August 25, 2012
Books of The Times
Garden of Notes by Author of ‘Animal Farm’
‘Diaries,’ by George Orwell, Edited by Peter Davison
By Dwight Garner (08-16-12) NY Times: Orwell
My favorite biographical detail about George Orwell might be that, when he died from tuberculosis in 1950 at the age of 46, his favorite fishing poles were standing in the corner of his London hospital room. He hoped he’d be using them again, and soon.
The Orwell we’ve come to know, through his novels, essays and journalism, is penetrating and witty but also frequently terrifying and remote. In the public imagination he will always be the man who declared: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
Among the vivifying things about his “Diaries,” issued now in one volume for the first time, is how they restore some first-person flesh and blood to what can seem like his disembodied head. What’s more, they show Orwell to be nearly Jeffersonian in his combined passion for politics and for the natural world, not merely for fishing but also for the enlightened and fervent cultivation of vegetables, fruit trees, animals and flowers.
If a friend of yours reads these diaries and afterward declares, “My, what an Orwellian garden you have,” do not wrinkle your eyebrows. He or she has paid you a very serious compliment indeed.
Orwell was an intermittent diarist. He kept the 11 diaries reprinted here over the course of nearly two decades, from 1931, when he was in his late 20s, until his hospitalization shortly before his death in January 1950.
The first of these diaries covers his experiences, two years before publication of “Down and Out in Paris and London” (1933), picking hops with itinerant laborers in Kent. The second reports on his research for “The Road to Wigan Pier” (1937). Another takes him to Morocco. Three more cover his impressions of World War II and its beginnings.
Others report on the years when he repaired to a remote farmhouse on the Scottish island of Jura, an ill and broken man after the death of his wife, Eileen. There he fished, caught lobsters and wrote “1984,” his masterpiece. (Yet another diary, about his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War — he took a bullet in the neck from the fascist side — was seized from Orwell and his wife and is believed to be in a secret police archive in Moscow.)
In these diaries he is lucid on the topics that obsessed him in nearly all his writing: politics, class, poverty, language. The Occupy movement will seize happily upon this line, from June 3, 1940, when Orwell responded in his diary to a letter in The Daily Telegraph lamenting that the rich would have to part with their cooks during the war: “Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99 percent of the population exist.”
But there are dozens of other lines worth seizing upon here, many of them about the degradation of language, and many of them comic. Reading the newspapers on Jan. 2, 1941, for example, Orwell made this observation: “The word ‘blitz’ now used everywhere to mean any kind of attack on anything. Cf. ‘strafe’ in the last war. ‘Blitz’ is not yet used as a verb, a development I am expecting.”
In his very next entry, a few weeks later, he wrote, without further comment: “The Daily Express has used ‘blitz’ as a verb.”
There are deft cameos. The critic Cyril Connolly appears long enough to view some of the German bombing of London in 1941 from a rooftop with Orwell, and to declare: “It’s the end of capitalism. It’s a judgment on us.”
A great deal of the writing in these diaries, however, is about the rough magic of serious gardening, which Orwell enthusiastically undertook in Morocco, in a cottage he rented with his wife in Wallington, outside of London, and on Jura.
I don’t want to imply that these gardening diaries are, on every page, bewitching. Many entries are like so: “11.4. 38: One egg. 11.5.38: One egg. 11.6. 38: Two eggs.” They are frequently terse, factual, telegrammatic.
This might be a good time to note that these diaries are probably not Orwell for beginners. His best prose is more concentrated in many other places. Even Christopher Hitchens, whose introduction to this book is said to be the last commissioned piece of writing he completed before his death in 2011, calls the diaries “occasionally laborious.”
Orwell rarely mentions his wife, their adopted son or any other human beings in these pages. He only very rarely refers to his books, or other writing projects, either. These diaries were like handwriting around the margins of his most important work. This handsome book does not, despite its publisher’s assertion on the dust flap, “amount to a volume as penetrating as the autobiography he would never write.”
About Orwell’s gardening and fishing and rabbit skinning and bird-watching, however, clearly not enough scholarly work has been done. We find him here tending to dozens of types of flowers, fruit trees and vegetables. He dilates on how best to hobble cows, to cook rabbits, to make charcoal, to preserve eggs and to tie lobster claws. On September 11, 1946, he wrote: “Made mustard spoon out of deer’s bone.”
There are drawings by Orwell in “Diaries” of lathes, plows, drills, scythes, fishing nets, stirrups and charcoal braziers. He cures pelts, shoots rabbits and makes apple jelly from windfall fruit. A not untypical entry (amusing from a man who composed the line “Four legs good, two legs bad” in “Animal Farm”) is: “Spent about two hours trying to get a cow out of a bog.”
Orwell’s labors take on a potent moral dimension. He hoped never to be what he once called a “food-crank.” He liked simple things. These diaries show him with his hands covered in fresh dirt, hard at work, in sync with the seasons, curious about everything under the sun, tending to what he needed and grateful for beauty as well as sustenance. They present a man in full.
A version of this review appeared in print on August 17, 2012, on page C25 of the New York edition with the headline: The Author Of ‘1984’ Shows An Agrarian Side.