The first (and I’m thinking both this one and the one that follows will be on many others’ top-two lists) was Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. The second was George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the genius fable that used a farmyard and its animals—most notably pigs—to illustrate complex concepts of politics, socialism, hypocrisy, and the absolute corruption of absolute power.
I’d never much understood how a fable could be so powerful—Aesop’s tales had interested me, but not in the same, axis-shifting comprehension-of-the-world way as this book. Nor did I have any clue who Orwell was. He might be a household name and literary great whose surname has been turned into an adjective (Orwellian) to describe a dystopian world, but to me as a schoolgirl he was just another author whose book was on the reading list.
Lack of this knowledge aside, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with him. He had me at ‘four legs good, two legs bad’, ‘two legs good, four legs bad’, ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’, and a few phrases in between.
I just heard that Animal Farm the play will be performed at the Queensland Performing Arts Complex in August. It inspired me to both book tickets and to brush up on my Animal Farm trivia. It also inspired me to investigate Orwell further.
What I quickly realised was that not only had he penned two masterpieces in a lifetime (which is two more than most people do, and he not only did this, but did so in fewer words than many of his counterparts), he was absolutely prolific in his writing. And all this in less than 50 years of life all up. Sheesh.
It was through this internet and Wikipedia trivia trawling that I stumbled across Why I Write. Part of the Penguin Great Ideas series, which also includes the writing of Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, and Woolf, it comprises some of his essays.
Reading the book, I marvelled at Orwell’s extraordinary ability to excise key, confounding issues, and to frame them in a manner that’s at once accessible, logical, and that highlights their absurdity and/or horror. And he does so in ways that make them memorable. I realised is that Orwell had me at many terms and statements, not least:
- such terms as ‘newspeak’, ‘thought police’, ‘prolefeed’, ‘doublethink’, and ‘big brother’ (the all-seeing state, not the TV show)
- the statement that ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’
- the introductory sentence to an essay about war: ‘As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me’
- and, this, an excerpt from one of his early poems:
I dreamed I dwelt in marble halls,
And woke to find it true;
I wasn’t born for an age like this;
Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?