Well – this must be the least likely pairing so far in my choices of two Penguin Moderns to read at a time! I’ve been picking them out in pairs in numerical order, but George Orwell and Gertrude Stein?? Not obvious bedfellows…

Stylistically, I don’t think you could two more dissimilar authors: Orwell is prized in these parts for his wonderful clarity, immense reasonableness, and his clear-sightedness about humans, their foibles and the way the world was going; Stein, however, can be a murky writer, spinning webs of words that often appear to make little sense. Yet both have been acclaimed as geniuses in their own way which just goes to show that there is plenty of appetite out there for different kinds of writing. So – what did I make of these two little books?

Penguin Modern 7 – Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell

It’ll be no surprise to anyone that this was a great joy – Orwell is much loved on the Ramblings. And Penguin are remarkably clever at choosing very apposite Orwell essays to reprint which chime in remarkably well with the times. Penguin Modern 7 contains three essays first published in 1945: the title one, Antisemitism in Britain and The Sporting Spirit.

The nationalism Orwell refers to is not just an extreme love of country, but a violent partisanship for country, creed or group. It’s a dangerous state of mind, breeding intolerance and causing conflict and as always Orwell is spot-on at identifying problems which are still relevant today.

To study any subject scientifically one needs a detached attitude, which is obviously harder when one’s own interests or emotions are involved. Plenty of people who are quite capable of being objective about sea urchins, say, or the square root of 2, become schizophrenic if they have to think about the sources of their own income.

The anti-Semitism essay is of course remarkably topical and GO is clear about how it is impossible to look at the subject objectively as so many emotions get in the way – as we can see from hysterical modern media reactions. As for sport – well, that one had me laughing all the way through!

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.

There speaks a fellow sport-hater! :)))

As always, and as I (and many others) have said before, what strikes you is Orwell’s basic decency and reasonableness. I read this little book while the Royal shenanigans were going on, distracting us all from the real issues and hiding everything up in fake news. As GO says so presciently:

The calamities that are constantly being reported – battles, massacres, famines, revolutions – tend to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One has no way of verifying the facts, one is not really fully certain that they have happened, and one is always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources.

As with all of Orwell’s writings, I ended up with a sheaf of post-its marking relevant and quotable parts, places where I shouted “Yes!” as I was reading (not literally of course, as that would have alarmed OH – though I did feel obliged to read him the above quote, and send messages to the Offspring reminding them how much I love Orwell and what a genius he was. Youngest Child was moved to reply that she lived for receiving such messages from me… But I digress!) The world is in many ways no better or no different from how it was in Orwell’s day; the rich are getting richer (and greedier) while the poor suffer lack of services, lack of basic living standards, lack of respect. Oh, how we need Orwell now…

Penguin Modern 8 – Food by Gertrude Stein

Aaaaand, in complete contrast – Gertrude Stein. Where Orwell is all clarity, Stein’s work comes in varying degrees of comprehensibility. I’ve read a number of her works (mostly pre-blog) and have enjoyed some more than others. These pieces come from her book “Tender Buttons” which I have vague memories of struggling with – and I can understand why…

… it is so easy to change meaning, it is so easy to see the difference.

The short extracts are given titles like Roastbeef, Breakfast and Single Fish. Do they describe food? Or the art of cooking? Or shopping? Or dining? Or indeed sex, as the blurb claims. The answer is, I don’t know! I’ve found when reading Stein in the past that if you treat the prose as musical, going for sound rather than obvious meaning, you get further. But I didn’t, if I’m truly honest, get very far trying that here.

It may be that because the text actually had a strong subject I was looking *too* hard for meaning and wasn’t able to get past that into the sound. Or it may just have been the wrong timing. Or it may just be that this was one of Stein more incomprehensible works. Which was a little frustrating, because occasionally lovely and silly phrases did jump out at me!

This is no authority for the abuse of cheese.

If you’re looking to read some Gertrude Stein, I have to honestly say this is probably not the best place to start. “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” (which I read decades ago) I remember as definitely being more approachable – “Tender Buttons” and its extracts I would class as for Advanced Stein Readers only!

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So a mixed bag of Penguin Moderns this time. I obviously loved the Orwell (but then when do I *not* love reading Orwell?) Stein was difficult, and I think I will go for something less lexically complex next time I want to read her. Any road up – the next two titles in the box look rather intriguing. Watch this space! 🙂

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