ORWELL; The Lost Writings. Edited by W. J. West. Arbor House. 304 pp. $20.
REJECTED BY the British Army in World War II because of poor health, George Orwell had to find other outlets for his continuing fight against fascism. In addition to volunteer work in the Home Guard, he joined the British Broadcasting Corporation in August of 1941 to become talks assistant and later, until November 1943, talks producer in the Indian section of the BBC.
It is from this period that W.J. West has selected the contents of this book. Unfortunately, much of the material is disappointing. Of the 200-odd pages of Orwelliana edited by West, a researcher who cleverly found the misfiled material in 1984, over half consist of boring letters to and from Orwell concerning the day-to-day bureaucratic arrangements for producing the talks to India. This leaves only 97 pages that actually consist of Orwell's scripts for literary talks and adaptations by him, and while these are worth reading, they hardly constitute anything like enough material for a book. Among these there is the text of a radio poetry magazine called Voice, in which Orwell and others discuss poems which are not reprinted in the text of the book. This is like describing a horse race without horses.
West tries valiantly but unsuccessfully to convince the reader that the "key to Orwell's evolution from the slightly pedantic and unpolished author of pre- war days" lies in these two years Orwell spent at the BBC. In support of his thesis, West even drags in the (much later) infamous British spy, Guy Burgess, who also worked at the BBC and whom West suggests as a possible model for Orwell's "Big Brother." This kind of speculation might be fun but cannot be taken seriously. In the first place, Burgess' well known and flamboyant personality leads no credence at all to the suggestion, and, secondly, Orwell would have to have known Burgess was a traitor long before anyone else.
What the reader finds much more interesting are the literary scripts by Orwell even though two of these, one an imaginary interview with Jonathan Swift, published in The Listener in 1962 under the lead title "Too Hard on Humanity," and another on Jack London, broadcast in 1943, have long been known about and can hardly qualify as "lost" writings. In his talk on London, who he believed was much underrated, Orwell tells of how Lenin's wife, on reading to her husband on his deathbed, saw that while the Russian leader disliked the "bourgeois sentimentality" of Dickens, he clearly enjoyed the stark realism of London's short story "Love of Life," about a starving man and a starving wolf in a battle for survival in which the hunted becomes the hunter as the man, through sheer will, ends up eating the wolf. Noting how many of London's stories were set in such locales as the frozen wastes of Canada, "where toughness is everything," Orwell points out how the American writer had a gift for political prophecy because of his understanding of the primitive impulses in man and how he "could foresee the rise of Fascism . . . because he had a Fascist strain himself."
In the other literary scripts Orwell describes Bernard Shaw as having been lucky as well as talented when he attacked "something (Victorian society) still strong enough to be worth attacking, and yet not so strong as to make the attack hopeless," how "Hamlet is the tragedy of a man who does not know how to commit a murder; Macbeth is the tragedy of a man who does," and how Oscar Wilde "wants at all costs to be clever, without being quite certain what he is to be clever about."
There are miscellaneous short pieces such as "British Rations and the Submarine War" and "Money and Guns," the latter discussing how stringent wartime conditions encourage community recreation and a rush on libraries. In "The Meaning of Sabotage" we are told how angry workers in northern France long ago threw their clogs, or sabots, into factory machinery, wrecking it and so giving us the word "sabotage." "Story by Five Authors," a mystery begun by Orwell and ended by E.M. Forster, with three other writers in between, shows Orwell's ability to draw clear, sharp pictures with an economy of language that owes as much, if not more, to his pre-war ability as a journalist writing against deadlines than to his two harried years at the BBC.
IN ORDER TO press the point that it was the ministry of information more than the BBC which served as the model for the ministry of truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four, West makes a meal of the pervasive censorship of the war years. But again we already know about this from the previously published Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of Orwell (Vol. 2) where not only does Orwell talk about the Ministry of Information, but where we find out that his first wife, Eileen, worked for the Censorship Department. In his case against the minitstry, rather than the BBC, West points out that Orwell said in 1941 that he considered the BBC on the whole to be "very truthful." The trouble with this is that it ignores Orwell's later and more telling comment in 1942 that "I have now been with the BBC for about six months. . . . Its atmosphere is something halfway between a girls' school and a lunatic asylum, and all we are doing at present is useless. . . . Nevertheless one rapidly becomes propaganda-minded and develops a cunning one did not previously have."
At the end of his long introduction, West laments what he calls the "extraordinary neglect by scholars" of this BBC period of Orwell's life. After reading this collection, the reader can only say that there is nothing at all extraordinary about it; the kind of inept filing which kept this material hidden away at the BBC is all too ordinary so that any charge of scholarly neglect is silly. In a crowning irony, one of the most telling phrases that Orwell wrote about himself occurs in the imaginary interview with Jonathan Swift which, as West concedes, was published in slightly censored form over 40 years ago. Reflecting on Swift, Orwell concludes: "He was a great man, and yet he was partially blind . . . . His vision of human society is so penetrating, and yet in the last analysis it's false. He couldn't see what the simplest person sees, that life is worth living; and human beings, even if they're dirty and ridiculous, are mostly decent." It is this vision of human beings that finally sustains Orwell's optimism, however slight, in the proles of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Despite the awful danger of totalitarianism, which he saw not so much as a particular state as an ever present state of mind, George Orwell still believed that decency might win the day.