8 April 2011

George Orwell and Me: Some thoughts on being longlisted for the Orwell Prize

My relationship with George Orwell began at Oakwood School in Horley, Surrey, in 1997, when our GCSE English class had to choose two texts for our open study. We were told to pick a novel by anyone on a list of nineteenth century authors, and compare it to anything we liked from the twentieth century. I’d long been curious about this book called Nineteen Eighty-Four, about which I’d kept hearing: I immediately decided that this would be my modern choice, and discussed with my teacher, Miss Davis, which should be my older text. Eventually, we agreed upon A Modern Utopia by H. G. Wells.

By the late twentieth century, few people interested in literature and politics could have come blind to Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even The Daily Mail – my parents’ paper of choice, which, I soon realised, was well out of step with its author’s ethos – used terms such as ‘Thought Police’ and ‘Big Brother’ in scaremongering editorials, and I’d noticed the word ‘Orwellian’ deployed to attack anything from European legislation to ‘political correctness’. Even before I bought my copy of Orwell’s final novel, it felt vital to reclaim his name and concepts from this constant, casual appropriation.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was the first serious novel I ever read, breaking me out of my teenage diet of The Simpsons and Sensible World of Soccer – and my lazy anti-capitalist rhetoric, replete with hammers and sickles drawn on my exercise books. Here was a flood of ideas: from the first sentence, where ‘the clocks were striking thirteen’, it was clear that this book would be all the more terrifying for making a familiar world strange. Once I reached the famous Party slogan ‘WAR IS PEACE’, I was hooked: the concepts that underpinned the novel, especially Newspeak and the political weighting of language, transformed my understanding of the possibilities of writing – and my way of seeing the world, demanding serious thought about how ideology impacted upon people’s lives.

I couldn’t finish the book or write my essay fast enough. During lessons, the class had time to read whilst the teacher did her marking: having been so dazzled by Nineteen Eighty-Four, I feverishly consumed Animal Farm, borrowing it from the person next to me when he wasn’t using it. My work came back: the teacher had given it 54 out of 54, with a note saying that it was ‘the best Open Study that I’ve ever read’ and praising my insights into Orwell’s text, particularly my assertion that ‘Big Brother’ did not even need to exist to function as a means of social control. (Sadly, along with my thoughts on Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller – another text that deeply impressed me, by a writer I found spiritually, stylistically and politically akin to Orwell – it is lost.)

Reading Orwell’s novels, and studying the Cold War, fostered a keen interest in the relationship between literature and politics. Much of what I read dealt with politics, and I saw politics in much of what I read. When I couldn’t, I got bored. Reading constantly at sixth form, my view of politics in literature became very broad. I saw not just the ‘high’ politics of Orwell, Primo Levi or Chinua Achebe, but the social politics of Kafka and the French existentialists, who had an equally strong effect on me: Camus’s The Outsider crystallised everything I felt about the world in just a hundred pages, whilst Roquentin’s resolution in Sartre’s Nausea to write ‘something beautiful, as hard as steel, that makes people ashamed of their very existence’ made me want to write myself. (Most of what I produced then would have made nobody ‘ashamed of their very existence’ but me.)

During the first year of my History degree, I chose to study the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War. This meant returning to Orwell, for Homage to Catalonia. I was compelled by the idea of the intellectual as acting agent, finding Lenin’s The State and Revolution (written amidst the chaos of Russia’s summer of 1917) essential reading; I found this to be political writing of the highest order, encapsulating perfectly the bitterness of the socialist revolution betrayed by the brutal imposition of Stalinist orthodoxy.

I wish I’d read The Road to Wigan Pier before Homage to Catalonia. Nearly seventy years after Orwell’s account of the disastrous infighting that crippled the Republican fight against Spanish Fascism was published, I lamented the continuing divisions that hampered opposition to the neo-conservative order, at this point pursuing catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What caught my attention in Wigan Pier was not so much the first part, documenting working class lives, but the second, attacking other socialists of various creeds. Orwell’s was a complex intellect, capable of writing social commentaries (such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four) with resonance for a wide number of ideological positions, but here I disagreed, leaning towards the Popular Front approach that arose in France in the late Thirties. Perhaps, though, we had ended up in similar places, and I did Orwell a disservice by reading him backwards.

Then I left Orwell behind. Discovering Modernism, I became obsessed with experimental or avant-garde writers: whilst I found Orwell challenging, I discovered plenty of other authors whose prose style excited me more. (Although I disagreed strongly with undergraduate friends who maintained that Orwell was “a bad writer”.) My exploration followed the line of French writing that began with Flaubert and ran through Baudelaire and symbolism, Zola and Naturalism, Huysmans and decadence, Apollinaire and modernism, Breton and Surrealism, Blanchot and existentialism, Beckett and absurdism, Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman. I took in Wilde, Joyce, Woolf and Lawrence too, and these two routes lead me to the man on whom I would publish my first book: Orwell’s former flatmate, Rayner Heppenstall.

Heppenstall remains contentious amongst Orwell scholars for his account of an incident when Orwell lost patience with him as he returned, loudly, from a drunken night out, and raised a shooting stick over his head. This was published in Four Absentees, Heppenstall’s memoirs covering his friendships with Orwell, Dylan Thomas, Eric Gill and John Middleton Murry, issued in 1960. (Richard Webster's assessment of the incident is here.) At this point, a decade after his death, Orwell had near-saintly status within Britain’s literati, as the post-war reaction against modernist experimentation found its zenith, and his favouring of moderate socialism over Marxist-Leninist communism appeared more prescient after the Hungarian Uprising.

The personal politics around this did not concern me: with the protagonists departed, all I cared about was what remained on the page. Heppenstall’s approach could scarcely have differed more from Orwell’s: his works were deeply subjective and highly introspective, his war novel The Lesser Infortune taking place almost entirely within his own mind as he suffered a nervous breakdown. His prose was beautiful – apparently ornate at first glance, but every word was vital. I tried to cut key lines when I quoted them for my book, but to do so seemed criminal.

In form, Heppenstall was daring. His debut novel, The Blaze of Noon (1939), was narrated by a blind masseur, and the resultant perspective felt unlike any other I’d read – except the later nouveau roman works to which it was often compared. Unlike most other fiction of the late Thirties, it all but avoided ideological or social politics, influenced by Freud and Nietzsche rather than Marx; it was critically acclaimed, but after an initial wave of publicity following The Evening Standard’s objection to its ‘poultry-yard morals’, it vanished, overtaken by the global conflict. A similar fate befell his second novel, Saturnine – a brilliant picaresque portrait of the chaos in London in the months around the outbreak of war; as Orwell’s star rose, Heppenstall’s faded.

Later works, particularly The Connecting Door and Two Moons, were even more inventive, but his brand of formal exploration did not attract widespread critical or public attention. His works have long been out of print, unlike those of Orwell (who remained Heppenstall’s friend until his death), whose stock increased with each passing year. I don’t have space here to do full justice to the idiosyncratic beauty of his eight novels, particularly the earlier ones, but my article for Context, the Dalkey Archive Press publication, is here.

So I learned from Orwell that political writing was an art, and from Heppenstall that the art of writing had been politicised. In their differing ways, both inspired me to write, and write as I do: to ‘write as though it matters’, as B. S. Johnson put it in his list of praiseworthy living authors – which included Heppenstall. Years after my journey through literature began with Nineteen Eighty-Four, I am proud to have published a book on Rayner Heppenstall, and to have written the introduction to the reissue of The Blaze of Noon that will appear later this year; and I am proud that my Transgender Journey blog (the politics of which are covered here) has been longlisted for the Orwell Prize.

I have still never read A Modern Utopia.