Book reviews

When I read Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell I was extraordinarily impressed by the clarity of Orwell’s writing and the straightforward, take-it-or leave-it style of his writing voice. I was delighted to find the essays in Facing Unpleasant Facts to be equally as well written, thought-provoking and honest.

One of the qualities I most admire in writing is fearlessness, and Orwell writes what he is thinking and feeling despite knowing that his views will be unpopular in certain quarters. His honesty in certain essays was hard to read, such as in A Hanging, when the sound of the condemned Burmese man’s last prayers left Orwell and those around him wishing for the actual hanging to take place, to bring an end to the man’s prayers which the listeners couldn’t bear hearing. To think such a thing is deplorable but human, to say it is an example of the fearlessness in writing that I admire.

Shooting an Elephant was another extraordinarily frank account. When Orwell was working as a police officer in Burma an elephant went mad and although he could have left the animal peacefully grazing in a paddock after the initial rampage ended, he felt obligated to shoot the elephant dead because of the expectations of the large crowd of watching Burmese people who had become interested in the affair once he had called for a gun. The last sentence of this essay states that his only reason for shooting the elephant was to avoid looking like a fool in front of the watching crowd.

Orwell’s first sentence of every essay is stunning. Each hits the reader with a terrible truth (or an unpleasant fact) and leaves them wanting to know more. For example, Marrakech begins with:

As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.

Or, from England Your England:

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

A great many of the essays are written around the time of World War Two. Orwell gave his opinion on a variety of topics, including saying that British and American soldiers couldn’t socialise with each other because the American soldiers were paid far more money than the British. In Revenge is Sour he described the incongruity of a former enemy of the Germans sharing his coffee with a German family soon after the end of the war. In Dear Doktor Goebbels – Your British Friends Are Feeding Fine! he wrote about rich people breaking the law to avoid food rationing. I found it interesting that although Orwell didn’t approve of their actions he wasn’t overtly scathing of the rule-breakers, instead using his matter-of-fact voice to describe how they managed to bypass the rules and eat well while poorer people made do with far less, leaving it up to the reader to decide if they disapprove or not.

Domestic matters were addressed in The Case for an Open Fire, where Orwell suggested that a fire was an unrivalled gathering point for a family and that functionalism was overrated, and In Defence of English Cooking he praised English cheeses, puddings, sauces and breads. A Nice Cup of Tea provided Orwell’s eleven outstanding points to be followed to make a perfect cup of tea.

The Moon Under Water described the most idyllic English pub imaginable, but brought the reader back to reality and to their own lack-lustre local with a thud.

I had been particularly looking forward to reading Why I Write and enjoyed it very much when I did. Orwell was very hard on his early writing which according to him contained too much ‘purple prose.’ His reasons for why writers write were interesting too and they included, egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historic impulse and political purpose. I believe my reasons fall into the ‘egoism’ category, although I tell myself that they are for historic purposes (so I can remember what I’ve already read as I grow older).

How the Poor Die was a gut wrenching essay to read. Hospitals and nursing have come a long, long way.

The book ended with Such, Such Were the Joys which told of Orwell’s time as a child at boarding school. St Cyprian’s was a cruel place, however I would have liked to have learn more about how (or if) the school’s teaching program influenced his writing.

The foreword by George Packer introduced Orwell as a master of essays and having read this collection, I couldn’t agree more.

Comments on: "Facing Unpleasant Facts by George Orwell" (12)

  1. Orwell is a writer I’ve shied away from; a bit too ‘masculine’ for me. (I’ve probably broken a zillion rules with that statement!) I have him bracketed with Hemingway. But I have read a little Hemingway and been able to appreciate that and I would like to dip a toe into Orwell’s work. Do you think this might be a good place to start, Rose?

  2. This has reminded me that I’d like to read more by Orwell! I’ve read a couple of these essays in other collections but this sounds particularly excellent as a group.

  3. Interesting review! I’ve not read any of Orwell’s non fiction. Sounds like these essays are very varied but always well-written.

  4. Yes, Orwell’s essays are a great place to start. You can skip the topics that don’t interest you, although none of the essays are overly long.
    I know what you mean about masculine writing styles but I didn’t notice Orwell’s particularly, except when he argued for a fire without thinking about the domestic work having one entails!

  5. This collection is terrific. I usually space out essays and short stories so the topics remain clear in my mind but in this case I wanted to keep reading regardless.

  6. The essay topics are varied and interesting. He lived an excellent extraordinary life.
    I like Orwell’s essays better than his fiction.

  7. I really need to start reading Orwell, I’ve only read 1984 I think. Down and Out is one I’ve been meaning to read for years. I completely agree with you about fearlessness, it adds so much integrity doesn’t it? Even just writing a little blog I worry about saying certain things instead of just going for it!

  8. Orwell’s essays are masterpieces, in my opinion. I enjoyed Down and Out, but Facing Unpleasant Facts covers a wider variety of topics.
    Fearlessness is impossible for us mere mortals! I’m also too worried about what other people think of me. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings if I read something I think is terrible, nor do I want to expose too much of myself. But I love it when good writers are honest and fearless!

  9. Exposing too much of ourselves – that’s a huge topic!

  10. Sounds like a brilliant collection. I’ve come across A Nice Cup of Tea before in an anthology of writing about food – don’t remember much now except that I enjoyed it. Interesting about the rich people avoiding food rationing, since in Homage to Catalonia he’s quite honest that, in his time in Barcelona, he was one of the rich eating much better than most of the citizens.

  11. I can’t imagine what someone from the past would think of people from the present exposing so much of their lives to others!

  12. Facing Unpleasant Facts is a brilliant collection. I feel as if I appreciate Orwell’s writing better the more I read his work, although I don’t always agree with what he has to say!
    I’m looking forward to reading Homage to Catalonia but am also putting it off as don’t want to read it too soon after reading this.

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