It's safe, and rather embarrassingly so, to say that what I truly know for sure about George Orwell could be inscribed on the back of a postage stamp, and not a large one at that, perhaps a Cape of Good Hope blue triangle.
It's odd how I thought I knew so much more because though I'd read Animal Farm way back in the last century, surely I'd read 1984 as well?
I know so much about it after all, but on reflection I think that's by osmosis and I now feel certain I've never managed beyond that first sentence about the clocks striking thirteen which gets me through many a literary quiz.
I was therefore strangely intrigued and rapidly completely enamoured and up for an Orwell foray when a lovely stack of Penguin re-issues arrived and I'll own up, the fact they were tied up with nice manly ribbon saying 'The Best Books Ever Written' did help.
Any excuse for a party in these stricken times as we enter Orwell anniversary celebrations to mark sixty years since the publication of 1984, and Penguin are re-issuing an edition with no title on the cover as well as this handsome volume of The Complete Novels.
I haven't yet felt moved to read 1984 but I did pick up and run with Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays and am now wondering quite why I haven't read more George before.
I love collections of literary essays; for a start they're great to read while the bath's running or the potatoes are boiling. I feel the corporate shudders amongst any academic literati who may have stopped by, but time's time, I grasp reading moments whenever I can and I'm always surprised at the degree of good-enough concentration I can manage on these snatched occasions.There's nothing I love more than getting into a collection and reading one a day and I have quite a shelf full to choose from. Looking across now I see Susan Sontag, Doris Lessing, Ted Hughes, dearest Anne Fadiman, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Josipovici and it is Gabriel Josipovici who reminds me that an essay is 'an essai, an attempt, which should retain its transient and momentary quality.'
The art of the essay surely a tricky one to perfect.
I was looking for a definition of a literary essay, something that would help me focus my thinking on quite how and why George seems to have got it so right, and so it seemed sensible to return to basics and look at The Great Age of the English Essay published by Yale University Press.
It's a lovely tome, plain beige, unadorned and untricksy to look at, perhaps that's the first clue about the essay per se, no need for frilly fripperies and dust jacketed distractions.
It says to me let's just get to the nub of the thing and keep the reader on board.
Editor Denise Gigante's introduction traces the history of the essay and its emergence as a premier literary form in the mid-eighteenth century, a place where cultural values were stated and disputed, sometimes seriously, sometimes held up to ridicule or satire, a contribution to the debates of the age.
There was a reformatory element too, perhaps to examine morals, manners and tastes but also to teach readers how to read critically. There's mention of Aristotle and the importance of the personality behind the voice and that was all I needed to place George Orwell firmly within the ranks of the brilliant and gifted essayists.
I know Penguin and the rest of the world have done that for George already and long ago and George really doesn't need my help, but I do like to decide these things for myself sometimes.
The subjects explored within this volume couldn't be more varied, read the essay of the title and feel a melancholy sense of despair at Orwell's reluctant shooting of a rogue elephant only as a mark of colonial pride and with which he then exposes the insidious roots and tentacles of the colonial mindset,
'I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the 'natives' and so in every crisis he has got to do what the 'natives' expect of him.'
I roared at George's revelations about working in a second-hand bookshop
'Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop...the dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonder whether you can find her a copy...she doesn't remember the title or the author's name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover.'
I wondered if one reason I knew so little of George Orwell was either that I'd been asleep for fifty plus years or perhaps because in the terms of his will he forbade any attempt at a biography.
It's usually a biography that disseminates those well-known anecdotes and gossipy facts about a person's life into the media and into the sub-conscious. Then I discover that of course the world was never going to honour that request and there are shelves of biographies.
I still know little about the real George but the personality who lurks behind the voice in Shooting an Elephant seems to be one blessed with a reflective and self-effacing humility and I'm looking forward to reading much more.
So much so that I was onto The Book Depository to watch the world buying books (don't you just love that live shopping map) and in between someone in Australia buying Financial Reports for Dummies and someone in Ireland buying John Denver I bought two volumes of the four available of George Orwell's Essays, Journalism and Letters which will have to do for now.