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Some pithy prose from Orwell @shinynewbooks @PenguinUKBooks

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There are some authors who never seem to lose their relevance, and George Orwell is most certainly high on that list. Last year, I read one of his essays, “England, Your England”, which had been brought out as a pamphlet by Penguin. That essay was part of a larger work, “The Lion and the Unicorn”, and Penguin have just released a beautiful new edition of the book in their Modern Classics range.

Now, isn’t that choice of cover image so wonderfully ironic…

I’ve reviewed the Orwell on Shiny New Books, and it’s a work that seems to me to still be painfully relevant to our modern situation. Pop over and have a look at my thoughts – I don’t think we can ever have enough Orwell…

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…in which I find myself unreasonably amused by some literary parodies…

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Pistache by Sebastian Faulks

After reading “Locus Solus” I felt I definitely needed a change of pace, and browsing through the Christmas arrivals I decided to pick up this little volume of pastiches. I have to confess that this is actually the first book by Faulks I’ve ever read, and it obviously isn’t typical of his work; but it does show him as a very clever writer with strong literary awareness! Pleasingly, the book carries the pastiche element all the way through to the author biography on the inside jacket flap, the acknowledgements and even the book title itself!

Now, I love a good spoof; I have a wonderful volume called “The Faber Book of Parodies”, and I’ve been known to laugh like a drain for hours at some of the great joys it contains, like “The Skinhead Hamlet”, much to the annoyance of anyone within hearing distance… So really, this was likely to be the ideal read for me, and it was – I devoured it in a couple of sittings and had I had more spare time I would have read it in one go.

Faulks obviously knows his literature, and the book contains a mixture of short poetry and prose pieces, each a take on some famous author or literary group. The titles on their own are pretty amusing; such as “Kingsley Amis has a shot at a female narrator”, “Jane Austen steps out with an American Psycho”, “Samuel Beckett writes a monologue for Ronnie Corbett” or “T.S. Eliot reflects that it might have come out better in limericks”. Each piece is just the right length to make its point, as there’s nothing worse than an over-extended joke, but I was actually left feeling I wanted more and I could happily have read a collection of these which was twice as long.

Of course, I did have some particular favourites! “Charles Dickens has a shot at being concise” is an absolute hoot, with a weather report which could simply have been rendered in the words “it was raining” treated to an ornate paragraph or two of Dickens’ wonderfully long-winded prose. “George Orwell confronts the real 1984” captures the real year surprisingly well; and as someone who remembers it, I can recall how much our view of 1984 was coloured by our thoughts of the book, but we actually had little idea at the time of how the world really *was* going to go down the road of Orwell’s visionary work. “Hilaria Holmroyd offers an exclusive extract from her new literary biography” features extracts from a spoof Bloomsbury-style work (presumably of the type purveyed by Michael Holroyd…) and is spot on about the ridiculous complexities of their personal lives. As for “Philip Larkin prepares lines in celebration of the Queen Mother’s 115th birthday” (which the book’s spurious blurb claims was banned and cut by the BBC!) this manages to mix wit with surprising pathos, and is a real winner.

Some guy who writes very funny parodies….

I have to say that “Pistache” had me snorting away merrily in many places, which did have a slightly irritant effect on OH (who was being a bit sniffy about the book). The book also has some lovely line illustrations by George Papadakis, which add to the jollity. It probably helps if you know a bit about the writing style of the authors being sent up (and possibly you need to have a particularly British sense of humour), but even if you don’t, it’s wonderful, silly, clever fun and a great way to lighten a gloomy January day! I think I may just have to dig out my old copy of that Faber book and be a bit more irritating…. πŸ˜‰

Time for some bookish confessions…

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Yes. Good intentions. Not to buy more books, to read from the stacks and to try to downsize the amount of volumes in the house. Unfortunately, as OH observed a little fretfully recently, even more seem to be arriving on a regular basis (and he hasn’t actually seen all of those that have made their way in…) I seem to be destined to acquire books, however hard I try, so I though I would share the latest fruits of my addiction with you… πŸ™‚

First up, some titles have arrived courtesy of Very Kind Fellow Bloggers:

The very lovely Liz at Adventures in reading, writing and working at home kindly passed on to me the Alexei Sayle autobiographies when she’d read them. I’m looking forward to them very much, as he’s so funny and of course staunchly left-wing, so they should be a fab read.

“Rupture” arrived from Sarah at Hard Book Habit, and I’m also really looking forward to that one, as I haven’t read any Icelandic crime for a while and this one comes highly recommended. So kind!

So I can’t take the blame, can I, when lovely people send me books? Or, indeed, when lovely publishers send me books like these!

The top two titles are ones I’m covering for Shiny New Books and probably should be read next. Then there are a couple of lovely titles from the British Library, which are very exciting – particularly the collection of translated crime shorts. Below them are two titles from the excellent Michael Walmer that sound marvellous; and finally at the bottom an intriguing book from OUP on scent in Victorian literature…

And then – ahem – there are the books I’ve been buying, and here they are:

I should say that this has been over a period of several weeks but even so, it’s not good for the rafters… To be specific:

I bought these two online – “The Cornish Trilogy” because of Kat’s excellent review and because I felt I really should read Robertson Davies; and “Grand Hotel Abyss” because it sounded marvellous and Verso sent one of those rotten emails with substantial discounts (they do this regularly and it’s Very Bad for the TBR!!)

These three are from charity shops. The two on the outside were Β£1 each so there was no question about picking them up. Patrick Leigh Fermor is a must, and Saramago is an author I want to read. The Orwell was more expensive (thanks, Oxfam) but, hey – it’s Orwell so no contest.

This, of course, was inevitable… Although I picked up a copy of Stevenson’s poems in Edinburgh I wanted more. I’ve been rummaging through bookshelves all week to try to find my copy of “Jekyll” and having failed, I picked up a copy for Β£1 in a charity shop last weekend. The other two came from an online source, and in particular I was keen to get “New Arabian Nights” after Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git waxed so lyrical about it recently.

And finally – with all my reading around the French Revolution and (shhhh!) iconoclasm recently, I came across recommendations for these two books. Well, they were cheap – although to be honest, it’s not the cost that is ever the issue with book buying, as I tend to go for the bargains. It’s whether I can shoe-horn any more into the house… Ah well – carpe librum, as they say!!

In mitigation, I should direct your attention to the heap waiting to be removed from the house in one way or another (not the Dickens books, I hasten to add – they’re on my Dickens shelf and they’re staying there….):

The Continuing Relevance of George Orwell

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Working out what to read after an immersive experience with a book, is never easy and particularly so after something like “In Other Worlds”. However, I was looking through the stacks and this little pamphlet slid into view; I picked it up earlier on in the year and somehow it seemed the time was right to read it. I’ve dipped into Orwell’s essays off and on over the years and even if I don’t always agree with what he has to say, he’s always a thoughtful and thought-provoking read.

“England Your England” was first published in 1941 as the opening essay of a collection entitled “The Lion and the Unicorn”. In it, Orwell, surrounded by signs of the War and with bombers flying overhead, casts his eye over his country and its inhabitants and tries to make some sense of England whilst looking to its future. The quote featured on the back of the booklet will give you a flavour of the narrative:

England is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family… A family with the wrong members in control.

That latter sentence *does* seem particularly relevant still, but I wondered how the rest of his arguments would hold up. We are, of course 60-odd years on from that point, and the country could be considered to have changed beyond all recognition. Well, yes and no…

Orwell considers patriotism, the relationship between the English and other countries, the state of the Empire, whether there are national characteristics and if we are a homogenous nation. He even berates himself for using the words “England” and “English”, because of course he is considering the UK. Many of his arguments touch on class and the division of wealth, and this is where I think he’s still very much spot on.

What was it that at every decisive moment made every British statesman do the wrong thing with so unerring an instinct?

Although the class system has broken down to a certain extent, we still live in a country where there is apparently democracy, and also a Royal Family, a House of Lords, and the Eton-type public school system which *still* produces so many of those who are supposed to be providing sensible government but don’t.

England is a country in which property and financial power are concentrated in very few hands.

And somehow, despite the decline of the aristocracy, they have managed to survive by absorbing up and coming wealthy manufacturers, financiers and the like (the subject of so many 20th century middlebrow novels about mixed-class marriages!) However, Orwell does not reserve his ire exclusively for the monied and the upper classes; he is equally scathing about those left-wing intellectuals who toe the Soviet party line and refused to believe anything wrong about Russia and what was really happening there. He has strong words about the inability of the English working class to ever do anything as decisive as starting a revolution, and he cites this as one of the differences between this country and, say, the working class of France or Russia (both of which have managed multiple revolutions).

How can you not love a man who said β€œThe only ‘ism’ that has justified itself is pessimism.”??

Despite the fact that some elements of this essay have by necessity become dated, there are many things in it that ring true and leave you wondering if even the superficialities have changed as much as you might think. Football, for example, is still a force for entertaining the masses on a Saturday afternoon, and the reliance on the hope of a win via the pools has simply been replaced by the dream of a lottery jackpot. However, there is a sense that with the current state of the world we are edging away from those slightly bumbling elements that kept England safe from extremism taking hold; the innate belief in the legal system and its fairness; the lack of real enthusiasm for war; the preference for the everyday distractions rather than developing any strong philosophy of life or a belief system of any kind. Orwell refers to “the strange mixture of reality and illusion, democracy and privilege, humbug and decency, the subtle network of compromises, by which the nation keeps itself in its familiar shape” and I found myself wondering in the modern world if this kind of safety net was being eroded.

“England Your England” is a surprisingly wide-ranging piece of writing for 40 pages, and ends on a note of optimism which was perhaps ill-founded (and which Orwell may have rejected a little later in his life). He states “This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing, class privileges“. Looking around me today, I don’t think, alas, that that is the case. We seem to me to be living in a world just as riddled with inequality as it was in Orwell’s day, where the rich are getting richer, and the poor getting poorer, to paraphrase the old song. OH often comments that there is only one cake to go round and that the greedy lot just want to make their big piece even bigger at the expense of the rest of us, and I think he’s not far off. This was a fascinating little essay to read at this moment in time, and it makes me wish we still had commentators of the calibre of Orwell taking on those in power…

 

Completing the set….

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I blame Lady Fancifull! Not only was it her comment on an earlier post that got me sharing my George Orwell collection on the Ramblings, she then had to mention that she’d seen reasonably priced copies of his Essays online. Of course, I had said that I was missing volume 4 in the Penguins (even though I have a lovely hardback edition) and the completist in me would have liked to have this too – well, now I have!

orwell-essays-coversTo the left are my three original volumes, and on the right the missing Vol 4 – a slightly more modern edition and a little bigger, but nevertheless the set is now complete!

orwell-essay-spines

I was pretty impressed at how good the condition of the book was, particularly as I’ve had such bad experiences with Amazon sellers in the past – however, I’ll know to go to this one again, as the book arrived beautifully packed and in an amazingly good state.

orwell-essays-4Unfortunately, it does make my originals look a little battered, but I don’t really mind. I’d forgotten what a history they have until I looked inside to check the publication dates, and found that I’d picked them all up in 1983 as ex-library stock:

orwell-essays-insideAll three have the same internal markings, and each one cost me 10p (yes, 10p!) – I was living in Hampshire at the time and no doubt these turned up either a library sale or in a local charity shop or on the book stall of my local market. If I had the time and energy to dig out my old journals, I could no doubt find out….

So my Penguin Orwell Essays collection is complete and the floorboards are groaning even more – thanks Lady F! :)))

Exploring my Library – George Orwell

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During the 1947 Club week there was some talk of George Orwell, most often mention of “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” in relation to “Of Love and Hunger”. After exchanging some comments with Lady Fancifull, where we both confessed our love of Eric Blair, I thought it might be nice to share my George Orwell collection with you.

orwell-shelf

And here it is in its glory. Orwell has a shelf to himself – he’s that important! My first encounter with his work was when I was at school; I went to a Grammar School in the 1970s and we had a pretty enlightened education, studying “Animal Farm”, “Nineteen Eighty Four” and “Down and Out in Paris and London”. The fact that they survived intense analysis in English lessons and I still love them is testament to their brilliance.

school-reads

I didn’t have my own copies at the time, but picked these up subsequently (when I was a teenager we had little spare money for books and tended to use the library). Interestingly, OH’s copy of “Nineteen Eighty Four” looks just like the one I read at school, and I covet it….

other-works

However, in the 1980s when I was working I started to collect the books I’d always wanted to own, and many of these Orwells come from that time – picked up in charity shops and jumble sales, which is where I often found my books. Yes, I have two copies of “Homage to Catalonia” in paperback, and another in the hardback boxed set. It’s necessary, because there are differences in the old and new Penguins, with the later one being edited to reflect Orwell’s preferred order of chapters.

essays-and-poetry

Alas, I only ever found three volumes of the Collected Essays etc – I have the fourth in the hardbacks, but the OCD side of me would like the Penguin paperback to match these as well… The poems are a recent arrival, appealing to the completist in me, even if poetry is not necessarily Orwell’s strength.

pamphlets-etc

And here are some bits and bobs – a couple of little pamphlets, some Penguin Great Ideas volumes and a notebook that’s too precious to use!

box-set

And finally, the box set of hardbacks – a beautiful gift from OH some years ago. It’s a wonderful set, with quality paper and so lovely I’m sometimes scared to read it in case I mess them up (though OH made me a paper cover to put over the books when I’m reading them, and I *did* therefore use this version of “Homage to Catalonia” when I re-read it.) One of my most precious sets of books.

So that’s my Orwell collection – and I’m rather feeling in the mood to read him now! πŸ™‚

Another side to a great author

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The Complete Poems by George Orwell

The words poetry and George Orwell are not ones that you could normally expect to hear in conjunction with each other. He’s an author much more known for his trenchant essay writing and deceptively straightforward prose style; so the fancies of verse aren’t what you’d expect to find. Yet scattered through all his works are examples of verse and he obviously had a great love of poetry. So Dione Venables, a founding member of the Orwell Society, came up with the wonderful idea of collecting together all of the examples of Orwell’s poetry in one book of Complete Poems. Needless to say, as an Orwell completist I had to have it, and fortunately the offspring were well trained enough to produce it for Christmas!

orwell poems

This slim little book is beautifully put together and collects all Orwell’s work, down to lost scraps and verse that featured in his great works like Nineteen Eighty Four. It’s a laudable thing to do, and gives the Orwell fan a chance to look at his poetry and see what they really think about it.

George-Orwell-006

So was Orwell a great poet? That’s always going to be a subjective judgement, although I think it’s fair to say that some of this is juveline work and some of it probably counts as doggerel. But Owell had a great love of poetry, and there are times when his verse really takes flight and becomes something special. He wrote love poems, celebrations of lost heroes, evocative memorials to past times, limericks and a spirited defence of his right to fight for his country. The stand-out for me was “The Italian Soldier Shook My Hand” from 1942, which evokes his time in Spain fighting fascism and ends with these two moving verses:

Your name and your deeds were forgotten
Before your bones were dry,
And the lie that slew you is buried
Under a deeper lie.

But the thing I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.

So George Orwell may be known as a wonderful prose writer (and that’s probably how I’d like to think of him); but on the evidence of this volume and in particular those verses above, he certainly had a talented leaning towards poetry – and I’m very glad I’ve read his complete verse.

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