In Front of Your Nose (1945–1950)

by George Orwell

Cover image

Series: Collected Writing #4
Publisher: Nonpareil
Copyright: 1968
Printing: 2005
ISBN: 1-56792-136-1
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 521

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This is the fourth and, alas, the final volume of Orwell's collected non-fiction writing, covering the end of 1945 after the conclusion of the war until Orwell's death in January of 1950 (although the final letter printed here dates from October of 1949). Orwell died of tuberculosis after being plagued much of his adult life with intermittant poor health and spending most of his last two years in sanatoriums.

As with the previous volumes, there is enough detail in the selection of personal letters, plus a brief summary of these years of Orwell's life in an appendix, to piece together into a sketchy factual autobiography. In Front of Your Nose starts shortly after the highly successful publication of Animal Farm. Orwell started work on 1984 in 1946, supplementing his income by continuing to write book reviews and essays for various publications. With the aid of a nurse and later his sister, he continued raising the son that he adopted with his now-deceased wife Eileen. He spent long periods during this time living in Jura in the Inner Hebrides until forced into sanatoriums due to tuberculosis and failing health.

Despite more letters than the previous volume, though, my enduring impression of In Front of Your Nose are the essays. There is a short burst of "As I Please" columns, the highlight of the eponymous As I Please, which are as varied and interesting as before. But the highlights here are the individual pieces: "Revenge Is Sour," "The Politics of Starvation," "Politics and the English Language," "Politics vs. Literature," "How the Poor Die," "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool," "Reflections on Gandhi," and, standing out from them all, "Such, Such Were the Joys."

Much of the writing is, of course, political. "Revenge Is Sour" opens the volume with a thought-provoking angle on the feeling of revenge.

But what this scene, and much else that I saw in Germany, brought home to me was that the whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish day-dream. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.

I don't entirely agree with this, but I think the examination of the link between revenge and a feeling of helplessness is insightful.

Among other political essays, "The Politics of Starvation" offers a cogent summary of the dire miscalculation behind intentionally starving one's enemies. "Politics and the English Language" is a classic: a detailed look at how sloppy thinking and rote beliefs manifest in language and writing and some tactics to avoid it. It continues Orwell's previous attacks on the language used by Soviet communism, a topic as far back as The Road to Wigan Pier, but expands and deepens it into an analysis of how the lazy reach for stock wording mirrors the lazy reach for stock thoughts.

Orwell's political writing is not only informative on the issue he's addressing. I find it is also a useful model for how to address political issues. He takes a topic apart, dives for the core of it, and presents a well-reasoned and effective argument without bogging down in wars of semantics and personality. Where he has direct personal conflicts, he's willing to make direct accusations, but they're defended and grounded. He isn't drawn into debating distractions. A collection of this sort is an edited and selected subset of writing, and writing offers the most time for reflection. I doubt Orwell himself always argued at the level demonstrated here. But I came away from the reading with an internal challenge to aspire to as focused and productive an approach as this.

"Reflections on Gandhi" is a good example, given Orwell's scorn for Gandhi in previous writing. He wrote it in the last year of his life, and it's one of his last major essays. I think he does a good job of balancing recognition of Gandhi's ideals and his efforts to live by those ideals against the debatable political effectiveness of his actions. He takes a step back from the more tactical criticisms that he made previously and acknowledges that Gandhi did, in the end, achieve his primary aim. He acknowledges competing views on the facts and finds a way to leave the question open while still giving the essay a structurally strong conclusion. And, in the middle, he throws in a fascinating and unexpected critique of sainthood.

Orwell is not a consensus-builder; you won't learn that skill from his political writing. He's an advocate and a Cassandra. But in his writing he has a sense of dignity and politeness, an open-mindedness towards facts, and a focus on reality and admitting error (see also "In Front of Your Nose" in this volume) that I find admirable and worthy of emulation.

In Front of Your Nose contains another set of Orwell's book reviews, all of them good, but "Politics vs. Literature: an Examination of Gulliver's Travels" deserves special mention. This is literary analysis and criticism at its finest: a detailed look at Swift's political satire and utopia, an analysis of Swift's politics and concerns based on the book, and a forthright acknowledgement of both its strengths and its flaws. Like so much of Orwell's writings, the essay feels like an effortless discussion without obvious structure, but it flows so well that one knows there is structure beneath it. It's one of the best pieces of writing about literature that I've read, and it sparked a desire to re-read Gulliver's Travels soon in light of Orwell's discussion.

Reportage gets less space in this volume than in previous volumes, likely because it had less room in Orwell's life. He spent much of this time period on a remote island or in medical bed rest. There are, however, two pieces that hark back to the sort of writing that dominated An Age Like This. The first is "How the Poor Die," a chilling look back at Orwell's experience with a hospital in Paris in 1929. It shows the tail end of an entirely different era in medicine and a different attitude towards public health. That kind of environment would be unthinkable in a medical institution today, which gives one some hope in progress.

The second is, in my opinion, the best essay of this volume. "Such, Such Were the Joys" is a look back on Orwell's experiences in public school as a child (US readers should think "private boarding school") from a perspective thirty-five years later. Orwell held it from publication until after his death.

"Such, Such Were the Joys" is, primarily, an indictment of the public shool system in Britain at the time that Orwell was a child. He went on a scholarship, meaning that his parents couldn't afford the full tuition and the school took him on for his academic talent (Orwell claims in the hope that he would win a scholarship to Eton and hence serve as positive advertising, which he did). It is a catalog of the horrors peculiar to childhood: a sense of helplessness, a vicious culture of bullying and social rank far beyond what adults see, and the sense of being entirely in the power of abusive adults who one was supposed to respect. It's also worth noting that many biographers and contemporaries consider it exaggerated, unfair, and highly distorted.

However, what I think makes it such an excellent and effective piece of writing is not the details, true or false, of what happened. Orwell uses those as a starting point to explore other, deeper questions: personal moral responsibility for acts one cannot control, effectiveness of punishment in teaching, the degree to which children believe the moral frameworks they're given, the imposition of moral codes on the weak by the strong, the difficulty of understanding what children truly think, and the difficulties of recollection well after the fact. It contains, among other things, one of the most potent arguments against the idea of accusing children of sinfulness that I've ever read. Regardless of what truly happened to Orwell as a child, it's a reflection of how Orwell felt about those events at the time of the writing and the conclusions he drew, and that I found extremely thought-provoking.

In Front of Your Nose is the longest of the four volumes of Orwell's collected non-fiction and I think the strongest. As good as Orwell's earlier writing is, he got better over his life, mostly in making his already concise style more focused and absorbing. The range in this volume is less than As I Please, which collected weekly columns and writing on as varied topics as tea, kitchen layout, and statuary. The depth, however, is greater and the essays all the more memorable, including several that equal or surpass anything in previous volumes.

I highly recommend both this volume and the entire series. All four volumes are currently readily available and relatively inexpensive in nice, sturdy trade paperback editions. The typesetting is only adequate, with one confusing set of misprinted lines in this volume, and I spotted a few typos, but the footnotes are inobtrusive (and are footnotes, not end notes) and there is a comprehensive index. Much of the material here is not covered by copyright and is also available on-line, but I think the price of the books is well worth a more coherent reading experience.

But regardless of where you get the material, I highly recommend reading it. Orwell is deservedly famous for Animal Farm and 1984, but he wrote far more than that and much of his output is exceptional. To miss Orwell's non-fiction writing is to miss one of the great essayists in the English language.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-01-15

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