As I Please
Tribune, 1 December 1944
V2 (I am told that you can now mention it in print so
long as you just call it V2 and don’t describe it too minutely) supplies
another instance of the contrariness of human nature. People are complaining
of the sudden unexpected wallop with which these things go off . ‘It
wouldn’t be so bad if you got a bit of warning’ is the usual formula.
There is even a tendency to talk nostalgically of the days of the V1. The
good old doodlebug did at least give you time to get under the table, etc.
etc. Whereas, in fact, when the doodlebugs were actually dropping, the usual
subject of complaint was the uncomfortable waiting period before they went
off. Some people are never satisfied. Personally, I am no lover of the V2,
especially at this moment when the house still seems to be rocking from a
recent explosion, but what depresses me about these things is the way they
set people talking about the next war. Every time one goes off I hear gloomy
references to ‘next time’, and the reflection: ‘I suppose they’ll be
able to shoot them across the Atlantic by that time.’ But if you ask who
will be fighting whom when this universally expected war breaks out, you get
no clear answer. It is just war in the abstract – the notion that human
beings could ever behave sanely having apparently faded out of many
Maurice Baring, in his book on Russian literature, which was published in 1907 and must have been the means of introducing many people in this country to the great Russian novelists, remarks that English books were always popular in Russia. Among other favourites he mentions The Diary of a Nobody (which, by the way, is reprinted by the Everyman Library, if you can run across a copy).
I have always wondered what on earth The Diary of a Nobody could be like in a Russian translation, and indeed I have faintly suspected that the Russians may have enjoyed it because when translated it was just like Chekhov. But in a way it would be a very good book to read if you wanted to get a picture of English life, even though it was written in the eighties and has an intensely strong smell of that period. Charles Pooter is a true Englishman both in native gentleness and his impenetrable stupidity. The interesting thing, however, is to follow this book up to its origins. What does it ultimately derive from? Almost certainly, I think, from Don Quixote, of which, indeed, it is a sort of modern anglicized version. Pooter is a high-minded, even adventurous man, constantly suffering disasters brought upon him by his own folly, and surrounded by a whole tribe of Sancho Panzas. But apart from the comparative mildness of the things that befall him, one can see in the endings of the two books the enormous difference between the age of Cervantes and our own.
In the end the Grossmiths have to take pity on poor Pooter. Everything, or nearly everything, comes right, and at the last there is a tinge of sentimentality which does not quite fit in with the rest of the book. The fact is that, in spite of the way we actually behave, we cannot any longer feel that the infliction of pain is merely funny. Nietzsche remarks somewhere that the pathos of Don Quixote may well be a modern discovery. Quite likely Cervantes didn’t mean Don Quixote to seem pathetic – perhaps he just meant him to be funny and intended it as a screaming joke when the poor old man has half his teeth knocked out by a sling-stone. However this may be with Don Quixote, I am fairly certain that it is true of Falstaff. Except possibly for the final scene in Henry V, there is nothing to show that Shakespeare sees Falstaff as a pathetic as well as a comic figure. He is just a punching-bag for fortune, a sort of Billy Bunter with a gift for language. The thing that seems saddest to us is Falstaff’s helpless dependence on his odious patron, Prince Harry, whom John Masefield aptly described as a ‘disgusting beefy brute’. There is no sign, or at any rate, no clear sign, that Shakespeare sees anything pathetic or degrading in such a relationship.
Say what you like, things do change. A few
years ago I was walking across Hungerford Bridge with a lady aged about
sixty or perhaps less. The tide was out, and as we looked down at the beds
of filthy, almost liquid mud, she remarked:
Shortly before his assassination,
had completed a Life of Stalin. One may assume that it was not an
altogether unbiased book, but obviously a biography of Stalin
by Trotsky – or, for that matter, a biography of Trotsky by Stalin –
would be a winner from a selling point of view. A very well-known American
firm of publishers were to issue it. The book had been printed and – this
is the point that I have been waiting to verify before mentioning this
matter in my notes – the review copies had been sent out when the U.S.A.
entered the war. The book was immediately withdrawn, and the reviewers were
asked to cooperate in ‘avoiding any comment whatever regarding the
biography and its postponement’.
Here is another little brain-tickler. The following often- quoted passage comes from Act V of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Timon of Athens:
not to me again, but say to Athens,
This passage contains three errors. What are they?
The Estate of Eric Blair
Reproduced here under educational Fair Use law