cover image Diaries


George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison, intro. by Christopher Hitchens. Norton/Liveright, $39.95 (608p) ISBN 978-0-871-40410-7

Reviewed by David Brooks. George Orwell has become a literary saint because of his moral commitment and intellectual honesty. In his diaries, edited by Davison (co-editor of Orwell’s Complete Works), you see those two virtues coming into formation. In the early part of his career, Orwell spent much of his time living down and out with the poor, recording their habits and conversations, and his own efforts to stay nourished and alive. Orwell made judgments to himself, and his tone could be especially nasty when a Jew did something he disapproved of. But in general he is not in a judging mode, and he is certainly not describing his inner feelings. He often simply notes things: how much dried milk poor mothers get, how much beer they serve their children, what coffee shops allow tramps to sit undisturbed.The highlight of these diaries is the years of WWII. The diaries show Orwell working through the ideas that became Animal Farm. He spent the middle of the war years churning out propaganda at the BBC, and compares life there to “something halfway between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum.... Our radio strategy is even more hopeless than our military strategy.” But at the same time, Orwell was thinking deeply about the world of spin and propaganda. At one point, he notes: “All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth.” In April 1942, he despairs: “We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgment have simply disappeared from the face of the earth.” The diaries are not always scintillating reading. Orwell’s journal entries can be described as horror interrupted by gardening. For long stretches, he simply records the weather, how the beans are coming in, how much weeding he did. But when times got hard, his pen came alive—in the 1930s with the poor, in the early 1940s during the war, and in the late 1940s, as he grew ill. The characteristic Orwell voice is there—the intense clarity, the obsessive need to get some sort of honest rendering of reality. This book is not for beginners. It is for Orwell aficionados who already know the man’s life. Christopher Hitchens (Why Orwell Matters), who followed so faithfully and well in his footsteps, provides a fine introduction. Despite the longueurs, it is a pleasure to be around Orwell’s mind and his perfectly clear prose style. Illus. Agent: Bill Hamilton, AM Heath, U.K. (Aug.) David Brooks is an op-ed columnist at the New York Times and author of The Social Animal.