Sunday 30 October 2011

Orwell October: A Life in Letters

Oh boy. I can't believe I'm about to type this, but my self-imposed Orwell thing that I've had going on is OVER. I think we all learned a lot- mainly that I don't like Orwell as much as I previously thought (but since that was A LOT, I think that's ok) and also that he's wrong about his own novels- for instance, he thought Keep The Aspidistra Flying was terrible, but I thought it was a lot better than Coming Up For Air, which he seems to have quite liked. But so it goes, I suppose. I also learnt that essays are pretty boring when you don't give a crap about their subject matter, no matter how well they're written; and also that there's a reason why Animal Farm and 1984 are the only two Orwell novels anyone's ever read. That sounds brutal, but they are so superior to anything else he's done, but most of the rest of the stuff wasn't half bad either, so that should give you some idea of just how good they are.

Anyway, I came to talk about A Life in Letters, and do that I shall. I'm pretty sure I've said it before, but if I have then it bears repeating- I love books containing letters written by noteworthy people. I really do. I think it gives a greater insight into their heads than any biographies can do, and, if they're really good letters, then I desperately want them to have been written to me. Here's the thing though- George Orwell was not the most interesting letter writer in the world. The majority of the letters in this book are about business matters, or about the running of his house, which are interesting enough in their own way, but somehow don't seem worthy for publication. That's kind of the problem I've been having- I'm not going to criticise Orwell for writing uninteresting letters because, you know, he needed to write them for various reasons, but I'm just wondering whether A Life in Letters really needed to exist at all when the letters are, for lack of a nicer word, dull.

I blame the Editor of the book, Peter Davison, for many of its failings, however (I would blame him for its existence, but I doubt that he commissioned it himself) because, quite frankly, he's included some of the most dumbass footnotes that have possibly ever existed in the world ever. I mean, during a whole load of letters written in 1933, anytime Orwell mentions his novel, Davison seems to think it's necessary to footnote 'Burmese Days' every time. Just in case we all thought Orwell was writing more than one novel at a time, presumably. Apart from the thick footnotes, he also footnotes things that really hold no interest for the reader, or that were pretty self-evident from what else Orwell says in that letter (for example, Orwell is talking about different formulas for babies, and Davison decides to tell us that this one brand of powdered milk is blah blah blah, and I'm just like 'I really don't care, so shut up!'). It got so bad that I eventually stopped reading all the footnotes without exception, so I probably missed some important information but I really couldn't care less.

I was also annoyed by the letters included in the book that were written by other people to other people that just mentioned Orwell, because, quite frankly, it felt massively like padding out (mainly because it was). Also, letters from Orwell's first wife Eileen to anyone were excruciating- I'm not sure anyone ever taught her the power of brevity, bless her. And, actually, what about his wife? As far as I can tell, Orwell never wrote a love letter to either of his wives, and seems curiously devoid of emotion on evidence of his letters- of course, this is typical of his writing style, but surely a love letter wouldn't have gone amiss, and actually would have made my day a little bit (although there probably would have been some stupid footnote like 'Here Orwell refers to his penis' or something, and that would have just been unnecessary and gross). There were a few moments when I smiled at something he'd said though, and allow me to share with you something that made me laugh out loud- Orwell talks about reading a book of Bertrand Russell's, and talks about a logic question that frankly made my head spin (and I'm not against a little philosophy) and then says "It is the sort of thing that makes me feel that philosophy ought to be forbidden by law." I can't say that Kant didn't make me feel this way, because oh my GOD, that man is incomprehensible, and I just found this funny.

That aside though, this book really was disappointing. I'd rather have spent my time re-reading John Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, because that's a man who knows how to share his thoughts through letters, and also a book with a much less... present editor. I'm not necessarily saying that Steinbeck was a more interesting person than Orwell (although I possibly love him more) but, in terms of letter writing, there's really no contest. This book has definitely made me reconsider my position on books of letters, although it hasn't ruined my urge to read more, just that the ones I do read should be better selected. But, I got through this, learned a little more about Orwell, but mostly wouldn't recommend this book to anyone but the most ardent Orwell fan (and even they'd be a little bored, I'm sure). Go for Steinbeck's letters instead.

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