Peter Sedgwick

[Orwell + Radical Scholars]

(11 November 1972)

From Socialist Worker, 11 November 1972, p.11. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Unknown Orwell, by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams (Constable, three quid), is a disappointment. Orwell’s widow has made their work impossible by denying them the right to quote from his published work or the Orwell Archives.

We get a lot of paraphrasing of Orwell’s autobiographical bits, and some extra interviews with people who remember Orwell in different phases up to 1933.

Some of the new witnesses of Eric Blair (Orwell’s real name, dropped for purposes of book-authorship) are good: Note especially that Orwell’s fine essay, A Hanging, written as though it were a personal report, is actually fiction, since Orwell confided in a friend that he had never attended an execution.

The authors tend to make over-sweeping judgments which are then partly withdrawn: for example, that Blair’s prime intention in becoming a down-and-out in London and Paris was literary (to gather writing material) rather than political (to purge his guilt after serving imperialism in Burma; or that his marriage in 1936 was ‘the first time in his life he entered a deep and passionate bond’ – when for a start there are two meaningful emotional involvements with prostitutes on record.

And they do go on about the trappings of Eton and the parish register of Blairs, rather in the vein of heavy-footed tourists in Oldie England. Orwell remains more unknown than before in these lifeless pages.

On to Imperial College Department of Mechanical Engineering, where a Conference of Radical Scholars of Soviet and East European Studies fills a biggish lecture theatre.

The title may evoke images of beardies in mortarboards and academic robes sporting the New Statesman as they discuss who’s ‘in’ this year at the Kremlin. But it is a young, unestablished audience: to judge from the attendance, the Russian Question is rearing its ugly head again, as another politicised horde looks for some theory to get under its belt after a diet of demonstrations.

Other signs that the Russian Question mark is at it once more: the lousy (no misprint) movie about Trotsky’s murder; the new-found interest in oppositional currents surfacing in Russia; and somebody in the interval tells me that a playwright friend is writing a drama all about the Kronstadt rising of 1921. I can only add my hopes that it will be written for performance on ice.

Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 25.11.2004