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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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.
Scott McLemee
The English language has played a cruel joke on George Orwell's reputation. It takes the form of an adjective, "Orwellian," that is (alas) all too useful in describing certain tendencies in political life. But the word's durability and lasting popularity has a perverse effect: it conveys precisely the opposite of Orwell's own sensibility or his qualities as an author.

The Orwellian universe is a nightmare in which the historical record is constantly rewritten at the whim of those in authority, and reality itself defeated by the brute force of slogans framed with perfect cynicism. Such is the world emerging from Animal Farm and 1984, his last two novels, published in the 1940s, at the height of Stalinism. They have survived as something more than historical documents, for the urge to turn language into a weapon has outlasted the Cold War, too. But no reader who is familiar only with those books really knows George Orwell. For that, you must read his essays, which provide an education in the urgent need to avoid lying to oneself.

Orwell wrote other, less politically topical novels; they remain in print mainly because his name is on them. Each has its moments, but they are not Orwell's best moments, really -- most of which came in the course of his nonfiction writing. Most of it appeared in the form of articles, reviews, and columns written (often very quickly) for magazines and newspapers. Two volumes compiled and edited by George Packer, All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays and Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays, attempt to winnow out representative selections of the best work to be found among Orwell's journalism.

I want to insist on that last word in spite of a certain literary and academic squeamishness that insists on equating journalism with the ephemeral -- and both with the trivial. Orwell feels no obligation to respect this attitude, or the distinctions underlying it. He ignores the difference between the trivial and the profound; his writing is all of a piece. There is not much difference between the quality of mind Orwell brings to scrutinizing Jonathan Swift or T. S. Eliot for literary magazines and his newspaper columns about the behavior of American G.I.s in London or the proper way to prepare a cup of tea.

His friend Arthur Koestler once said that snobbery is, in the final analysis, a willful form of stupidity: a way of narrowing one's attention to the world through the lazy expedient of disdain. Orwell is at war with snobbery. There is even something willed about it, leading him to write not only alert and thoughtful analyses of pulp fiction, "smutty" postcards, and adventure magazines aimed at schoolboys, but also an unforgettable account of his own preadolescent years in a boarding school where the fine grades of class were turned into a blunt instrument for mental torture. (That memoir, "Such, Such Were the Joys," which appears as the final item in Facing Unpleasant Facts, was among the last things Orwell finished; but in some ways it is the best starting point for a reader first discovering Orwell's nonfiction.)

Orwell carried his egalitarian crusade a step further by making everything he wrote -- even a short review of a forgettable play -- both pointed in argument and well turned as prose. The results are not uniformly excellent: Only a mediocrity is always at his best. But each of Orwell's pieces, no matter what the format or the occasion, displays a force of concentration that comes from trying to do the best work he can, at the time. It is pride of craftsmanship. But I think there may be more to it than that.

Everyone remembers Orwell's most sinister creation: Newspeak, the official language of the Inner Party in 1984. The vocabulary of Newspeak shrinks all the time; so does its user's power even to imagine challenging Big Brother. This was an extrapolation of the very worst tendencies of Stalinist jargon, but Orwell saw comparable tendencies emerging under the pressure of mass media. He spent much of World War Two writing for BBC radio, an experience that shaped his account of Oceania's bureaucracy. His essay "Politics and the English Language," published in early 1946, acknowledged the seductive force of standard phrases: "They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself."

Orwell's struggle against political totalitarianism is always unmistakable. Here, he is flagging something else -- something less readily challenged by overt polemic: the tendency to brainwash ourselves through sheer laziness. "This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases," he goes on to say, "can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain." Every page of Orwell's nonfiction seems either to set up a protective barrier against such invasions or to scrutinize the various reasons we have to crave the numbness.

What makes Orwell a humane essayist, rather than a tiresome scold, is that he accepts the existence of this craving and doesn't propose to abolish it entirely. He was a socialist but never a utopian. An insistence on the permanent intimacy between the best and the worst parts of our nature is as close to a dogma as he ever gets. "On the whole," he writes, "human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time."

As a longtime reader of Orwell, I would say the same thing about these two volumes of his selected essays: they are good, but not too good, and not quite all the time. All Art Is Propaganda seems the better edited of the two, containing most of the major critical writings. (The omission of his essay on George Gissing, a Victorian novelist he resembled in a number of intriguing ways, is unfortunate. And room should have been made for at least one of Orwell's commentaries on James Burnham, who was a kind of proto-neoconservative.) A few of the pieces in Facing Unpleasant Facts can be aptly described, per the subtitle, as "narrative essays." Most are nothing of the sort, though -- being rather examples of the familiar essay, in which the flow of observations is not tethered to any effort at storytelling.

For someone encountering Orwell's nonfiction for the first time, they are a good point of departure. But in the best case, they will encourage readers to explore the four volumes of The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell or the hefty Everyman Library edition of his nonfiction. --Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee writes the weekly column "Intellectual Affairs" for Inside Higher Ed. He is a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

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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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