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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

Inside the Whale and Other Essays - George Orwell Back in 1996 I jotted down "Nel ventre della balena - Orwell", the Italian title of "Inside the Whale" in my yearly reading list (a habit I took from my Prussian-like, overprecise dad).
"November - two stars and a half". That was the rest of my entry.

However, honestly speaking, I hardly doubt I had read this book when I was 14 years old. What I certainly did was moving this collection of essays and articles by George Orwell from the long brown bookcase which fills the long side of our living room to the white bookshelves of my room.
Then the book was catalogued with a special stamp and reported on my library notebook between "Gordon Pym" by Edgar Allan Poe (two stars and a half) and "The Foundations Trilogy" by Isac Asimov (two stars). I was a harsh reviewer or, perhaps, a neglectful reader.

Unlike what happened with Poe and Asimov, whose novels I never liked, I rediscovered George Orwell in the following fifteen years; well, actually, fifteen years later, on 2011.

It does make a difference reading anything by Orwell in English rather than in its Italian translation, but during my 2011 Xmas holidays guest for a few days in my old Italian room, I picked up "Nel ventre della balena" from its white bookshelf.

I blew a thick layer of dust away from the book and start (re)reading it.
Now I like all that George Orwell wrote and "Inside the Whale" made no exception.
Of course Orwell the novelist is quite different from Orwell the essayist and both sides of Eric Arthur Blair stand on a class of their own.

Nevertheless, there is a common ground: as an author, Mr Blair-Orwell was not always able to reach the same quality level. And he knew it very well.
Most of the people who read something by Orwell chose "1984" and/or "Animal Farm" and ignore everything else. Those who decided to explore the sociological and political side of Orwell gave a chance to "Homage to Catalonia" and a minority of them went on "The Road to Wigan Pier" or to "In and Out in Paris and London".
And that's pretty much all George Orwell is remembered for today. I bet you will have very few chances of coming across any reference to novels like "Coming Up for Air", "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" and - above all - "A Clergyman's Daughter". The same clever "Burmese Days" is not really on any Orwellian top list.

The same Orwell died too early for getting but a hint of his fame, but knew how he delivered great stories and average stories. I really liked "Coming Up for Air" and appreciated "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" but their author was never particularly proud of both novels.

What we have with the articles and essays written by George Orwell is, somehow, a similar story. "Inside the Whale" offers a wide menu where, say, childhood memories stand cheek to cheek with a bittersweet analysis of Gandhi and literary criticism on Koestler, Swift, Tolstoy lies in between a "pop" essay regarding the different British teenager magazines of the 1930s and a sort of bucolic elegy of the toad (!).

Then we have the pedantic eccess of Orwell who sometimes indulged a bit too much in quantifying his own work and life in mathematical terms (Oh my dad would have liked this!) counting how much he spent for his own book collection including what he borrowed or was given or never gave back and demonstrating that reading is a less expensive pastime than smoking cigarettes. Charts included. This scrivener syndrome reveals the human side of an author whom - I recall - compared his own literary production with the coal dug out of Lancashire caves from a miner. Pages for rocks.

Let's face it: this behavior was really naive but also extremely humble. A big towering man like Orwell although affected by breathing troubles for all of his life (and dying because of that) felt somehow guilty of being an intellectual, a failed worker, a failed craftsman.
I adore this human side of Orwell and "Inside the Whale" includes several examples of this inner fragility of him. Here we have an author that never claims his infallibility or confidence but also specifies that he is expressing his own ideas, the result of his own studies and research.

It's true how Orwell held sway after his death and became one of those "Great Masters" whose main writings are constantly reprinted and minor production is always available and often praised beyond its virtues, but he himself would have laughed of the posthumous aura he got.
Reading what he wrote here on his hard childhood at a posh public school and the wonderful analysis he does of the time he spent as a bookseller assistant, one cannot fail to get the impression that Eric Arthur Blair was a very decent fellow: not a Nabokov or a Mailer, but the kind of person one would have liked having as a neighbour.