#16: NOT ONLY NOVELISTS. Speaking as one who has always found Orwell’s fiction a bit of a slog, few books have come as a bigger delight and surprise than A Collection of Essays, a selection of Orwell still happily in print. I think Orwell as an essayist is the writer he never was as a novelist. Brevity, humor, clarity, observation, an penetrating eye for hypocrisy and illogic—he has all those and, like Lawrence and Camus, gives us the feeling of an artist who cares for nothing more than the truth—the wild evasive sprawl of truth, not just the part that fits his expectations or is to his advantage. There are pieces in Orwell—the lines on sainthood versus humanity in his Gandhi essay, down to a bit on overeating at Christmas—that have the head-clearing, defining light we sometimes get from great novels. And, like Lawrence and Camus, he spares himself so little we forgive him his faults. The Collection of Essays is a skim off the top—you may well want to go on to The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, published in four volumes. Many pleasures await you. If you need convincing, Christopher Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters is an intelligent and persuasive reading of….well, why Orwell matters.
In translation from the French, the sketches and essays of Albert Camus do not have
the vernacular current of Orwell’s work, nor quite the range of topic and tone. But there
is an enlivening moral clarity in common that counts above all else, and a fine seriousness. Even the bravura stretches—the rhetorical last pages of “Create Dangerously,” say—are
not written merely for flourish or effect. Resistance, Rebellion and Death, edited and translated by Justin O’Brien (Modern Library, 1960) represents Camus’s choice from three volumes of essays, mostly political, that he felt worthy of translation into English. Lyrical and Critical Essays, translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy (Vintage, 1968) contains, among other things, the blessed and sensual volumes of Camus’s Algerian writings: The Wrong Side and the Right Side, Nuptials, and Summer, and the beautiful 1958 preface, which seems to me a
nutshell of everything I love in Camus, and prize even above the plays and novels. For
the French texts, admirably annotated, see the old Pleiade edition of the Essais (Gallimard).
Fiction, of course, has become the end-all of many literary reputations. When you’ve read (preferably in order) the five best known novels of Thomas Hardy (Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure) and caught up with an under-recognized sixth near-masterwork (The Woodlanders) I will suggest to you that Hardy is also the most under-read English-language poet of the twentieth century. Technically, Hardy rests in that ill-defined transition from the end of the Victorian period to just before the onslaughts and revelations of modernism: he is the last sweeping virtuoso of metrical forms, with an astounding stanzaic variety. He also stands in some ways as a critic of the obscurities of the modernists who followed him: few poets ever mined their autobiographies for poems that were as fully realized dramatically, with no need of explication or annotation. If you like his poems at all, get the Collected: the proportion of first-rate work is remarkably high.