BOOK REVIEW: Orwell - by Pierre Christin & Sébastien Verdier

Orwell

With this graphic novel being divided into three parts, just like George Orwell’s most resound novel 1984; one may expect that Verdier’s effort may disproportionately focus on 1984 and Orwell’s previous offering Animal Farm; the novel that graduated Orwell into a famous author.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Orwell details Orwell's life chronologically from the cradle to the grave, devoting much time to his other novels, including Burmese Days, Coming Up for Air and A Clergyman’s Daughter. Furthermore, Orwell’s non-fiction works, which could be described as probably the first works of “sociological observation” and “embedded journalism”, including A Down and Out in Paris, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia are also featured. Verdier impressively takes the reader through an equally enlightening, whilst also disheartening journey as to how this author, born Eric Arthur Blair, created the immortal George Orwell whose legacy includes the term “Orwellian” named after him; an honour only a handful of authors, including Kafka and Shakespeare, have achieved.

Despite having a weak constitution and describing his childhood as being “sad and lonely”,; the young Eric knew by the time he was six that he wanted to become a writer and wrote his first poem when he was five. With a love of writing came a love of books and Blair’s first influences include H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. While Orwell disproportionately uses black and white illustrations, Verdier occasionally applies adroit, captivating, standout, colourful illustrations, including scenes from The Time Machine and depictions of the “prep school” St. Cyprians Orwell attended, which burnt down. Equally important, Verdier also captures Blair’s pastimes which influenced his life and writing, including collecting flora and fauna and his love of nature and animals, including caterpillars (which he bred) and cats (when they weren’t chasing birds).

From first seeing the flaws of the “rote-learning” he received at St Cyprian's, Blair first became aware of the class difference when he joined the police in Burma in 1922 and witnessed for himself the “evil thing” of imperialism. Army service in Burma inspired Orwell’s debut novel, which Verdier narrates across five gorgeous watercolour pages of illustrations. Interestingly, Orwell didn’t write Burmese Days whilst in service; George wrote it as a retrospective whilst living at his parents’ home as Kerouac did in the 1940s when he wrote his debut novel The Town and the City.

Verdier then articulately traces Orwell as a man committed to finding out the living situation, discrimination and disadvantages of double standards which befall those living on the fringes of society. Orwell did this by going undercover as someone on the fringes of society himself. For example, when Orwell went to Paris to wash dishes, he was forced to shave off his moustache while his chef superiors wore them with snobbish pride. Furthermore, hygiene and the conditions in even the most respectable establishments was so poor that the waiter’s washed their faces in the same water as the crockery. These and many other first-hand experiences were documented in A Down and Out in London and Paris.

Beyond England, Orwell also observed the conditions in Spain, which he described as worse than the “English slums” where he fought in the Spanish Civil War against fascism. As well as almost being killed when he was shot in the neck, Orwell became disheartened as all the non-communist international brigades against fascism were made illegal with brigade members being jailed, which cemented a growing disdain for Orwell against Stalin and his application of communism.

Beyond the published fiction and non-fiction books, Verdier also provides a respectable roundup of Orwell's many topics in his published articles. Whilst Orwell himself has been immortalised in this graphic novel with Verdier claiming Orwell “influenced” the graphic novel The Black Order Parade; Orwell severely slandered comics including Superman questioning “Who… would bring up a child on the … “comics” in which sinister professors manufacture atomic bombs in underground laboratories … and platinum blondes are raped… by steel robots and fifty-foot dinosaurs?”. More light-heartedly, concerning “Pleasure Spots” such as beaches, Orwell found that “One is never out of the sound of music”.

As well as capturing Orwell as a fiction writer, social commentator and journalist, Verdier also captures Orwell as someone wanting to serve his country, invest in people's power, and empower them, which he did during The Second World War. For most people, being shot in the throat would deter them from future military service, yet Orwell applied to serve England overseas. Having previously contracted tuberculosis (TB), George was ruled unfit for overseas service but was able to serve in the Home guard, where he taught soldiers how to build barricades. If serving in the Home guard wasn’t enough, Orwell also adopted a child, Richard, made BBC radio broadcasts and wrote Animal Farm, which was later published in 1946.

Verdier accurately concludes in the epilogue entitled “After Orwell” how Orwell’s work has been “invoked, by both Left and Right, and often in ways that distort his (Orwell’s) original meaning”. Verdier has provided an engaging and exciting overview of the unassuming humanitarian and multi-talented Orwell, one as a reader of Orwell, has a duty to then take on the inevitable inspiration gained and read Orwell’s work. After all, Verdier researched virtually all of Orwell’s published material to create Orwell. Additionally, reading and understanding Orwell’s work will serve as the ideal weapon against those who wish to “distort his (Orwell’s) original meaning”.

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