Paul Anderson, review of The Lost Orwell by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison (Timewell Press, £18.99), Tribune, 7 July 2006
This book has a telling publishing history. It is a supplementary volume to Peter Davison’s magisterial The Complete Works of George Orwell, containing material discovered since the publication by Secker and Warburg of the paperback edition of the last ten volumes of that extraordinary 20-volume set in 2000-02.
You would have thought that Secker would have published it as a matter of course – but no, it decided not to put out what is effectively Volume XXI of the Davison Complete Works because, apparently, it did not think it would make enough money.
What a failure of nerve – and what a damning indictment of the economics of book publishing today, with its multi-million-pound advances for celebs’ biographies and trashy novels, and next-to-nothing for anything serious.
Luckily, Davison’s fascinating collection has been snapped up by a new, small imprint, Timewell Press, which has done a marvellous job producing the volume to the same high standard as Davison’s Secker volumes.
This is not a book for the reader coming to Orwell’s journalism and letters for the first time: it is a collection of odds and ends, some of which would be near incomprehensible (despite Davison’s superb footnotes and introductory remarks to each set of newly unearthed documents) for anyone without a good grasp of Orwell’s life.
But for anyone fascinated by Orwell – who remains an enigmatic figure in so many ways despite the extraordinary amount he wrote and the plethora of writing on his life and work – this book is essential reading. It starts with a long correspondence between Orwell and his French translator, Rene Noel Rambault, mainly about Down and Out in Paris and London and Burmese Days. The letters, mostly in French but with English translations provided, provide a absorbing insight into Orwell’s views of his own work and are at times very funny, not least on the translation of slang terms unpublishable in England in the 1930s – “Le mot est ‘fuck’ … Ce mot est ‘bugger’” … Le mot ‘bougre’ est le meme que ‘bugger’…” etc.
Even more amusing are the letters from Orwell’s wife Eileen, whom he married in 1936, to her university friend Norah Miles. Eileen, hitherto rather a mysterious figure, comes alive here as a witty and vivacious young woman with a wicked lack of respect for authority – even that of her husband, whom she treats on occasion as a figure of fun. I particularly like her laughing description of The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell’s 1941 polemic in favour of left patriotism, as “explaining how to be a Socialist though Tory”.
The strangest new material is that relating to Georges Kopp, Orwell’s commandant in Spain in 1937, who had a brief affair with Eileen and remained a friend of the couple: it turns out he was a Walter Mitty fantasist.
n take your pick: there are even previously unseen holiday snaps. But the item that rang a bell with me was a round-robin letter sent by Orwell as Tribune’s literary editor in 1945 to publishers urging them to send all their serious books for the paper to review and to stop deluging him with rubbish. I remember sending out something very similar in the 1980s – and it made not an iota of difference.