Review of Peter Davison’s lecture ‘An Orwellian Nightmare’

Review of Peter Davison’s talk ‘An Orwellian Nightmare’ at the Marlborough Literary festival, by Ron Bateman 23-09-2011

As early as September 1943, George Orwell wrote in his literary notebook under the heading ‘The general layout’ a set of sub-headings including ‘the swindle of Bakerism & Ingsoc.’ This sub-heading had since stymied academics and scholars who have come across it until one day when in 2006 when a research student discovered a series of letters exchanged between Orwell and a horticultural expert C.D.Darlington referring to a talk given by the scientist John Baker in August 1944 referring to the Soviet scientist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko.

For Peter Davison, who has written and edited over 29 volumes devoted to Orwell over the last 30 years, this must have been the literary equivalent of a ‘eureka moment’. At this point, when this new material had surfaced, all 20 volumes of The Complete Works had long been published and the proofs of an additional supplementary volume The Lost Orwell were ready to be returned to the printers. Suddenly, the supplementary volume had to put on hold, for it was clear that, not only had the ‘Bakerism problem’ been solved, but something very significant in prompting Orwell to start writing the outline of Nineteen Eighty-Four had been discovered. For the record, Lysenko had been appointed Academician and Director of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Science in 1940.

He had rejected traditional hybridisation theories and took his own course which included the dubious belief that he could, for example, change wheat into rye. Josef Stalin had backed Lysenko’s theories to such a degree that opposition to the scientist was outlawed. The significant fact was that Baker had concluded his talk by arguing that the case of Lysenko had provided a vivid illustration of the ‘degradation of science under a totalitarian regime.’ In Nineteen Eighty-Four we see this ‘degradation theory’ written into the fictitious ‘Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein’ which states ‘scientific and technical progress depended on the empirical habit of thought, which could not survive in a strictly regimented society.’

At this year’s Marlborough Literary Festival, Peter delivered a thoroughly enjoyable talk packed with a plethora of similarly interesting facts discovered throughout almost three decades spent editing and writing about Orwell. At the centre of this mammoth contribution is The Complete Works, comprising ‘deluxe’ editions of Orwell’s nine full-length books followed by an additional eleven volumes of letters, essays and journalism.

The task of producing those ‘deluxe editions’ was presented as arduous enough by itself, requiring painstaking word comparisons alongside up to 50 extant editions, amending proofs full of errors, arguments with Literary Editors who took it upon themselves to re-write Orwell and many volumes being required to be pulped in the process. Those ‘deluxe editions’ turned out merely to be just a prelude to the main task of assembling the eleven volumes of additional material that would complete the undertaking.

As I sat listening to Peter, I couldn’t help thinking of the trials of Francis Ford Coppola’s 10-year journey towards completing his epic film Apocalypse Now. Throughout that process, Coppola’s leading man suffered an acute heart attack, President Marcos of the Philippines recalled the helicopters he had loaned to the film crew and many expensive scenes were ruined by adverse weather. Coppola himself was compelled to delay the release date several times while he edited millions of feet of footage. Peter’s 16-year journey towards completing The Complete Works was effectively presented as an ‘apocalyptic’ undertaking in itself. For various reasons the whole project was abandoned by publishers on no less than six occasions and somewhere in that timeline Peter himself had to undergo a sextuple bypass operation. Added to this was the complications brought about by Orwell’s publishers Secker and Warburg changing hands eight times –on one occasion being taken over by a bus company and on another the London Rubber Company!

Peter Davison’s talk again took on a Russian flavour when he considered some interesting parallels between Orwell and the Russian War Correspondent Vasily Grossman. He continued to provide an illustration of how the comparisons between the two effectively illuminate the former’s strength of achievement in the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Referring to Grossman’s own masterpiece Life and Fate we are led through a series of comparisons that include the betrayal of those held dear as in Room 101, the total conformity of thought, the re-writing of history, Hate Week and the confessions of the innocents.

Similar claims can be made of Orwell’s achievements in Animal Farm in which he not only recreated the political life, but also the tone of life inside Russia without ever having been there. As I listen I am reminded of the famous Polish Communist defector Czeslaw Milosz, one of a few ‘insiders’ who succeeded in procuring a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In 1953 Milosz wrote ‘For those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.’ Those comparisons between Orwell and Grossman lead Peter Davison to communicate this same amazement to his audience; that astonishment ‘that Orwell, who had never been to the USSR, could so accurately depict the facts and tone of Stalinist life as mirrored in Grossman’s work.

As the talk neared its conclusion, we were given further insight into the unlocking of further riddles, this time in relation to Orwell’s personal life and that of his childhood sweetheart Jacintha Buddicom. Letters, testimonies and an unlikely photograph by a street photographer all add up to a sad and moving tail of love, rejection and regret. ‘If only I had been ready for betrothal when Eric (Orwell) asked me to marry him on his return from Burma,’ Jacintha had lamented many years later. ‘It took me literally years to realize that we are all imperfect creatures but that Eric was less imperfect than anyone else I ever met.’ So much more that I have neglected to mention was presented to a fascinated audience providing for a thoroughly enjoyable hour. For me, it was a privilege to hear a master at work on his subject and a further reminder of Peter Davison’s unsurpassable contribution to the study of Orwell’s life and work.

Ron Bateman,  October 2011


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