As I Please

in Tribune

1 December 1944

George Orwell

V2 (I am told that you can now mention it in print so long as you just call it V2 and don’t describe it too minutely) supplies another instance of the contrariness of human nature. People are complaining of the sudden unexpected wallop with which these things go off . ‘It wouldn’t be so bad if you got a bit of warning’ is the usual formula. There is even a tendency to talk nostalgically of the days of the V1. The good old doodlebug did at least give you time to get under the table, etc. etc. Whereas, in fact, when the doodlebugs were actually dropping, the usual subject of complaint was the uncomfortable waiting period before they went off. Some people are never satisfied. Personally, I am no lover of the V2, especially at this moment when the house still seems to be rocking from a recent explosion, but what depresses me about these things is the way they set people talking about the next war. Every time one goes off I hear gloomy references to ‘next time’, and the reflection: ‘I suppose they’ll be able to shoot them across the Atlantic by that time.’ But if you ask who will be fighting whom when this universally expected war breaks out, you get no clear answer. It is just war in the abstract—the notion that human beings could ever behave sanely having apparently faded out of many people’s memories.

Maurice Baring, in his book on Russian literature, which was published in 1907 and must have been the means of introducing many people in this country to the great Russian novelists, remarks that English books were always popular in Russia. Among other favourites he mentions The Diary of a Nobody (which, by the way, is reprinted by the Everyman Library, if you can run across a copy).

I have always wondered what on earth The Diary of a Nobody could be like in a Russian translation, and indeed I have faintly suspected that the Russians may have enjoyed it because when translated it was just like Chekhov. But in a way it would be a very good book to read if you wanted to get a picture of English life, even though it was written in the eighties and has an intensely strong smell of that period. Charles Pooter is a true Englishman both in native gentleness and his impenetrable stupidity. The interesting thing, however, is to follow this book up to its origins. What does it ultimately derive from? Almost certainly, I think, from Don Quixote, of which, indeed, it is a sort of modern anglicized version. Pooter is a high-minded, even adventurous man, constantly suffering disasters brought upon him by his own folly, and surrounded by a whole tribe of Sancho Panzas. But apart from the comparative mildness of the things that befall him, one can see in the endings of the two books the enormous difference between the age of Cervantes and our own.

In the end the Grossmiths have to take pity on poor Pooter. Everything, or nearly everything, comes right, and at the last there is a tinge of sentimentality which does not quite fit in with the rest of the book. The fact is that, in spite of the way we actually behave, we cannot any longer feel that the infliction of pain is merely funny. Nietzsche remarks somewhere that the pathos of Don Quixote may well be a modern discovery. Quite likely Cervantes didn’t mean Don Quixote to seem pathetic—perhaps he just meant him to be funny and intended it as a screaming joke when the poor old man has half his teeth knocked out by a sling-stone. However this may be with Don Quixote, I am fairly certain that it is true of Falstaff. Except possibly for the final scene in Henry V, there is nothing to show that Shakespeare sees Falstaff as a pathetic as well as a comic figure. He is just a punching-bag for fortune, a sort of Billy Bunter with a gift for language. The thing that seems saddest to us is Falstaff’s helpless dependence on his odious patron, Prince Harry, whom John Masefield aptly described as a ‘disgusting beefy brute’. There is no sign, or at any rate, no clear sign, that Shakespeare sees anything pathetic or degrading in such a relationship.

.     .     .     .     .

SAY what you like, things do change. A few years ago I was walking across Hungerford Bridge with a lady aged about sixty or perhaps less. The tide was out, and as we looked down at the beds of filthy, almost liquid mud, she remarked:

‘When I was a little girl we used to throw pennies to the mudlarks down there.’

I was intrigued and asked what mudlarks were. She explained that in those days professional beggars, known as mudlarks, used to sit under the bridge waiting for people to throw them pennies. The pennies would bury themselves deep in the mud, and the mudlarks would plunge in head first and recover them. It was considered a most amusing spectacle.

Is there anyone who would degrade himself in that way nowadays? And how many people are there who would get a kick out of watching it?

.     .     .     .     .

SHORTLY before his assassination, Trotsky had completed a Life of Stalin. One may assume that it was not an altogether unbiased book, but obviously a biography of Stalin by Trotsky—or, for that matter, a biography of Trotsky by Stalin—would be a winner from a selling point of view. A very well-known American firm of publishers were to issue it. The book had been printed and—this is the point that I have been waiting to verify before mentioning this matter in my notes—the review copies had been sent out when the U.S.A. entered the war. The book was immediately withdrawn, and the reviewers were asked to cooperate in ‘avoiding any comment whatever regarding the biography and its postponement’.

They have cooperated remarkably well. The affair has gone almost unmentioned in the American press and, as far as I know, entirely unmentioned in the British press, although the facts were well known and obviously worth a paragraph or two.

Since the American entry into the war made the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. allies, I think that to withdraw the book was an understandable if not particularly admirable deed. What is disgusting is the general willingness to suppress all mention of it. A little while back I attended a meeting of the PEN Club, which was held to celebrate the tercentenary of Areopagitica, Milton’s famous tract on the freedom of the press. There were countless speeches emphasizing the importance of preserving intellectual liberty, even in war-time. If I remember rightly, Milton’s phrase about the special sin of ‘murdering’ a book was printed on the PEN leaflet for the occasion. But I heard no reference to this particular murder, the facts of which were no doubt known to plenty of people there.

.     .     .     .     .

HERE is another little brain-tickler. The following often-quoted passage comes from Act V of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Timon of Athens:

Come not to me again, but say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beachèd verge of the salt flood
Who once a day with his embossed froth
The turbulent surge shall cover.

This passage contains three errors. What are they?

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