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An Orwell Exegesis
on November 17, 2002
WHY ORWELL MATTERS
In a lifetime of reading, the writer whose books and essays have influenced my thinking more than any other is George Orwell. It is commendable that Christopher Hitchens singles him out as a writer that matters. But I am somewhat disappointed in this book.
The book is not a biography. Hitchens writes about Orwell's books and ideas rather than his personal life, but he includes so little about the latter that one has difficulty determining Orwell's circumstances. For example, Hitchens tells us that Orwell's father was a non-factor in his life, but he hardly makes clear why. Elsewhere, he informs us that Orwell, who he says was awkward with women, married twice. Again, a little background on the marriages might be helpful.
Hitchens sets out to defend Orwell against attacks by writers, politicians, and assorted adversaries. The book has too many such defenses. Hitchens devotes so much energy to these pursuits that in the end it is, it seems, the quality of the portrayal of Orwell's work, that is sacrificed. Not enough of the clear, unpretentious feel of Orwell's writing comes through in this book.
Hitchens does call attention a number of times to Orwell's fine essay , "On Politics and the English Language". In this essay, among other things, Orwell laid out some simple rules for straightforward, honest writing. One of these rules, for example, is "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent." Although Hitchens may be Orwell's advocate, he seems not a practitioner of his writing guidelines. Consider Hitchens' sentence, for example, "Notwithstanding this elaborate disavowal or "dementi", authors in need of a quick fix continued to use even the clapped-out Labourism of the late 1970s as a template for sub-Orwellian literary enterprises."
Toward the end of this book, Hitchens writes that Orwell's thought has largely been vindicated by time and that he "need not seek any pardon on that score". Exactly, his work stands alone sufficiently not to have required the earlier defenses. In summary, Hitchens also offers that Orwell had a "commitment to language as the partner of truth". This pithy synopsis of his work gets to the heart of Orwell's writing. I wish the rest of the book were as apropos.