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Thread: The Underwhelming Novels of Orwell and Burgess

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    Registered User The Joker's Avatar
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    The Underwhelming Novels of Orwell and Burgess

    Dear Valued Patrons,

    Am I alone in being mightily underwhelmed by Animal Farm, Burmese Days and 1984? Am I alone in feeling that Orwell's value lies mainly in his pamphlets and critical essays (only a fraction of which I've read, admittedly, but from all of which I came away with a profound new understanding of their topics)? I feel the same, I admit, with Anthony Burgess. Clockwork Orange = underwhelming. Burgess' introductions to the 1998 edition of Titus Groan and the 1992 edition of Ulysses = profound, informative, mini-masterworks of literary criticism.

    I like my novels to be, first and foremost, about the story. I like to get into characters and their troubles and bask in the infinite interpretations of the human experience. This business - which I see Orwell and Burgess as being up to their necks in - of constructing a novel out of IDEAS, rather than plot and character, has always left me rather cold. I feel their novels could be distilled into essays without really losing that much. And if that's the case, why make them into novels in the first place?

    Am I too old-school for my own good? Is there something about these writers and their novels that I'm just not getting? If I leave my washing in the machine until after lunch, will it get that weird smell again?

    And on that bombshell...

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    Maybe YesNo's Avatar
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    I would put Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" on the list as well. I've only read parts of it, but I want to hear a story not a lecture. There could be a message underlying the story, but I shouldn't have to be told it explicitly.

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    Registered User Emil Miller's Avatar
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    I think Orwell's novels should be judged within the timescale in which they were written.
    Orwell was an acutely political writer who was deeply affected by the highly unusual fact that a large part of Europe was under nationalist control due to the weakness of liberal democracies: there was also the looming threat of Soviet Russia that engendered 1984.
    In this environment it wasn't surprising that Orwell used the novel to attack what he saw as a threat to his idea of democratic socialism and is on record as saying so.
    It's unlikely that many would class him as a great literary writer, and novels such as Coming Up for Air or Keep the Aspidistra Flying are not very well written, whereas The Road to Wigan Peer, Homage to Catalonia or Down and Out in Paris and London are essentially reportage more in keeping with Orwell's style.
    Nineteen-Eighty-Four has an impact that goes beyond stylistic considerations because, among others of the period, it is the outstanding warning of impending catastrophe . The satirical and anthropomorphic Animal Farm had explained how the European political scene had come about and 1984 showed what was to come next.
    It is in the essays that Orwell's literary claim to fame lies: they are beautifully crafted and a wonderful account of the British way of life between the wars that also shines a brilliant light onto the national character.
    Last edited by Emil Miller; 11-26-2015 at 12:23 PM.
    "L'art de la statistique est de tirer des conclusions erronèes a partir de chiffres exacts." Napoléon Bonaparte.

    "Je crois que beaucoup de gens sont dans cet état d’esprit: au fond, ils ne sentent pas concernés par l’Histoire. Mais pourtant, de temps à autre, l’Histoire pose sa main sur eux." Michel Houellebecq.

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    Registered User The Joker's Avatar
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    Emil Miller. I'm thoroughly in agreement with almost everything you've written. Also, I commend you for unpacking your argument in such a succinct manner. It was not only informative but made it clear that you're much better acquainted with Orwell's works than I am. It's hard to disagree with anything here. I would, however, like to highlight the following statement: "it wasn't surprising that Orwell used the novel to attack what he saw as a threat to his idea of democratic socialism". In what way wasn't this surprising? A more immediate response to political and social anxieties (for me, anyway) would have been an article, or even direct political involvement. It seems to me that, implicit in your point, is the (correct) assumption that a novel would garner a wider readership and have more staying power than the usual channels of article-writing and soapbox oratory. Here, however, is the crux of my issue with Orwell. He's using the novel as a vehicle for his views and this, to me, degrades what we think of as literature. With Orwell, the novel is no longer an artform - it's politicking by other means.
    "Methought I tripped at the last step of last night's journey. And truly, strange riot hath left its footprints in my chamber..."

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    Registered User The Joker's Avatar
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    YesNo. I'll have no problem steering clear of Atlas Shrugged, thanks for the heads up. And thank you for your kind welcome. We practising grownups need to look out for one another!
    "Methought I tripped at the last step of last night's journey. And truly, strange riot hath left its footprints in my chamber..."

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    Registered User Emil Miller's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by The Joker View Post
    Emil Miller. I would, however, like to highlight the following statement: "it wasn't surprising that Orwell used the novel to attack what he saw as a threat to his idea of democratic socialism". In what way wasn't this surprising? A more immediate response to political and social anxieties (for me, anyway) would have been an article, or even direct political involvement.
    The problem for Orwell was that he couldn't be a part of direct political involvement because the Labour party i.e. the official socialist organisation was neutered by the parliamentary system of the UK that blunted any attempt to overturn the status quo. That was why he joined a splinter group called the ILP ( Independent Labour Party) before departing for Spain to fight in the Spanish civil war. It's indicative of Orwell's political stance that he joined an anarchist group in Spain and ended up fighting the communists as much as Franco's nationalists.
    In other words, Orwell was an idealist in pursuit of the chimera of a perfect world.
    "L'art de la statistique est de tirer des conclusions erronèes a partir de chiffres exacts." Napoléon Bonaparte.

    "Je crois que beaucoup de gens sont dans cet état d’esprit: au fond, ils ne sentent pas concernés par l’Histoire. Mais pourtant, de temps à autre, l’Histoire pose sa main sur eux." Michel Houellebecq.

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    I thought 1984 was a very clever novel. Having read most of his most famous essays, 1984 appears to be a culmination of everything he was thinking of up to then. So even though the plot and characters may have been derived from We, it is still a great book. Of his four early novels, I would say Burmese Days was the best. I suspect that book was influenced by Joseph Conrad. However, my favourite of his four earlier novels is A Clergyman's Daughter, although it's an odd sort of book, in which each chapter turns into an essay, and Dorothy (the protagonist) turns into George Orwell.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Burgess wrote a heck of a lot more than the Orange. I think you need to try some more.

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    Quote Originally Posted by The Joker View Post
    Dear Valued Patrons,

    Am I alone in being mightily underwhelmed by Animal Farm, Burmese Days and 1984? Am I alone in feeling that Orwell's value lies mainly in his pamphlets and critical essays (only a fraction of which I've read, admittedly, but from all of which I came away with a profound new understanding of their topics)? .
    No, you are not alone. Most people would agree that Orwell, like Huxley, was a mediocre novelist but, again like Huxley, a very great essayist. His essay on Dickens is one of my all-tme favourite pieces of writing. But 'A Clergyman's Daughter' is one of the worst novels I have ever read, and I was not impressed by 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying' either. Orwell had a deeply unpleasant attitude towards women and clearly possessed a streak of sexual sadism. 1984 and Animal Farm are better though, and they will certainly remain great and important books that should be read and re-read.

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    Registered User The Joker's Avatar
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    Emil Miller, thanks for clearing that up. Some things never change, eh? Kev67, that's the first time I'd heard of 1984 being a rewrite, thanks for pointing that out. Ennison, you're totally right - I think I was jut put off by my Orange experience. Anything you'd recommend? Wickes, many thanks for that recommendation - I'm rereading a few of my favourite Dickenses just now and didn't know about the essay. I'm going to get a copy right now. On the whole, I'm glad to hear that people are sympathetic to my opinion. Growing up having Orwell and Burgess novels shoved down your throat gives you a sort of skewed perception of what makes them valuable.
    "Methought I tripped at the last step of last night's journey. And truly, strange riot hath left its footprints in my chamber..."

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    The Malayan Trilogy is readable. Any Old Iron is good. A Dead Man in Deptford is good. Earthly Powers is very good. I liked his commentary and essays on other writers - including Joyce. There was also a book on Linguistics that I read but have now forgotten its title. He was a smart cookie.

  12. #12
    Animal Farm, 1984, I would not bother reading again. Burmese Days, I don't remember the story too well, but I do remember liking the book , especially the description of the protagonist's shooting of the rogue elephant.

    Novels, like people, are mirrors. Now, when you look into a mirror, what is it that you see?

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    All are at the crossroads qimissung's Avatar
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    I think all novels that rise to the level of "classic" are novels of ideas, though. That's not limited to Orwell. They might not be to your taste-which is perfectly fine-but that doesn't mean they don't have value. I do have to say I wasn't too fond of "Atlas Shrugged."
    "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its' own reason for existing." ~ Albert Einstein
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