Monday, 16 July 2012

George Owell- Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays

Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays
Penguin
George Orwell
1950 (Collected)


 "The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism. The issue truth-versus-untruth is as far as possible kept in the background. Although the point of emphasis may vary, the writer who refuses to sell his opinions is always branded as a mere egoist. He is accused, that is, either of wanting to shut himself up in an ivory tower, or of making an exhibitionist display of his own personality, or of resisting the inevitable current of history in an attempt to cling to unjustified privileges."
- The Prevention of Literature (1946)

With my perusal of George Orwell's bibliography of fiction almost finished (well, aside from Burmese Days which I have sitting on the pile), I was really excited to visit my first collection with essays. Orwell is obviously a very well known and appreciated essayist, and besides that much of his appeal to me within his fictions (I'm specifically thinking of A Clergyman's Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying as well as 1984) is his ability to convert the most salient, entertaining and insightful points of a quality, passionate essay into his fiction without too much trouble, seemingly effortlessly both enriching the story and further establishing his sociopolitical viewpoints.

Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays is a very popular compendium of around twenty Orwell essays of differing length and subject. As an aside, it slightly irritates me that I didn't get a hold of a more complete, chronologically accurate collection of the complete Orwell, but I suppose that gives me something to do in the future. Now, to state the absolutely obvious, the variety of subjects, subject length, in-depth analysis and whimsy (or lack of) is sure to effect the reader's enjoyment of each individual essay. Personally, while I'm very glad I read each essay and certainly learned a lot, it was the extended length (and, to a certain extent) subjects of two essays in this collection which left me feeling a little bored and disinterested temporarily, while most of the shorter pieces were utterly fantastic.

Black + White= Cooler
To get the less-interesting (to me) out of the way first, I wasn't particularly interested in the 60-page plus critical analysis of Charles Dickens, entitled simply Dickens. Without meaning to go on a distracting diatribe, I did go on a bit of a Dickens binge in my late teens, but gave up after eight or so books due to the increasing feeling of boredom I felt with each new book. In fairness, Orwell's essay is certainly no fawning fan worship or anything like that, instead seriously studying the social reflections and interpretations of the then one hundred year novels with insight and care. I just didn't find it that interesting, and its length distorted the collection somewhat. The other essay I found uninteresting was Politics vs. Literature- An Examination of Gulliver's Travels, which is probably because I've never read Gulliver's Travels, and can't really be bothered to.

Now, the good stuff; pretty much everything else. The title essay, Shooting an Elephant is an autobiographical snippet about Orwell in Burma working as a policeman, on a day where an elephant went rogue and Orwell had to shoot it. Mostly lacking in political analysis and doom and gloom, it's an enthralling and dramatic piece that's interesting and emotional, and gives a great insight into the mind and ethics of the author. The Decline of the English Murder is another extremely famous essay, which satirises in a very black way the representation of real life crime stories in the English press of the time. How the Poor Die is an extremely bleak autobiographical look at a Parisian hospital Orwell visited in the 20's, and provides another fascinating insight into the mind of Orwell.

I very much enjoyed the numerous essays on literature aside from Dickens and Swift; Bookshop Memories might be my favourite of everything collected here, and is accompanied by Boys Weeklies and Good Bad Books as charming, thoughtful and joyously written essays on popular literature and personal experiences on it. One of the things I love about reading Orwell is that he leaves his heart on each page; you can trace through his bibliography and get a full impression of his personal development and thoughts throughout the years, leading eventually to the epic 1984. Each snippet collected in Shooting an Elephant adds towards that, giving a fuller and fuller picture of one of the most important authors of all time. I would heartily recommend this collection because it offers a variety of moods and themes, but consists of great, great writing from a unique and talented mind.