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George Orwell's 'Diaries' show balance between big and small vision

August 13, 2012|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Reading George Orwell's "Diaries" in a single volume offers us a different take on Orwell: less as a thinker, or a figure of political conscience, than as a complex and dimensional human being.
Reading George Orwell's "Diaries" in a single volume…

Last week, George Orwell’s “Diaries” finally appeared in the United States for the first time. Although I say "finally," it's not that they've been hard to find, exactly: The diaries were published in England two years ago, and since 2008, they have also been posted entry-by-entry, seven decades to the day after they were written, on a blog administered by the Orwell Prize.

To encounter Orwell’s observations in that forum is to recognize the peculiar tension of his writing, which is contemporary and of its moment at once. Read on the Web, as discrete daily blog posts, we get a sense of the diary as living literature, even as the events it describes (the most recent entry addresses unrest in India, and the arrests of Nehru and Gandhi) have long since become part of history.

And yet, reading the “Diaries” end-to-end in a single volume offers us a different take on Orwell: less as a thinker, or a figure of political conscience, than as a complex and dimensional human being. Beginning in 1931 and extending until September 1949, four months before his death, at 46, of tuberculosis, the material here moves back and forth from the trivial to the profound, mixing notes on food, the weather and the author’s garden with his reflections on World War II and other events.

Although one set of entries was used as the source of “The Road to Wigan Pier” (1937) and another is recapitulated in Orwell’s 1931 essay “Hop-Picking” (and, later, his first book “Down and Out in Paris and London”) it’s a mistake to read these pages as a cipher to his published work. “This diary,” Christopher Hitchens writes in an introduction, “is not by any means a straight ‘guide,’ or a trove of clues or cross-references. It would be rather difficult to deduce, for example, that it was during his sojourn in Morocco in 1938-1939 that Orwell conceived and composed the novel ‘Coming Up for Air.’”

Difficult, yes, and as Hitchens suggests, entirely beside the point. Indeed, the best stuff here is that which focuses on the mundanity of existence, even in the face of extremes. In an account of the Blitz, for instance — one of the most sharply described sections of “Diaries” — Orwell traces not just the determination but also the ennui provoked by German air attacks, the tedium of never-ending crisis mode.

“Air-raid warnings,” he writes on Aug. 31, 1940, “of which there are now half a dozen or thereabouts every 24 hours, becoming a great bore. Opinion spreading rapidly that one ought simply to disregard the raids except when they are known to be big-scale ones and in one’s own area.”

Ten days later, he elaborates: “Can’t write much of the insanities of the last few days. It is not so much that the bombing is worrying in itself as that the disorganization of traffic, frequent difficulty of telephoning, shutting of shops whenever there is a raid on, etc., etc., combined with the necessity of getting on with one’s ordinary work, wear one out and turn life into a constant scramble to catch up lost time.”

Getting on with one’s ordinary work: There we have it, the balance between big and small vision, between the circumstances of one’s own life and those of the external world. For Orwell, this is a fundamental position, key to his status as literary and political conscience of the 20th century. And he makes it explicit in the last lines of the entry, where he writes, “I should think 3 months of continuous raids at the same intensity as the last 4 nights would break down everyone’s morale. But it is doubtful that anyone could keep up the attack on such a scale for 3 months, especially when he is suffering much the same himself.”

On the one hand, what Orwell is saying is that he can’t imagine his fellow Londoners being able to sustain themselves under such intense assault. Yet he goes much further with that final line, which is less an expression of strategy than one of empathy. It’s all in the word choice, the use of “suffering,” with its implication of a shared humanity.

That, in turn, reminds me of his essay “Revenge Is Sour,” where the sight of a dead German soldier leads Orwell to an unlikely epiphany, in which — in spite of everything -- he takes the broad view, insisting that we regard the man not as an enemy so much as a casualty, "one corpse out of the — perhaps — twenty million that the war has produced."

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