Remembering George Orwell
1903, June 25. - 1950, January 21.


MINISTRY OF MISINTERPRETATION
Review of "The Larger Evils" by W.J. West.

By D.J. Taylor
The Sunday Times
13 December 1992

By this stage in the proceedings - two fat biographies and a heap of lesser memorials - the average reader could be forgiven for thinking that there is not much more to be said about Orwell. Michael Shelden has riffled creditably through the private life; most of the people who knew him, from the man who made his suits to his fag-master at Eton, have revealed whatever there is to reveal; gallons of ink have been expended in discussing what are now the salient questions of Orwell study. Did he really shoot an elephant? Or see the man hanged? We shall probably never know, but the zeal with which the biographers leap on to these topics suggests that the significant work has been done, and the best we can hope for now is a little more supplementary detail.
W.J. West, whose contribution to Orwell studies includes the discovery and publication of his war broadcasts, believes none of this. His view, expressed in a series of tendentious and self-congratulatory chapters, is that the social and intellectual conditions of the early 1940s under which Orwell laboured had a decisive effect on the genesis of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and that this life-into-art progression has been ignored by purblind critics. No aspect of Orwell's nightmare creation lacked a parallel in wartime Britain, from the Ministry of Truth (a projection of Orwell's time at the BBC) to the state tribunals (based on the treatment of conscientious objectors). West concludes that the novel is "a savage satire of a world which actually existed ..."
One had an idea that this point had been made before, if less forcibly. In fact, much of what West has to say is of considerable value to anyone interested in Orwell who was disappointed by. the Bernard Crick and Michael Shelden biographies. He is, for example, shrewd on the political events of 1944-45 and their centrality to the development of Orwell's thought - the impression left by Shelden is that politics was simply one of Orwell's hobbies - has a nice line on the banning of the famous essay on Dali (it offended the Ministry of Information rather than the obscenity laws) and suggests, plausibly, that many of the sadistic details of "Room 101" grew out of Orwell's conversations with a neighbour who has been a Japanese PoW.
What weakens The Larger Evils, though, is on the one hand a quite intolerable level of portentousness and on the other the readers growing awareness that despite all the stern references to "the truth" the result is just as speculative as all the abundant Orwell theories of the past 40 years. West is convinced that he has come to dig an untilled garden.
Consequently, his book is stuffed with preening references to the "entirely new ground" he is breaking, the dazzling nature of the material he has turned up, and all the stupendous finds hitherto "ignored by critics". Unfortunately, many of these claims are nonsense. For example, West suggests that the American influence on Orwell, in particular the work of Jack London, has been "entirely neglected", yet Christopher Small’s The Road to Miniluv, Crick’s biography and T.R. Fyvel’s memoir, each contains discussions either of London or Orwell’s wider interest in American writing.
When he is not being misleading, West is frequently expressing only a pious hope. The connections he painstakingly adduces between Orwell’s wartime existence and the world of his fiction are plausible, but no more than that: one could just as easily agree with the critics who thought that Nineteen Eighty-Four was the projection of his infant misery. West thinks it "very likely" that certain things happened, that they "may well" have happened or, chancing his arm a bit, that there's "no doubt" that they happened, but often he is merely overdramatising. For example, the hinge on which the book turns is the 1939 Customs and Excise raid on the Orwells' Hertfordshire cottage in search of contraband literature. This apparently gave Orwell his first taste of a totalitarian society. After it, "the Orwells' lives could never be the same again". But Orwell seems to have treated the episode as rather a joke, and, in any case, he had surely received his first taste of totalitarianism in action as a volunteer in Spain. The same point could be made of West's insistence that Orwell's wife, Eileen, helped with the construction of Animal Farm, the evidence for which consists of a couple of sentences in a letter.
Take away the speculation and the endless rehearsals of the "will now be described" variety and what remains would have made a decent-sized critical article. That it extends to 200 pages is the result of repetitious padding. The reader is twice invited to compare the telegraphic addresses of the fictitious Ministry of Truth and the real Ministry of Information, twice presented with the same quotation from The Lion and the Unicorn.
Unhappily, too, West's concern with "truth", has led him to neglect any interest in style. Clumsily written and idiosyncratically punctuated, many of his sentences are incomprehensible without several rereadings. Thus West ruminates on Orwell's "London Letter" to the American magazine, Partisan Review: "And he was clear also that his overview of what was really happening that he sent to America was valid: there would have been few who could have seen things validly from a New York standpoint, writing a regular column from London for New York, who was not simply someone who was about to get on a ship and go there, as so many intellectuals did!". This is very nearly gibberish.





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