Wednesday, August 13, 2008

George Orwell blogs from beyond the grave

Very hot in the morning. In the afternoon sudden thunder-storm & very heavy rain. About 50 yards from the gate the road & pavement flooded a foot deep after only 1 1/2 hours rain.
Blackberries beginning to redden.
And so observes George Orwell of the 12 of August – 70 years ago.

Not exactly 1984, but you get an idea of how he was spending his days or what preoccupied him just before war broke out throughout Europe.

If you don't want your literary giants to end up having feet of clay, you may not want to know too much about their intimate inner lives – or even the mundane details of their daily lives. I mean, how much can knowing whether they had clean underwear that day, or how much rain fell, tell us about what they had written and published?

Unless of course they're dead and you can't grill them in one of those banal email interviews – you know, the ones where various 'celebrities' are asked what they are 'excited about' or reading/eating/watching/listening to.

Perhaps that's why the George Orwell Prize is republishing every entry from George Orwell's diaries from 1938 to 1942 – starting with 9 August 1938 – to mark the 70th anniversary of his diaries. According to the editors:
each diary entry will be published on this blog exactly seventy years after it was written, allowing you to follow Orwell’s recuperation in Morocco, his return to the UK, and his opinions on the descent of Europe into war in real time. The diaries end in 1942, three years into the conflict.
The blog's publishers deserve to be congratulated for bringing Orwell's domestic diaries to a new audience and for breaking out of the mould of (re)publishing another overpriced, thinly illustrated and poorly annotated dead-tree tome in time for the Christmas glut. Publishing each diary entry in blog post format in 'real time' also strikes me as quite a novel move.

But I do wish they had tried to push the boundaries of blogging a little further for something this promising. For instance, instead of using the predictable convention of labelling blog posts with tags that only prosaically describe their content (for instance, 12 August's post was tagged 'blackberries, fruit, weather'), they could have used tags to set the context for the original diary entries, such as where Orwell was when he wrote them, or whether he was suffering ill health or enjoying recovery.

There also appears to be a lot of debate over what the title of the blog should be, with a number of commenters complaining that it the title should be 'The Orwell Diaries' not The Orwell Prize. Perhaps the Prize lost a copyright battle with the copyright holders of Orwell's diaries, but you'd think they could have come up with something far more descriptive of the diaries themselves.

For all the early excitement about these posts, let's remember these are his "domestic diaries", and his curiosity here, as the editors say, was "focused on plants, animals, woodwork, and – above all – how many eggs his chickens have laid", rather than anything so earth shattering as the state of political writing in Britain.

These are early days yet in the diaries, and thus the blog. But this hasn't stop the flurry of activity and commenting on the posts, as readers express their approval, or otherwise, or just their hopes that things spice up a bit as he goes along. But thin as the content may be, you can't keep a good internet wag down. Commenting on the entry from the 12th, one reader said:
Oh what a cliffhanger. Are the blackberries going to ripen before the rain spoils them? Can’t wait to know!

When our literary giants are dead, we seem want to know as much about them as we can – especially if one is writing a thesis, biography or another article about what was going on behind the scenes of their third book/essay/collection.

Or perhaps our preoccupation has something that resonates with our current predilection for the minutiae of other people's daily lives – whether it is in blogs, myspace, facebook, twitter updates, text messages, instant messaging or chat – and, admittedly, as bloggers we are all complicit in this. Perhaps it is not so current, since before blogging and text the larger appetite was for published diaries and collected letters.

I think this is going to get bigger, and more diaries are going to be published online like this. And would you believe it, another mob are doing exactly the same with the diary of Samuel Pepys, beginning almost exactly the same day – nearly three and a half centuries earlier.

Why are we hungering anew for the inner lives of diarists and letter writers, especially literary ones? With the inundation of our senses with reality television, celebrity gossip and in-depth profiles, you'd think we just want to curl up in bed with a good book and not care about the life of the author behind the book. Perhaps, after all, we feel somewhat reassured that even our literary greats are just people like us.

George Orwell, August 10:
"Drizzly. Dense mist in evening. Yellow moon."

[Image of Orwell is from Wikipedia; photo of pig sculpture by me; the Orwell Prize website also has a great gallery of Orwell photos]

Cross-posted as a guest post at Sarsaparilla. (Thanks Sarsaparilla!)

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At August 14, 2008 6:11 am, Blogger Richard W. Symonds said...

Here's hoping this might be of interest - the Diary Blog has fired my imagination, just as it will for others I'm sure :


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