast and loose with verifiable fact, Orwell gathers apropos anecdotal evidence of the manipulative imprecision of political language at its most recklessly dishonest, concluding, with soulful brevity and wit, that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Elsewhere, he casts a skeptical eye on Salvador Dali’s puckish amorality and Gandhi’s hard-won saintliness, finds low-brow entertainment value in the work of a smutty postcard artist and asks uncomfortable questions about hopeful utopian visions (“Can Socialists Be Happy?”).
More often appreciative and ruminative than critical—but that’s OK.