Review: Orwell's Victory by Christopher Hitchens

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Orwell's Victory by Christopher Hitchens book coverOrwell’s Victory (2002), Why Orwell Matters in the United States, is a passionate defence of one of the twentieth century’s most important writers by Christopher Hitchens. The book explores Orwell’s legacy in terms of his political writings, novels, and wider essays, and seeks to restore his reputation where necessary and illuminate the issues surrounding him. Hitchens approaches the subject from his own perspective and writes a lively polemic against Orwell’s appropriation and misinterpretation by various political and intellectual groups.

Attacking the likes of Claude Simon and Raymond Williams and, on the right, Norman Podhoretz, Hitchens successfully picks off the targets he chooses for himself with great erudition and startling potency. Interestingly, Hitchens appears more venomous towards those on the left who denigrate Orwell, than those on the right who seek to claim him as their own, where a simple dismissal will do, it seems.

One finds that Hitchens’s combative style steers him towards seeking out opponents with whom to disagree, and this means he perhaps fails to emphasise the full extent of Orwell’s unchallenged legacy. There is a preoccupation too, with being ‘right’ (correct) that weighs Orwell’s Victory down, and this need to be right is not restricted to the subject himself. It might be indicative of Orwell’s central principle of seeking that which was true, but it still proves cumbersome to the text.

Notably, Hitchens claims that Orwell got the three big questions of the twentieth century right: imperialism, fascism, and communism. Certainly, one of Orwell’s greatest achievements was rendering in fiction, and understanding instinctively, the nature of totalitarian societies, where dictatorships disregarded culture, civilisation, and history, forcing on its people a grim reality. But, in a century that saw startling change, one might wonder at the exclusivity of this list of the ‘big questions’. Undoubtedly, Hitchens tailors his argument to promote Orwell in the best light possible, shaping the issues of ‘most importance’ and Orwell’s own responses to them, to provide a rather subjective portrait of a controversial writer.

But, of course, Orwell himself was a conflicted individual, and ‘Orwell’s Victory’ might refer as much to Orwell’s own personal journey of self-mastery, in which he suppressed the more unpleasant impulses in his nature, and forced his opinions towards a modern liberalism, as to his impact on a global stage.

Although Hitchens touches on Orwell's negative points, he too often acknowledges them and moves on. This is more a book to laud Orwell and shoot down his detractors, than to consider his genuine, objective value. In this vein, Hitchens perhaps speaks too briefly of Orwell’s distaste for homosexuality or Jews, and dismisses feminist critics of Orwell’s treatment of women by reminding readers that Orwell enjoyed the company of intelligent women – a laughably reductive dismissal. So too, he fails to fully explore Orwell’s blind-spot for America as the burgeoning world power of the twentieth century. No matter what Hitchens might suggest here, Orwell was not right on everything.

As with all of Hitchens’s writing, this is not an overly scholarly appraisal, but rather an enjoyable conversation about Orwell’s work in context. Far from objective, one senses that a broader view of Orwell is needed if one is to begin to master his importance and place in twentieth century history. However, whilst perhaps not the most illuminating look at the Orwell’s work, it is certainly an enjoyable and impassioned introduction to Orwell and his critics.

Hitchens, who so often used his command of the English language to expose and critique those he opposed, is less assured when describing one of whom he is all too evidently fond. In enthusing about Orwell, Hitchens argument spills over into a too exuberant attempt to co-opt a personal hero, and sees his prose slipping into mawkish praise at points. Indeed, there are times when Hitchens could be describing what he considers admirable and worth aspiring to in an author (and in the process inferring these qualities upon himself), rather than dealing with the reality of his subject: Hitchens creates the hero he wants – in his own image, and one senses that Hitchens infers too much from Orwell’s writing, perhaps injecting his own thoughts into the gaps.

Orwell always claimed that the time in which he existed pushed him away from fiction and towards the essay form, which he so mastered. This is, one feels (as Hitchens would agree), not quite right, but the world is nevertheless a better place for Orwell’s essays, whatever prompted him to produce them. For all that Hitchens enthuses about Orwell’s writing, one can’t help but feel that the greatest clarity about the man can still be found in his own essays and writings, stark and accessible as they are.

In truth, one wonders how dramatically different from the mainstream conception of Orwell many of Hitchens’s ideas truly are. He is, perhaps, more willing to ignore some of Orwell’s missed steps than less fawning admirers might, and on the whole he goes about creating his own ‘Saint George’.

What must be said is that Hitchens writes with an enthusiasm that, inevitably, transfers itself onto the reader. Orwell continues to be claimed by both right and left, and Hitchens explores this engagingly, while always forcing Orwell towards the left. So much has been written about Orwell that it is hard to add anything meaningful to the canon of criticism, yet Orwell’s Victory is an enjoyable discussion of the author’s legacy, and while less than objective is still a stimulating introduction to his work.

I quite enjoyed this. At times Hitchens gets a little bogged down in making a point and also loses a little objectivity, but generally a lively discussion of Orwell's legacy.  


Useful Links
Reviews of Orwell's Victory on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Why Orwell Matters on Amazon (US)

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2 comments:

Heather said...

I am so glad you've been reviewing so many of Hitchens' books/essays. There are a bunch that I didn't even know about, including this one. Thank you!

Matthew Selwyn said...

No problem Heather - I think Hitchens was so well known for a couple of his interests that a lot of his other work got buried beneath the more controversial publicity. If any of the things I've looked at prove interesting to others, I'm glad :)