My Country Right or Left: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters Volume II by George Orwell (1968) 540 p.
This second volume of Orwell’s collected works cover the period from 1940-1943. This was a time when Orwell had published several novels and made a name for himself as an investigative journalist and socialist writer, and as such there are far fewer letters to other writers and far more published opinion pieces and articles.
Given that the book covers the opening years of World War II, when Orwell was living in London, I was disappointed to find that surprisingly little of the book involved the war – even when bombs must have been raining down around him during the Blitz, he was still writing book reviews and discussing poetry and the state of contemporary literature. When the war was discussed, it was in political terms, without any of the personal angle which I preferred in his earlier writing, such as Down and Out In Paris And London or Homage to Catalonia. Then, of course, I found that the book has an appendix of 100+ pages covering his war-time journals. I can understand why the editors chose not to intermingle them with the rest of the book – a lot of the diary entries contain observations and winning phrases which he’d specifically noted down for later use, so you’d end up with too much repetition – but if I’d known it was there beforehand I probably would have chosen to read the diaries alongside the rest of the book, just for chronological continuity.
In any case, the war-time journals themselves are one of the best parts of the book – I always love Orwell, but his writing is much more enjoyable when there’s a personal aspect to it. It’s fascinating to read a day-by-day (or sometime week-by-week) account of the Blitz in general, let alone coming from the pen of such a gifted and famous writer. Much of his diaries – like much of the rest of the book – consist of political observations, arguments and predictions, but there are also lots of brief fragments of feelings and impressions on the whole situation scattered throughout. The entirety of his entry for October 19, 1940:
The unspeakable depression of lighting the fires every morning with papers of a year ago, and getting glimpses of optimistic headlines as they go up in smoke.
Or an addendum to a mostly political entry on November 23:
Characteristic war-time sound, in winter: the musical tinkle of raindrops on your tin hat.
Or, amusingly, on 27 March, 1941:
Abusive letter from H.G. Wells, who addresses me as “you shit,” among other things.
The predominant thing I took away from the book as a whole – something that was also present in the first volume – was how political WWII was. As a war, it’s been completely deified by modern society. Now, I believe (as Orwell did at the time) that Nazi Germany was nonetheless in the wrong, and the Allies in the right, terms I wouldn’t use to describe any war of the past decade. But right or wrong, Orwell’s writing clearly demonstrates how overwhelmingly political any war is – the complex plotting between conservatives and liberals, right-wing and left-wing, socialists and fascists and pacifists and communists. Many of his essays and diary entries are devoted to nutting out the motives behind propaganda and political decisions, or measuring the morale of a hoodwinked public. We take it as a given that everybody in England pitched in, with stiff upper lip, to defeat the Nazis. That was never true – there were grumblings and demonstrations and people quite potently arguing that England should stay uninvolved, or even join Germany. Antisemitism was rife, sometimes even from Orwell himself, and the US soldiers stationed in the UK were deeply disliked by the locals. Perhaps half a century from now people will think the Iraq War was universally condemned, with every single person in coalition countries united against it, when in fact many supported it. It can go either way, regardless of how the war itself pans out. The only reason I thought the Iraq War was so complex and politically motivated, and that WWII wasn’t, is that I happened to be alive during the Iraq War. Historical wars settle on an accepted narrative, for better or worse. Even the Vietnam War is starting to settle into a general consensus – just not the one the US would like.
So, as always, Orwell makes me think about stuff, whether I agree with him or not. I’m very much looking forward to the next book and keeping an eye out for a hint of the Holocaust. He hasn’t mentioned anything about it yet, and I still can’t wrinkle out of Wikipedia and history books whether or not people in Allied countries knew it was happening.