It has its gainsayers (eg Steven Poole is pretty disparaging, though unfairly in my view) but George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (the whole essay is online), is prophetic. Of course some of his linguistic concerns are matters of taste and fashion (as Steven Poole rightly notes). But written at the close of the Second World War, this article exposes the sham sincerity and dissembling motivation behind so much political speech and writing. That is the essay’s great virtue. And it has not gone out of date at all. Read more
Having taken a look at the big picture, political issues of the Hunger Games trilogy in the first part of my Damaris review, it seemed to me that the heart of the books lies in their exploration of the private. In fact, it’s very unlikely that the books would be anything like as successful as they have been were it not for this. For we really get to know Katniss, in all her doubt, confusions and even less attractive qualities. She is not a cardboard cutout heroine, which is perhaps why so many (both male and female) relate to her so well. After all, there are not many female protagonists who appeal across the gender divide. Read more
Over the Easter break, we enjoyed a first in our family – we all read the same books together (or to be more accurate, competed with each to be able to start the next instalment before one of the others got to it). We all devoured Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and it was a lot of fun, leading to a number of great chats. We didn’t it feel appropriate for our 10 year old to read the third instalment (‘Mockingjay’) because there were parts that were genuinely scary for that age (and in fact, had to get her to skip around 20 pages of the 2nd, Catching Fire). But Rachel, my 13 year old and I read all 3 and thoroughly enjoyed them. There’s so much in them, quite apart from being gripping yarns. Read more
I get restless if I don’t have something to read on the bus. So I grabbed the closest thing on my desk as I ran out yesterday – which had been a recently thumbed anthology of George Orwell’s Essays. (I’d been looking at it because of the seminal piece Why I Write, recently recommended to me by the Real Grasshopper). I found myself, somewhat incongruously, sitting upstairs in the front row motoring down Park Lane, and reading a short account of an experience Orwell had in the British Imperial Police in Burma – starkly entitled ‘A Hanging‘. Read more
I knew nothing previously about Antal Szerb (a Hungarian who was a brilliant literature professor, but who tragically ended up beaten to death in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945) nor the book and only picked it up on the off-chance during a random bookshop browse – and what a find! It was a great holiday read – and if you’re after something light but not vacuous, refreshingly escapist but in a far from irrelevant way – this is it.
Having been unknown to English readers until as recently as 2007 (first published in Hungarian in 1942), Oliver VII is a beautifully written and perfectly paced novel, wonderfully capturing the atmosphere of middle europe with its interwar ancien regimes now dimly and distantly lost.
Much of the story is told from the point of view of Sandoval, a painter, as he takes the role of bit-part player and fixer in the political chaos of his country. The focus of his (and our) attention is the young, eponymous king of a fictitious central European country (Alturia). He feels constrained by the unreality and sycophancy of his world, as well as the obvious fact his country is facing such a major economic crisis (whose only solution appears to come in the form of a foreign venture capitalist who wants to buy the country! all very contemporary…) – so plots a coup d’etat against himself and disappears to Venice where he ends up with a bunch of conmen. The farce culminates in his impersonating himself in a con followed by his restoration to his throne. It’s all absurd – but that’s really half the point and all of the fun.
It’s a great antidote to the more aggressive and cynical writing around these days – a charming but very unexpected cocktail of:
- the world of old European monarchies on whose behalf Tintin might have gone in search for missing jewels or investigated coups d’etat
- the ‘long-con’ world of Micky Stone’s Hustle gang – Count St Germain is a perhaps a prototype for Albert (Robert Vaughn) Stroller!?
- a gentle political satire – nothing like as biting as Orwell or Private Eye of course – but not completely divorced from their work either.
There is some seriousness to it all (though never in a heavy-handed way) – running themes like the nature of reality and how we know who we are, behind the masks we wear and the roles we carry. But its delight is derived from its gentle whimsy. It would make a wonderful play… now there’s a thought. Perhaps one a rainy afternoon when I’ve nothing else to do, I might just have a stab at a script…
A final note about Len Rix’s translation – it wonderful evokes Oliver’s world and while of course I’ve no idea what it was like in the original Hungarian, it flowed and felt thoroughly authentic. The joy of a good translation is that it’s invisible – you never for a moment consider it is one. And that was certainly the case here.
2009 is a year of some very interesting 60th anniversaries. In the bleak, post-2nd World War years, a number of things happened which profoundly affect the world today, in a strange, rather chillingly interconnected kind of way.
- Foundation of PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA
- Foundation of NATO
- Adoption of the GENEVA CONVENTIONS at the United Nations
- Publication of George Orwell’s seminal book 1984
It’s quite a telling little combination. Orwell’s book is of course a tour de force – and the process of completing and then typing it up in a damp and cold crofter’s cottage finished its masterly creator off for good. I greatly enjoyed a précis Robert Harris’ intro to the anniversary edition as included in The Week 6 June edition. He calls the book the “Most Influential Novel Ever Written” – note, he’s not saying it is necessarily the greatest novel, but it is profoundly influential, and as evidence for the claim, simply take the prevalence of the novel’s jargon that has become commonplace. If you’ve never read 1984, or if it is a long time since you did, then read it. And while we’re on the subject of newspeak…
Thanks to the consistently amusing and helpful Futility Closet, here is Hamlet’s famous Soliloquy in Newspeak/Doublethink written by one J A Lindon – which, for those less familiar with the original, I’ve placed side by side.