As I Please

in Tribune

10 March 1944

George Orwell

READING as nearly as possible simultaneously Mr Derrick Leon’s Life of Tolstoy, Miss Gladys Storey’s book on Dickens, Harry Levin’s book on James Joyce, and the autobiography (not yet published in this country) of Salvador Dali, the surrealist painter, I was struck even more forcibly than usual by the advantage that an artist derives from being born into a relatively healthy society.

When I first read War and Peace I must have been twenty, an age at which one is not intimidated by long novels, and my sole quarrel with this book (three stout volumes—the length of perhaps four modern novels) was that it did not go on long enough. It seemed to me that Nicholas and Natasha Rostov, Pierre Bezukhov, Denisov and all the rest of them, were people about whom one would gladly go on reading for ever. The fact is that the minor Russian aristocracy of that date, with their boldness and simplicity, their countrified pleasures, their stormy love affairs and enormous families, were very charming people. Such a society could not possibly be called just or progressive. It was founded on serfdom, a fact that made Tolstoy uneasy even in his boyhood, and even the ‘enlightened’ aristocrat would have found it difficult to think of the peasant as the same species of animal as himself. Tolstoy himself did not give up beating his servants till he was well on into adult life.

The landowner exercised a sort of droit de seigneur over the peasants on his estate. Tolstoy had at least one bastard, and his morganatic half-brother was the family coachman. And yet one cannot feel for these simple-minded, prolific Russians the same contempt as one feels for the sophisticated cosmopolitan scum who gave Dali his livelihood. Their saving grace is that they are rustics, they have never heard of benzedrine or gilded toenails, and though Tolstoy was later to repent of the sins of his youth more vociferously than most people, he must have known that he drew his strength—his creative power as well as the strength of his vast muscles—from that rude, healthy background where one shot woodcocks on the marshes and girls thought themselves lucky if they went to three dances in a year.

One of the big gaps in Dickens is that he writes nothing, even in a burlesque spirit, about country life. Of agriculture he does not even pretend to know anything. There are some farcical descriptions of shooting in the Pickwick Papers, but Dickens, as a middle-class radical, would be incapable of describing such amusements sympathetically. He sees field-sports as primarily an exercise in snobbishness, which they already were in the England of that date. The enclosures, industrialism, the vast differentiation of wealth, and the cult of the pheasant and the red deer had all combined to drive the mass of the English people off the land and make the hunting instinct, which is probably almost universal in human beings, seem merely a fetish of the aristocracy. Perhaps the best thing in War and Peace is the description of the wolf hunt. In the end it is the peasant’s dog that outstrips those of the nobles and gets the wolf; and afterwards Natasha finds it quite natural to dance in the peasant’s hut.

To see such scenes in England you would have had to go back a hundred or two hundred years, to a time when difference in status did not mean any very great difference in habits. Dickens’s England was already dominated by the ‘Trespassers will be Prosecuted’ board. When one thinks of the accepted left-wing attitude towards hunting, shooting and the like, it is queer to reflect that Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky were all of them keen sportsmen in their day. But then they belonged to a large empty country where there was no necessary connexion between sport and snobbishness, and the divorce between country and town was never complete. This society which almost any modern novelist has as his material is very much meaner, less comely and less carefree than Tolstoy’s, and to grasp this has been one of the signs of talent. Joyce would have been falsifying the facts, if he had made the people in Dubliners less disgusting than they are. But the natural advantage lay with Tolstoy: for, other things being equal, who would not rather write about Pierre and Natasha than about furtive seductions in boarding-houses or drunken Catholic businessmen celebrating a ‘retreat’?

.     .     .     .     .

IN his book on Joyce Mr Harry Levin gives a few biographical details, but is unable to tell us much about Joyce’s last year of life. All we know is that when the Nazis entered France he escaped over the border into Switzerland, to die about a year later in his old home in Zurich. Even the whereabouts of Joyce’s children is not, it seems, known for certain.

The academic critics could not resist the opportunity to kick Joyce’s corpse. The Times gave him a mean, cagey little obituary, and then—though The Times has never lacked space for letters about batting averages or the first cuckoo—refused to print the letter of protest that T. S. Eliot wrote. This was in accordance with the grand old English tradition that the dead must always be flattered unless they happen to be artists. Let a politician die, and his worst enemies will stand up on the floor of the House and utter pious lies in his honour, but a writer or artist must be sniffed at, at least if he is any good. The entire British press united to insult D. H. Lawrence (‘pornographer’ was the usual description) as soon as he was dead. But the snooty obituaries were merely what Joyce would have expected. The collapse of France, and the need to flee from the Gestapo like a common political suspect, were a different matter, and when the war is over it will be very interesting to find out what Joyce thought about it. Joyce was a conscious exile from Anglo-Irish philistinism. Ireland would have none of him, England and America barely tolerated him. His books were refused publication, destroyed when in type by timid publishers, banned when they came out, pirated with the tacit connivance of the authorities, and, in any case, largely ignored until the publication of Ulysses. He had a genuine grievance, and was extremely conscious of it. But it was also his aim to be a ‘pure’ artist, ‘above the battle’ and indifferent to politics. He had written Ulysses in Switzerland, with an Austrian passport and a British pension, during the 1914-18 war, to which he paid as nearly as possible no attention. But the present war, as Joyce found out, is not of a kind to be ignored, and I think it must have left him reflecting that a political choice is necessary and that even stupidity is better than totalitarianism.

One thing that Hitler and his friends have demonstrated is what a relatively good time the intellectual has had during the past hundred years. After all, how does the persecution of Joyce, Lawrence, Whitman, Baudelaire, even Oscar Wilde, compare with the kind of thing that has been happening to liberal intellectuals all over Europe since Hitler came to power? Joyce left Ireland in disgust: he did not have to run for his life, as he did when the panzers rolled into Paris. The British Government duly banned Ulysses when it appeared, but it took the ban off fifteen years later, and what is probably more important, it helped Joyce to stay alive while the book was written. And thereafter, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous admirer, Joyce was able to live a civilized life in Paris for nearly twenty years, working away at Finnegans Wake and surrounded by a circle of disciples, while industrious teams of experts translated Ulysses not only into various European languages but even into Japanese. Between 1900 and 1920 he had known hunger and neglect: but take it for all in all, his life would appear a pretty good one if one were viewing it from inside a German concentration camp.

What would the Nazis have done with Joyce if they could have laid hands on him? We don’t know. They might even have made efforts to win him over and add him to their bag of ‘converted’ literary men. But he must have seen that they had not only broken up the society that he was used to, but were the deadly enemies of everything that he valued. The battle which he had wanted to be ‘above’ did, after all, concern him fairly directly, and I like to think that before the end he brought himself to utter some non-neutral comment on Hitler—and coming from Joyce it might be quite a stinger—which is lying in Zurich and will be accessible after the war.

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