l i t e r a r y l i v e s up the Autobiography. According to Twain himself, in a private document penned in his final years, Lyon was a ‘drunken slut’ who, failing to seduce him, conspired with his personal assistant, Ralph Ashcroft, to embezzle him. None of that protrudes into what we have in this volume. Perhaps it will in the next volume.
What, then, do we have here? The socalled ‘autobiography’ is in fact a series of top-of-the-head, straight-from-the-mouth ruminations. It’s the record of a virtuoso talker. His starting points are random: what he’s read in the morning papers, something arising from that day’s mail, something that simply drifts into his mind. There are illtempered complaints about the iniquitous laws of copyright (Twain thought authors,
dead or alive, should own their work until the crack of doom). He bad-mouths every publisher he ever dealt with – they all robbed him. Over several daily entries he rants at God (worse than Nero and Caligula). There are neat japes, as when he dictates a cod letter approving some idiot suppression of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn because, he has been informed, ‘boys and girls have been allowed access to them’. The mind that becomes ‘soiled in youth’, Twain sagely opines, ‘can never again be washed clean’. He knows this, he adds, ‘by my own experience and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was fifteen years old’.
There are some genuinely illuminating entries, as when he confesses that in every long work he has ever written the ‘tank ran dry’ halfway through. There are tender recollections of ‘Mrs Clemens’ on the anniversary of her death and nostalgic recollections about San Francisco when he reads in the newspapers accounts of the 1906 earthquake and catastrophic fire.
One sees a mind bubbling and hears a uniquely American voice. So, is the Mark Twain Project a worthy expenditure of time and money if this is its outcome? It is. But I do wish they would hurry up. If nothing else, I am keenly awaiting the apparatus criticus for 1601. To order this book for £13.95, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 16
j ohn g r ay
Tribune of the People
George Orwell: English Rebel
By Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 356pp £25)
Noone would have been more surprised by the fame that George Orwell has achieved than the man himself. Not widely known until the last year of his life, he is the 20th-century writer who overshadows all others. His account of the Spanish Civil War is a revelation, not only of the nature of that conflict but of a type of savage, internecine, popular warfare that is instantly recognisable today. Animal Farm captured the experience of life under communism and was read avidly behind the Iron Curtain. Nor has Orwell’s work dated as the Cold War has faded from memory. With Edward Snowden announcing the approach of something like a surveillance state, sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four have spiked worldwide. No other author of the last century has Orwell’s universal reach. Yet this was a writer who spent much of his life reconciling himself to his own country, which he first despised, then admired and eventually came to love. While making a cult of Englishness, Orwell somehow turned himself into a global figure.
The author of Identity of England (2002), Robert Colls places the contradictions of
Orwell’s Englishness at the heart of this subtle, probing and refreshingly original new study. Orwell was a thoroughly political writer; at the same time, nothing like a theory of politics can be extracted from his work. As Colls puts it: ‘There is little in the way of a political trajectory in Orwell’s life. It is more a series of intense reactions to peoples and places as he came upon them.’ He had something in him of the English tradition of radical Toryism, which ‘never gave itself to consistent political philosophizing’, as Colls notes. But as an ‘angry old Etonian’ who did not go to Cambridge and become a member of the Apostles, but went instead to Burma and joined the military police, Eric Blair was never going to fit comfortably into any political category.
At times George Orwell (the publishing name he adopted in 1933) displayed almost clairvoyant insight. Reviewing Eugene Lyons’s forgotten masterpiece Assignment in Utopia in 1938, Orwell came nearer to grasping the nature of the Soviet system than an entire generation of Western intellectuals. As Edward Crankshaw, a historian of Russia, commented,
Orwell: taking the rocky path the account Orwell gave of the show trials and Stalinist foreign policy was ‘astonishingly right for that time’. Orwell could also be extremely silly. In April 1940, he wrote that if victory in the war ‘meant nothing beyond a new lease of life for British imperialism’ he would be inclined to ‘side with Russia and Germany’. In the autumn of 1940, he declared that the war would provoke a working-class revolution: ‘I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood … when the Red Militias are billeted at The Ritz.’ And with all his sensitivity to cruelty and persecution, Orwell’s
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