Magazine article New Criterion

Rewriting George Orwell

Magazine article New Criterion

Rewriting George Orwell

Article excerpt

The Spanish Civil War: the continuing controversy: II

Recent scholarly and literary discussion of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939--mainly occasioned by the publication of Spain Betrayed--has inadvertently shed light on a previously neglected scandal in English letters. This is the wholesale misappropriation and even mutilation of George Orwell's works by a British pedant, Peter Davison.

The link between Orwell and Spain is an obvious one: the great English political critic was transformed by his experience in the Spanish war as a volunteer in the militia of an anti-Stalinist radical movement, the Partit Obrer d'Unificacio Marxista (POUM). This small element of the Catalan left, whose name means "Workers' Party of Marxist Unification," fought against the counter-revolutionary forces of General Francisco Franco on a key section of the Aragon front in the northeast of the peninsula.

The product of this experience, Homage to Catalonia (1938), is considered by many Anglo-American thinkers to be the single most important English-language political work of the twentieth century. It describes the journey of a sincere English intellectual from a naive position as an antifascist volunteer through the catharsis of revolutionary enthusiasm to hellish persecution by and flight from agents of the Russian secret police. Such a work could not but rise continuously in significance as a key, if not the key, to the moral disaster of the bien pensant progressives, pseudo-liberals, and totalitarian reformers at the end of the century.

In addition, Homage to Catalonia is a model of observation, exposition, and insight. And that is why the "editorial" meddling with Orwell by Davison is so thoroughly appalling. In a new edition first printed in 1989, Davison "rearranged" the textual order of Homage, removing two chapters (originally numbered V and XI) to the end of the book, where they have become appendices. These chapters detail the internal dialectic of the Spanish left, leading to a bloody confrontation between Soviet power and the mainly anarchist Catalan workers--Orwell took the side of the latter. They are, in fact, the most important parts of the book.

Inquiry into such a seemingly anodyne editorial decision should begin with the impact of the mentioned changes on comprehension of the work. To cite the worst example, chapter V of Homage begins, in the 1938 first edition (which is now the American edition, since Harcourt did not accept Davison's decision and continues to publish the unspoiled original), "On the eastern side of Huesca, until late March [1937], nothing happened--almost literally nothing." Approximately eight lines further, we encounter what could be considered the very nub of the narrative:

   As a matter of fact, there were things in this period that interested me
   greatly, and I will describe some of them later. But I shall be keeping
   nearer to the order of events if I try here to give some account of the
   internal political situation on the Government side.

Incredibly, outrageously, indefensibly, these two latter sentences have been expunged from the Davison version.

What is excised from the body of Homage to Catalonia by the loss of these fifty-one words? Nothing less than the crucial moment in the personal history of George Orwell: the turning point, which we may imagine at the center of a set of ripples that penetrate all the differing aspects of our contemporary intellectual universe. Here we see Orwell turning away from his daily concerns as a soldier in a war, reproducing for us the progress of his thought as he recounts and analyzes his discoveries about the political reality, distant from the frontlines, that would determine his destiny. From this reflex, which has come to seem almost miraculous, and almost unique to Orwell, there emerged a recognition of Communist deceit in the Spanish war, indicative of the broader fate of the modern radical left as it extended through several generations and across continents, affecting the lives--and causing the deaths--of many, many millions of people. …

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