George Orwell: The Critical Heritage

By Jeffrey Meyers | Go to book overview
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Conor Cruise O’Brien, Listener

12 December 1968, pp. 797-8

Conor Cruise O’Brien (b. 1917), Irish historian, critic and statesman; UN representative in Katanga 1961; author of Parnell and His Party (1957), Writers and Politics (1965) and Camus (1969); presently Irish Minister of Posts and Telegraphs.

This collection has some puzzling features. ‘These four volumes, writes Mrs Orwell in her introduction, ‘are not the Complete Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, but with the novels and books they make up the definitive Collected Works. Ian Angus and I have not set out to make an academic monument because neither his work nor his personality lends itself to such treatment and the period he lived in is too recent for any real history to have been written of it. It appears, therefore, that the promise of the title is misleading: Collected Essays, Selected Journalism and Selected Letters would have been more accurate. And what is the point of claiming that this edition ‘with the novels and books’ makes ‘the definitive Collected Works’, while at the same time abjuring any intention to make ‘an academic monument’? If the edition were in fact definitive, it could not escape being academic, and being a monument—indeed the monument—to George Orwell. It may or may not be the case that neither Orwell’s work nor his personality lends itself to such treatment, but if they do not, then they do not lend themselves either to ‘definitive Collected Works’ or even to four stout miscellanies at a price of £10. As for ‘real history’, that is an elusive entity, but the period in question is one on which many competent historians have worked, and it is less wrapped in obscurity than most other periods of history. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the editors wish to claim definitive status for their edition without incurring the responsibilities which such a claim should imply.

This is disturbing, and not merely for technical reasons. The collected essays are already easily and widely available—and serve no purpose in the present collection except to bulk it out—but for what is


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