Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays

Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays

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by George Orwell
     
 

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George Orwell was first and foremost an essayist, producing throughout his life an extraordinary array of short nonfiction that reflected--and illuminated--the fraught times in which he lived. "As soon as he began to write something," comments George Packer in his foreword, "it was as natural for Orwell to propose, generalize, qualify, argue, judge--in short,

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Overview

George Orwell was first and foremost an essayist, producing throughout his life an extraordinary array of short nonfiction that reflected--and illuminated--the fraught times in which he lived. "As soon as he began to write something," comments George Packer in his foreword, "it was as natural for Orwell to propose, generalize, qualify, argue, judge--in short, to think--as it was for Yeats to versify or Dickens to invent."

Facing Unpleasant Facts charts Orwell's development as a master of the narrative-essay form and unites such classics as "Shooting an Elephant" with lesser-known journalism and passages from his wartime diary. Whether detailing the horrors of Orwell's boyhood in an English boarding school or bringing to life the sights, sounds, and smells of the Spanish Civil War, these essays weave together the personal and the political in an unmistakable style that is at once plainspoken and brilliantly complex.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Best known for his late-career classics Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell-who used his given name, Eric Blair, in the earliest pieces of this collection aimed at the aficionado as well as the general reader-was above all a polemicist of the first rank. Organized chronologically, from 1931 through the late 1940s, these in-your-face writings showcase the power of this literary form. The range of subjects is considerable, from "Shooting an Elephant" to remembrances of working in a bookshop ("The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence..."); from recollections of fighting in the Spanish Civil War to culinary oddities such as a "Defence of English Cooking" and "A Nice Cup of Tea"; to the broad-stroke masterwork of boarding-school irony, "Such, Such Were the Joys." New Yorker contributor Packer (The Assassins' Gate) keenly assembles and introduces this selection, bringing into high relief Orwell's range of experience and committed humanism, showing how, as Orwell put it, "to make political writing into an art." (Oct. 13)

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Library Journal

George Orwell (1903-50) is best remembered for his dark and prophetic political novels, Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949). In addition to four other novels, he also produced some of the best book-length nonfiction of the modernist era, including Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and Homage to Catalonia (1939). Harcourt is now republishing in two volumes his collected essays, compiled by Packer (The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq ). What is most astonishing about these essays are their continuing freshness and relevancy more than half a century after Orwell's death. All are worth reading for some combination of literary, historical, or cautionary merit. His criticism of art and politics (and sometimes both) remains spot-on, and the "unpleasant facts" he considers, including war, poverty, homelessness, lack of adequate medical care, and even schoolboy bullying, are unfortunately still familiar topics. Orwell's crisp and clear journalistic writing style remains highly accessible to 21st-century readers, with the occasional, now obscure reference illuminated by Packer's notes. Essential for academic libraries; highly recommended for public libraries.-Alison M. Lewis, formerly with Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia

Kirkus Reviews
The first of two volumes of the British author's essays, compiled by journalist George Packer. Orwell (1903-50) was no Flaubert closeted in aesthetic concentration. He was a vigorous participant in the chaotic life of his time, traveling to dangerous places (Burma under British rule, Spain fragmented by civil strife) and venturing into the culture of poverty-in his documentary masterpiece Down and Out in Paris and London and in such memorable transcriptions of personal experience as reports on his day spent in a filthy workhouse ("The Spike") and a similar adventure in a festering prison ("Clink"). Readers familiar with Orwell's work will not be surprised to find the aforementioned, or a kindred depiction of "Marrakech" as a swamp of poverty, overpopulation and disease, or a thoughtful if embittered retrospective essay, "Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War," which forms a bridge to his great nonfiction book Homage to Catalonia. Some may be surprised, however, to encounter a memoirist who displays a quirky affection for the minutiae of the quotidian ("The Case for the Open Fire," "In Defence of English Cooking," "Bookshop Memories") and a keen observer who always zeroes in on the broader ramifications of a simple subject (e.g., describing English football in "The Sporting Spirit" as "an unfailing cause of ill will"). The journalistic virtue Orwell does not possess in abundance is, oddly enough, objectivity. Readers will feel his inquiring, combative, judgmental sensibility lurking everywhere in his best work: bitter self-criticism in the twin classics "A Hanging" and "Shooting an Elephant"; stoical courage and depressive exhaustion in his immensely detailed "War-time Diary" (1940); hisneed "to make political writing into an art" in "Why I Write"; and the salutary indignation that enlivens his justly famous remembrance of public-school experiences ("Such, Such Were the Joys"). A generous display of the great English journalist's distinctive honesty, clarity and reverence for the pertinent fact and the perfect phrase.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780547417769
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
10/14/2009
Sold by:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
482,766
File size:
494 KB

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The Spike

The Adelphi, April 1931

It was late afternoon. Forty-nine of us, forty-eight men and one woman, lay on the green waiting for the spike to open. We were too tired to talk much. We just sprawled about exhaustedly, with home-made cigarettes sticking out of our scrubby faces. Overhead the chestnut branches were covered with blossom, and beyond that great woolly clouds floated almost motionless in a clear sky. Littered on the grass, we seemed dingy, urban riff-raff. We defiled the scene, like sardine-tins and paper bags on the seashore.

What talk there was ran on the Tramp Major of this spike. He was a devil, everyone agreed, a tartar, a tyrant, a bawling, blasphemous, uncharitable dog. You couldn’t call your soul your own when he was about, and many a tramp had he kicked out in the middle of the night for giving a back answer. When you came to be searched he fair held you upside down and shook you. If you were caught with tobacco there was hell to pay, and if you went in with money (which is against the law) God help you.

I had eightpence on me. "For the love of Christ, mate," the old hands advised me, "don’t you take it in. You’d get seven days for going into the spike with eightpence!"

So I buried my money in a hole under the hedge, marking the spot with a lump of flint. Then we set about smuggling our matches and tobacco, for it is forbidden to take these into nearly all spikes, and one is supposed to surrender them at the gate. We hid them in our socks, except for the twenty or so per cent who had no socks, and had to carry the tobacco in their boots, even under their very toes. We stuffed our ankles with contraband until anyone seeing us might have imagined an outbreak of elephantiasis. But it is an unwritten law that even the sternest tramp majors do not search below the knee, and in the end only one man was caught. This was Scotty, a little hairy tramp with a bastard accent sired by cockney out of Glasgow. His tin of cigarette ends fell out of his sock at the wrong moment, and was impounded.

At six the gates swung open and we shuffled in. An official at the gate entered our names and other particulars in the register and took our bundles away from us. The woman was sent off to the workhouse, and we others into the spike. It was a gloomy, chilly, lime-washed place, consisting only of a bathroom and dining room and about a hundred narrow stone cells. The terrible Tramp Major met us at the door and herded us into the bathroom to be stripped and searched. He was a gruff, soldierly man of forty, who gave the tramps no more ceremony than sheep at the dipping pond, shoving them this way and that and shouting oaths in their faces. But when he came to myself, he looked hard at me, and said:

"You are a gentleman?"

"I suppose so," I said.

He gave me another long look. "Well, that’s bloody bad luck, guv’nor," he said, "that’s bloody bad luck, that is." And thereafter he took it into his head to treat me with compassion, even with a kind of respect.

It was a disgusting sight, that bathroom. All the indecent secrets of our underwear were exposed; the grime, the rents and patches, the bits of string doing duty for buttons, the layers upon layers of fragmentary garments, some of them mere collections of holes held together by dirt. The room became a press of steaming nudity, the sweaty odours of the tramps competing with the sickly, sub-fæcal stench native to the spike. Some of the men refused the bath, and washed only their "toe rags," the horrid, greasy little clouts which tramps bind round their feet. Each of us had three minutes in which to bathe himself. Six greasy, slippery roller towels had to serve for the lot of us.

When we had bathed our own clothes were taken away from us, and we were dressed in the workhouse shirts, grey cotton things like nightshirts, reaching to the middle of the thigh. Then we were sent into the dining room, where supper was set out on the deal tables. It was the invariable spike meal, always the same, whether breakfast, dinner or supper—half a pound of bread, a bit of margarine, and a pint of so-called tea. It took us five minutes to gulp down the cheap, noxious food. Then the Tramp Major served us with three cotton blankets each, and drove us off to our cells for the night. The doors were locked on the outside a little before seven in the evening, and would stay locked for the next twelve hours.

 

Copyright © George Orwell

Compilation copyright © 2008 by The Estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell

Foreword and Introduction copyright © 2008 by George Packer

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Meet the Author

GEORGE ORWELL (1903–1950) served with the Imperial Police in Burma, fought with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, and was a member of the Home Guard and a writer for the BBC during World War II. He is the author of many works of nonfiction and fiction.

GEORGE PACKER is a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq and other works. He lives in Brooklyn.

 


GEORGE ORWELL (1903–1950) was born in India and served with the Imperial Police in Burma before joining the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was the author of six novels as well as numerous essays and nonfiction works.

GEORGE PACKER is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq and other works. He lives in Brooklyn.

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