Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays
George Orwell, compiled and edited by George Packer
Harcourt Books, 2009
A number of years ago I was in Barnes & Noble in Manhattan’s Upper Eastside. While there I observed a bald, well-fed middle-aged man with his son, who was dressed in a white, button-down shirt, khakis, and a navy blue blazer. The father said to his son, “Now, we are looking for Animal Farm. You must read Animal Farm.” To which the son replied, “What is it about?” The boy was thirteen years old at most, still yet to mature. Faced with explaining political satire, the father said simply, “It is one of the best books ever written. You will love it.” I never remembered what I went to the bookstore for that day, but I never forgot the two of them.
Reading George Orwell’s most popular novels, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), is almost a rite of passage. They are books not just assigned by teachers to students, but passed from one individual to another.
Many people who read Nineteen Eighty-Four think George Orwell was a true visionary—that he saw a world as it soon would be, rather than as it was in the moment. In addition to his prophetic gift, Orwell's satirical comedy, which is on full display in Animal Farm, is unmatched. Orwell’s essays, though less well-known, are every bit as good as his novels. A selection of these commentaries have been compiled into two new volumes, Facing Unpleasant Facts and All Art is Propaganda, by New Yorker magazine staff writer George Packer. Packer’s selection differs from others in that he showcases Orwell’s evolving talent as a writer, as well as his vacillating interests. The collection in Facing Unpleasant Facts is organized, Packer says, to “illuminate Orwell as an essayist—to show the reader how he made the essay his own.”
George Orwell writes that his favorite public house was The Moon Under Water in London. He liked it there because it was always quiet enough to have a conversation. Reading Orwell’s essays one feels as if they are sitting next to him at this traditional pub. And while each essay acts as a new evening bringing a new topic, the man is always passionately the same. Packer presents him in a range of essays that fully display Orwell’s life experiences, from the Nazi impact on Britain to the Spanish Civil War to feelings about tea.
Orwell’s famous essay “Shooting an Elephant” is included, but it is in the less well-known essays where the reader sees Orwell as a conversational patriot; that is, a man passionate about his country. In his essay, “England Your England,” for example, he writes extensively about the transcendent effects of patriotism. “Up to a point, the sense of national unity is a substitute for a ‘worldview,’” Orwell writes. “Just because patriotism is all but universal and not even the rich are uninfluenced by it, there can come moments when the whole nation suddenly swings together and does the same thing, like a herd of cattle facing a wolf.” Whether speaking of the British, the Communists, the Americans, or the Nazis, Orwell is politically outspoken and forthright.
He also possesses the unique ability to visually depict snapshots of time. In “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” he recounts a story of an Indian soldier who, accused by Orwell of stealing his cigarettes, quickly comes to his accuser’s rescue when the men in his section declare Orwell a Fascist. Orwell clearly sees that war has bound the Indian and himself together. Only under the chaos of war, could the accused innocent forget about the incident altogether in order to save/maintain a wartime bond.
In the same candid manner, Orwell also saw and reported on sour relations between British and American soldiers during World War II. “It is now nearly two years since the first American troops reached this country, and I rarely see American and British soldiers together. Quite obviously the major cause of this is the difference in pay.”
Ultimately, Orwell was a man who saw the world around him clearly—no matter the topic. He had an intense gift to live and write in the moment. A reader can only admire Orwell for that accuracy, as well as Mr. Packer for his choice of essays.
George Orwell, Anthology