It’s always a delight to discover that one of your favourite authors has something published in one of our club years, and even more so when it’s available in a pretty edition from a favourite indie publisher! That’s the case today with “Inside the Whale” by George Orwell; Renard Press have a lovely series of pamphlets entitled ‘Orwell’s Essays’ and one of their most recent editions (#8) is indeed the “Whale”! I’m always happy for an excuse to read the wonderful George, and this long piece (82 pages in the Renard) turned out to be a marvellous and thought-provoking work.

“Inside the Whale” is a fascinating essay which opens with a discussion of Henry Miller’s 1933 novel, ‘Tropic of Cancer’; the latter was a controversial work, yet Orwell is full of praise for the book and its honesty about the human condition. However, this is just a springboard for his more general exploration of modern writing and its strengths and weaknesses, as well his thoughts on literature and those authors considered the greats of the early 20th century.

Orwell is always a clear and trenchant commentator, and here he provides a wonderfully acid take-down of the influx of so-called artists to Paris in the 1920s. His discussion ranges far and wide, bringing in so many well-known names from Chesterton to Louisa M. Alcott; and his critique of the moral and political position of writers like Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley is damning.

On the whole the literary history of the thirties seems to justify the opinion that a writer does well to keep out of politics. For any writer who accepts or partially accepts the discipline of a political party is sooner or later faced with the alternative: toe the line, or shut up. It is, of course, possible to toe the line and go on writing — after a fashion. Any Marxist can demonstrate with the greatest of ease that ‘bourgeois’ liberty of thought is an illusion. But when he has finished his demonstration there remains the psychological fact that without this ‘bourgeois’ liberty the creative powers wither away. In the future a totalitarian literature may arise, but it will be quite different from anything we can now imagine. Literature as we know it is an individual thing, demanding mental honesty and a minimum of censorship.

The essay is split into three parts, with the first containing the initial discussions of Miller (and interestingly, Orwell finds that the rest of that author’s work is not necessarily up to the standard of “Tropic of Cancer”). The conclusion he reaches is that the novel is so strong because it is a novel of acceptance of the way life is (as is the poetry of Walt Whitman) instead of those books full of ideas and politics. Part two of the essay compares Miller’s book with the literary trends of the early 20th century, from the nostalgic countryside portrayed by Houseman through to the political and left-leaning writers of the 30s, with many writers blindly seduced by the appeal of communism, in which they fail to note any flaws. And in part three, Orwell returns to Miller, drawing on the tale of Jonah inside the whale as an analogy for the writer isolating himself, and our wish to return to an adult sized womb to hide and escape from the horrors of the modern world.

All of this makes a fascinating read, and is perhaps a little surprising coming from an author who was politically engaged himself. His message seems to be that the better books are written by those who accept the state of the world and don’t try to change it; yet Orwell’s published works up to that point, in particular his non-fiction books, had commented on the state of the world, pointing out things which needed to be changed. It may be that after the War his views changed, as his two great novels of political comment were published in 1945 and 1948.

Putting that aside, “Inside the Whale” was such a wonderful read, full of so many truths which seem to me still so relevant today (the description, via Cyril Connolly, of a Public School education as “five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery” definitely rings true). Orwell’s writing is such that I could pull out masses of quotes, and in fact I filled several pages of my notebook with parts I wanted to remember; what he says seems so clear and straightforward and yet I never would have thought of it myself. As always, I come away from reading Orwell feeling clearer headed, ready to judge things with his words ringing in my ears, and more than ever convinced that he’s an exemplary writer, a real genius whether producing fiction or non-fiction.

“Inside the Whale” was a perfect choice for our #1940Club; a substantial and stimulating essay, from one of the 20th century’s leading commentators, which is full of wonderfully inspiring writing. I often think that what we’re missing in the 21st century is someone with the clarity and authority of Orwell to take on the hideous political situation in which we find ourselves. Kudos to Renard for bringing out editions of these striking essays as bite-sized reads – you can never have too much Orwell in my view!!