George Orwell – Why I Write

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George Orwell is a towering figure in writing. He defined how we think of totalitarianism, and created a language that’s a tool to demonize any regime or opponent. That’s ironic, because this demonization is one thing Orwell avoided. He’s an unavoidable author whose status is almost mythic. He’s a symbol.

Authors rarely become symbols. The activity is too solitary and unexciting. Orwell is one of the few famous writers who clearly wrote with hopes to improve the world. A lot of fiction is personal, even the satirical. Catch-22 reads more like a person trying to find humor in his military experience, rather than hoping the generals will read it and change their modus operandi.

The importance of the first essay relies more on the fact Orwell wrote it. It shows the human beneath the writing and the terms he invented. His four main motives are interesting, and I have a hard time thinking of another one. It’s more interesting to read how Orwell was a lonely nobody in the beginning. The writing is a little jerky, feeling as if Orwell is afraid to let everything out. He’s uncomfortable writing such a personal thing. There’s also an air of self-criticism, which is important for any serious intellectuals.

The second essay about the English culture/people is a problem. Too much of what Orwell writes is personal observation. It’s interesting and well-written, but nothing really verifiable. You have to take Orwell’s word for it. Since it’s a political piece, it’s harder to take that leap.

At least Orwell never demonizes anyone. He recognizes Hitler was the enemy back then, but there’s no joy or bravado in that idea. We need to defeat the enemy because he sadly exists, but that’s nothing to celebrate.

I’ll refrain from commenting on Orwell’s economic ideas, since I’m completely ignorant in that subject. You have to start somewhere, and Orwell is a decent beginning. He’s blunt that he’s in favour of Socialism. Again, his critique of Capitalism never descends into demonization. The essay doesn’t elaborate too much on the difference between Socialism and Capitalism, but Orwell gives the impression that he has sound reasons for his opinions.

One problem that happens over and over in that essay is Orwell’s calling some facts obvious. Phrases such as “anyone who understands” or “anyone who had eyes” and so on appear frequently. They’re not next to obvious facts. Maybe they were obvious back in the day, but in modern times you’ll have to look in history books to make sure Orwell is making sense.

The third essay is just a description of hanging. The prose is fantastic. There’s no point to it other than make the scene come alive, and Orwell does it. The prose is simple, with no stylistic quirks. It also has no bullshit. This prose was wooden in 1984, yet here it captures the sense of ‘this really happened’ that all realist authors aim for.

The last essay is not only the best, but should be spread around. Orwell’s criticism apply to every language. Complex language is overrated, especially when you’re dealing with ideas. If the purpose is to make readers understand you clearly, your words shouldn’t be a dense forest.

Complex sentences may work in fiction. Tone and describing sensory information is something authors do all the time. Fictional prose always borders on poetry. When you’re writing essays or talking about ideas/politics you need to be clear. You want to send a specific message, not something vague that can mean different things depending on the person.

There’s no reason for an intellectual person who understands his ideas to bury them. Words can be used to transmit ideas, or to blur them. The examples Orwell gives are a headache, and the way he transforms a Biblical passage into ‘intellectual language’ is hilarious.

He’s wrong about jargon, though. Jargon exists so the writing will be cleaner. Jargon takes a complex idea and sums it up in one word. These words are often obscure because people who use them often are passionate about their field and discuss these ideas constantly. Some even have subject-dependent meaning, like how ‘texture’ has its own meaning in music.

Of course, some people can use it to cover up not saying anything. You can feel your music review with ‘harmony’, ‘texture’, ‘idea’, ‘time signature’, ‘octaves’ and you still won’t be able to explain why The Beatles are so good. The way to test these people is to ask them what a certain jargon word means. An intelligent person will be able to explain it.

I’m glad Penguin Great Ideas put all these essays in one accessible book. Why I Write is an attention-grabbing title, and all of these essays help understand who Orwell is. Two of them are too personal and would only matter for writers or fans of Orwell. The last essay is a must-read no matter who you are. We all use language, after all.

3.5 politicians out of 5

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Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook

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I kept postponing writing this review because I had no idea where to start. I hoped reading other reviews and another book might have helped me. It didn’t. I’m falling back on the technique of telling that I had no idea how to start the review and feminism. I, too, wish I had a more original approach.

Lessing said she didn’t view this as a ‘feminist work’. Others have agreed with. They pointed to Anna Wulf’s character, who is overflowing with flaws. Her whole mind is in fragments and she can’t help but be attracted to guys who have no problem cheating on their wives. Then there is Africa and communism and a story-within-a-story. It’s like someone took that Tove Lo concept album, mixed it with a Rage Against the Machine and Drums of Death record and didn’t trim the weaker tracks.

My interpretation of feminism is different than others. Many think feminism is giving a female character a gun and letting her shoot everyone down. You can teach a man to fish, but it doesn’t mean you know him. Whether we’re putting women in the kitchen, factories or in the front lines doesn’t matter. We’re still putting them in roles.

What Lessing does here is what many a male author did – Salinger, Bellow, Heller. She dumps all her problems and the ugliness inside on the page with hope of making sense of it all. These type of novels can be cathartic, but they can also lead to a lot of rambling if there’s no idea to bind them together.

Lessing at least attempts that. The whole structure is an attempt to look at every problem on its own. It means every album gets the spotlight for a considerable page-count. It also means that it takes a long time before we return to it, which forces the reader to re-focus, recall a lot of previous details and push back what he just read.

The problem is that Lessing has a lot to say about everything. Paragraphs stretch for pages. If this was a small novel that gave a brief taste of everything and asked us to focus on the big picture, it’d be fine. The problem is that you’re always zooming in. When you spend hours staring at a fifth of a painting, it becomes the painting itself. It’s full of big pictures.

There’s a reason connected novels are published separately. That’s because each has to be readable and be read on its own. It has to be a big picture, too. Chapters should also stand on their own, of course. However, they can’t be a big picture on their own. Cut them from the novel and you lose something.

Lessing reminds me of George Martin (only with far more writing skill). She has so much information to convey, but much of it is too separate to allow you to focus on it. Each of the sections could stand on their own as a novel. Maybe making this a series where the line between novels isn’t chronology but the subject would make it easier to read. It’d be a pretty cool idea that many others will imitate, too.

It’s a shame, because Lessing is otherwise a great author. She rambles, of course. Her labyrnith of thoughts doesn’t flow as well as Auster and is too big. Still, her ideas are fascinating. The section about communism is one of the more mature treatment of the subject I’ve seen. We often encounter either pro or con. We’re told that either communism failed or that it just wasn’t really tested. Sometimes there are even rational arguments to back these up, but Lessing has empathy for all sides. She critiques isn’t pointed at who’s right, but at what causes the discussions to fall.

Her writings about The Female Experience are even better. This is where the whole feminism thing rears its head, and where I find Anna Wulf’s dysfunctional character as feminist. If men are allowed to have their labyrniths of thought, so do women.

Lessing doesn’t care about empowerment. Like Atwood, she just thinks a woman’s life deserves as much attention as a man’s. If men are allowed to psychanalyze themselves using literature, so do women. If there is any conclusion here, it’s that men and women are more similar than they are different.

It seems there is no actual difference between men and women. They all have the same wants and needs. The problems are when we take gender seriously. The two gay men aren’t very different, but the fact they’re attracted to men rather than women casts a shadow over them. It’s this little thing that disgusts Anna Wulf, although they are otherwise fine.

It’s also interesting how the romantic struggle isn’t with loneliness, but with Bad Guys. That seems to be a common theme in any female work of art that deals with heartbreak. Males are trapped in loneliness. There is suffocating loneliness in songs like “Forget Her”. Then you read this, Atwood and listen to Tove Lo’s album and it’s a world where nobody is lonely. There is always someone giving you attention and wanting you. They just don’t want you in the way you want them to want you.

Me and a friend discussed this often. What’s worse? The unwanted attention or the loneliness? We haven’t found an answer yet. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe asking questions like these are what set up the barriers between men and women. Even if Lessing’s character and Tove Lo will never know the loneliness of being invisible, we somehow all end up with hearbreak and frustrated with the ideal of romance.

I wish Lessing was more brief and focused with these themes. Her labyrniths of thoughts are so dense that you’re too busy figuring out where you are to stop and enjoy the ideas she scattered around. I don’t want a literature of answers. I don’t mind it an author throws me to a maze full of ideas that I will never understand 100%. When an author makes you feel too lost, you give up looking.

There are also a bunch of interior monologues. I keep thinking that intenral monologues are either your whole story, or you don’t put them at all. She’s a bit more stylish, but the whole method goes against what she’s doing. She’s bringing her characters to life using interactions and sitations. There are plenty of these that are amusing enough. A monologue only serves to stop the story to tell us what’s happening. Interior monlogues only work if the whole story is supposed to trap us in the character’s head, like the film Pi. In books like this or the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, the action is the core of the story.

Her character also lives a relatively good life. She just lives off royalties from a book she published and rent money. She ‘struggles with ideas’, but it feels like the typical struggle of a privileged person who got it all sort out. Anna even have guys falling for her all the time. I’ve had those ‘philosophical struggles’ too, and I also come from a privileged background. Just sitting around and thinking doesn’t help. It’s self-defeating. You won’t get anything resembling an answer if your questions aren’t directed at the world. My whole life right now is a ‘philosophical struggle’, trying to make sense of everything. I won’t get anywhere lying around like Anna though. That’s why I read all these books and write all these reviews. Maybe if Anna did something other than talk to herself her ‘philosophical struggle’ would have been more engrossing. Talking to yourself often becomes a sick cycle of self-affirmation.

Although it’s a deeply flawed work, it’s also one that’s overflowing with ideas, interesting situations and good writing. The word ‘overflowing’ is truly the best description. There is enough here to make it worth reading, and it is something I want to return to later. It’s too much, however. It lacks the elegance of a truly brilliant work, one with a focus that can’t be swayed.

3 cheating husbands out of 5

Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart

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Things Fall Apart is the most famous African novel. It’s easy to expect it to give an unfamiliar portrait of an African society. Hopefully, it will be one that hasn’t been ‘Westernized’, and will show us the unique aspects of that society. It should be in-depth, and perhaps by showing the richness of that culture it will tell us how awful racism is, and that ‘black people’ are also people.

Achebe did show us that ‘black people’ are also people, but his method wasn’t to turn Igbo society into a tourist attraction.

Achebe’s Igbo culture doesn’t come off as very alien and different. That’s because Achebe doesn’t see it that way. If you grew up in Africa, it wouldn’t seem so exotic and odd to you. It would be the norm. Raymond Carver doesn’t treat his middle-class people as an exotic culture, and instead opts to explore the people in it and how they function in it. Achebe does the same thing here. He cares less about showing an exotic society than telling a story about human beings.

That’s why Things Fall Apart‘s themes and tropes may seem familiar. Maybe it’s not because White People ruined African culture, because there wasn’t so much difference to begin with. That leaves Achebe exploring his characters, without caging them in their culture.

Until the last part, where the White People appear, there’s barely any mention that these characters have dark skin. Instead, Achebe tells their stories dealing with topics such as parenting, childbirth, climbing the social ladder and masculinity. The last one is a big deal. It may be a common theme in a lot of Western literature, but anywhere that there are humans, there will be men and women. It’s a universal theme.

Things Fall Apart is actually more of a critique of the concept of gender, rather than embracing masculinity. Okonkwo being a protagonist doesn’t automatically means he’s supposed to be flawless. He’s not Atticus Finch. He’s sexist, but plenty of time that sexism is being challenged. In Igbo society, men are valued much more than women. “Women” is an insult. That’s why Okonkwo can deal with a son that doesn’t fit the traditional male role. He just calls him a woman and that’s it. When Okonkwo has a daughter that is much better than all his sons though, Achebe starts to question the sexism in Igbo society.

There’s a whole arc devoted to one female character and her devotion to motherhood. It’s not motherhood that’s been forced about the character. Ekwefi’s love for daughter makes her go against a spiritual custom. This is motherhood by choice. If Ekwefi’s motherhood is just a sign of submission, she wouldn’t have rebelled and went against the gods. However, she made a choice, and put what she loves above what society expects from here.

It gets even better when the White Man appears. Achebe’s sympathies may be with the Africans, and there’s no reason to expect anything else. However, it’s not the narrative of noble savages being trampled by the evil conquerer. The White Man doesn’t appear until the last part. By that time, Achebe lets us get used to the African culture, stop seeing it as exotic and start examining where it falls and succeeds. By the time the White Man comes, Achebe already gets rid of that simple narrative.

The part about the invasion is also less about the collision of ‘black’ and ‘white’ cultures. It’s about what happens in general when cultures collide. Just as we tend to view all of Africa as one thing, so do the Igbo view them as just ‘the white man’, although he could have come from anywhere in Europe. When they come, Achebe keeps viewing his own culture with a critical eye.

One of the best parts is Nwoye, Okonkwo’s bad son’s arc. The Christians offer a place for the weak to belong to. Igbo culture doesn’t just have outcasts, but is very mean towards them. They flocked to Christianity not just because the White Man conquered by force, but because something was missing in Igbo culture.

At the same, Achebe also criticizes the White People for their brutal treatment of Africans. That part is less novel, but that’s just because it’s a well-known story. Achebe criticizes less White People for what they are, but the exact method. White People became a problem not when they built a church, but when they decided that their rules should apply to every single one. It’s the lack of dialogue between the two cultures, the decision to stick to absolute morals that caused the destruction. Once one side decided to use violence instead of dialogue – it’s the White Man in this case – everything spinned out of control. Violence, and being unafraid of it, by the way, is seen as a desirable and masculine trait.

Do not get the wrong message, by the way. Things Fall Apart doesn’t say that African culture is obsolete and that the White Man somehow saved them. Rather, Achebe applies the same critical thought that any good author applies to his culture.

Things Fall Apart deserves its fame. Maybe, after devling deeper into African literature I will not find this so great. For now, this is the type of novel that deserves to be representative of the continent, if a novel can represent a continent. It doesn’t celebrate its culture and it doesn’t view its history as just bad people doing things. It respects it by treating it with the same critical eye that every other culture deserves. There’s no greater service to a culture than giving it an honest examination, not flinching from its flaws and successes. Some will think the familiarity is because Achebe is also a victim of Westernization, but perhaps ‘black’ and ‘white’ people are more alike than we think. Maybe, the missionaries have thought like this, Things wouldn’t’ve Fallen Apart.

4 yams out of 5