Bookmarks: Orwell that ends well, or perhaps not
A fortnightly look at books, writers and reviews
Next month, June 12, is the 90th anniversary of Anne Frank’s birth. The German-born Jewish teenager became a renowned victim of the Holocaust following the posthumous publication in 1947 of The Diary of a Young Girl (or Het Achterhuis in the original Dutch). It details her life in hiding in Amsterdam from 1942 to 1944 during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
As the book’s acclaim spread in the 1950s – it would go on to be translated into more than 60 languages, sell more than 30 million copies, and inspire numerous theatrical and film adaptations – there came, inevitably, allegations from notable antisemites about the veracity of the diary. Throughout his life, Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the family’s sole survivor, mounted successful libel actions against those who claimed the book was a forgery.
After his death in 1980, his daughter’s original diary, including letters and loose sheets, was handed over to the Dutch Institute for War Documentation, which commissioned a forensic study of the diary in 1986. They examined Anne’s handwriting against known samples and found that they matched. They determined that the paper, glue, and ink were readily available during the time the diary was said to have been written. They concluded that the diary is authentic, and their findings were included in 1989 in The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition (Viking), edited by David Barnouw and Gerrold van der Stroom.
Authoritative as that volume was, it is now about to be surpassed by a more impressive edition; this week Bloomsbury publishes the magisterial Anne Frank: The Collected Works, which presents three different versions of The Diary. The first, or version A, is the one that Anne actually wrote on the days themselves: the text is messy, with entries out of date order and filled with digressions.
Version B is Anne’s own revision of her first diary. She started this project early in 1944 after hearing a radio broadcast from the exiled Dutch government urging citizens to keep a record of the occupation. It is a far more serious work, with a careful chronology charting the progress of the war.
The third version is the one prepared by Otto Frank for publication in 1947. Writing in the Guardian, the Oxford English professor Bart van Es states that Frank cut the sexual material from his daughter’s writings and removed much of her criticism of her fellow hideaways, before editing a work that would capture the world’s imagination: “He blended and reordered Versions A and B to give the book a more coherent and literary character.”
One of the strengths of The Collected Works, Van Es writes, is that it allows the reader to track the evolution of The Diary across its various incarnations. The diaries’ new translation by author Mirjam Pressler has also drawn praise for bringing more character to Anne’s writing.
The new collection, however, contains much more than the diary. Anne’s other writings, including 14 short stories, an uncompleted novel, essays and reminiscences and previously unpublished letters, also appear alongside a wealth of contextual material. There’s a family history, background essays and a remarkable account of the diary’s printing and reception, which ends with the publication of Philip Roth’s 2007 novel Exit Ghost.
Van Es, incidentally, is the author of last year’s Costa Book of the Year and the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize for his own Holocaust book, The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found (Penguin). It tells the heartbreaking story of Lien de Jong-Spiero, a girl from the Hague who came to live with Van Es’s grandparents in Amsterdam when her parents were arrested and murdered after transportation to Auschwitz.
However, just as Lien began to feel at home in the care of Jans and Henk van Es, the authorities began to ask questions about her. She was then sent to live in the care of a Protestant family in a distant village. There she was treated as a servant, and not one of the family, and raped by a family member. She kept silent about this terrible abuse for years. “The rapes are a secret,” Van Es writes, “hard and poisonous, that she swaddles within.”
Some 4,000 Jewish children survived the war in hiding in Holland. Lien, however, was one of just 358 who would stay on with a non-Jewish family after 1945: she asked to return to the Van Eses. Their grandson makes the point that, although they were married at a synagogue, Lien’s parents were not observant: “It is really Hitler who makes Lien Jewish,” he states.
Van Es also notes that the Franks had moved to Amsterdam in 1933, when Anne was four, to escape persecution in Germany. Not for nothing, then, did Anne Frank regard the Dutch as “brave protectors”. Yet the death rate of the Dutch Jews, more than double that of any other country in Western Europe, suggests a deeply collaborative society. Most arresting officers were Dutch – not German.
Those who would have been aware of this shameful fact, Van Es suggests, would also have noted the terrible irony in this late entry in the diary: “Now that I’ve been spared, my first wish after the war is to become a Dutch citizen. I love the Dutch. I love this country. I love the language, and I want to work here. And even if I have to write to the Queen herself, I won’t give up until I’ve reached my goal!”
Another of the 20th century’s remarkable books was one designed to “wake you up”. So writes Dorian Lynskey in his fascinating new work, The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 (Pan Macmillan). “It was,” he states, “the first dystopian novel to be written in the knowledge that dystopia was real.” Orwell’s novel continues to thrive in the 21st century: sales rocketed dramatically with the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House and the attendant perversions of “fake news” and “alternative facts” – a situation Lynskey gratefully acknowledges in his fascinating and engrossing study.
His book comes in two sections. The first, about the novel’s conception, revisits much of the commentary on Orwell that is already in print in a fresh and powerful manner. It does not, for example, shy away from allegations that Orwell had plagiarised ideas from Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 anti-utopian novel, We.
The seed for Nineteen Eighty-Four was planted during Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell had volunteered with the anarchist militia to fight General Franco’s fascists, but discovered to his horror that their supposed allies, the Soviet-backed republicans, had no intention of allowing them to exist. The communists not only sought to wipe them out, but they set about rewriting much of the conflict’s history. Orwell was dismayed that battles in which he’d fought had been completely misreported. He was even more shocked when he finally returned to England to discover that his fellow socialists rejected his version of events for fear of offending the communists.
Orwell was so wounded by this betrayal that, years later when the intelligence services set up by Clement Attlee’s Labour government asked him to draw up a list of Britain’s covert communist supporters, he gladly did so. It was not, Lynskey suggests, his finest moment. But this was in the last moments of his life and by then Orwell had little regard for those he considered enemies of the truth.
The second section of Lynskey’s book deals with the reception and continuing influence of Orwell’s novel. Its vision and themes have lived on in adaptations for films, theatre, television, comics, and rock music. Orwell, himself, was a bit alarmed at his novel’s pessimism and later tried to lighten Nineteen Eighty-Four with an appendix in which an unnamed commentator looks back on the events described in the book from some point in a perhaps more hopeful future than the one that will be “a boot stamping on the human face – for ever”.
There are those who argue that Orwell’s Animal Farm was a better novel – and a better satire; the animals were more human than the characters in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Animal Farm’s use of ridicule was for more successful than Nineteen Eighty-Four’s brutal sensationalism. But the latter’s popularity possibly endures precisely because such brutality is still with us. Orwell’s neologistic artistry was startlingly original but, seven decades later, the doublethink, thoughtcrimes and unpersons are depressingly still very much are part of our world.
Those who wish to read or re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four are urged to seek out the 2013 Penguin edition annotated by DJ Taylor, author of the award-winning 2003 biography, Orwell: A Life. Taylor reveals that for a novel projected into an ominous, far-distant dystopia, much of Nineteen Eighty-Four was grounded in a contemporary reality: the landscape of the blitzed and bomb-cratered London of 1943. At the time Orwell was the literary editor at a left-wing weekly and much of the novel’s significant landmarks are based on the grim buildings he would have passed on the bus to and from work. Nothing like the horrors of the present to stir up nightmares of the future.
Some weeks ago, British parliamentarian Jacob Rees-Mogg – he of studied disdain, pillar of Tory privilege and the so-called Member of the 19th Century – raised Afrikaner hackles by dryly claiming in a BBC interview that Boer women and children were placed in concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War for their own protection and that their death rate was no more severe than that experienced in Glasgow at the time.
How pleasing, then, that Rees-Mogg’s new book, The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain (WH Allen), has been roundly savaged by critics across the board. Even the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph thought it dreadful: a “clichéd, lazy history [that] often reads like it was written by a baboon” (and that’s just from the headline).
One of the first to put in the boot was author AN Wilson, whose 2002 book, The Victorians, is one of several histories of the 19th century that are far superior to Rees-Mogg’s effort. Writing in the Times, Wilson said Rees-Mogg’s work was “anathema to anyone with an ounce of historical, or simply common, sense” and described it as collection of “a dozen clumsily written pompous schoolboy compositions”. While it claimed to be a work of history, it was in fact “self-promotion by a highly motivated modern politician”.
Despite the 19th century being an age of dynamic invention, literary prowess and artistic achievement, none of Rees-Mogg’s “titans” are engineers, scientists, artists, writers, poets or painters; instead he has provided clumsy sketches of politicians, generals, members of the royalty, and one sportsman in the form of cricketer WG Grace. Much has been made that the only woman included here is Queen Victoria, arguably one of the dullest women to have drawn breath in the era named after her. According to Rees-Mogg, she “became no less of a woman when she learned to rely upon Albert as a partner and to trust him”.
“I’m pretty sure this is offensive,” Kathryn Hughes writes in the Guardian, “although the contorted construction makes it hard to be certain. Actually, there is one other female Titan in these pages. She is tucked away in the thank yous at the end of the book, along with the female secretaries in Rees-Mogg’s private office ‘who can always decipher my scribbles’, and his wife Helena who ‘kindly looked after’ his six children while he was working. That Titan is ‘nanny’ (she doesn’t even get a capital letter) without whom young Jacob, now nearly 50, could not have managed to write the book. Are we supposed to find this charming?”
Historian and author Dominic Sandbrook, writing in the London Sunday Times, said the book was abysmal and soul-destroying. “No doubt every sanctimonious academic in the country has already decided that Rees-Mogg’s book has to be dreadful, so it would have been fun to disappoint them,” he said. “But there is just no denying it: the book is terrible, so bad, so boring, so mind-bogglingly banal that if it had been written by anybody else it would never have been published.”
It is so awful the Observer trashed it twice. In his review, historian Kim Wagner said: “The book really belongs in the celebrity autobiography section of the bookstore. At best, it can be seen as a curious artefact of the kind of sentimental jingoism and empire-nostalgia currently afflicting our country.”
A week later, the political broadcaster Andrew Rawnsley climbed in as well. “Jacob Rees-Mogg,” he wrote in the Observer, “is the stupid kind of Tory’s idea of what a clever kind of Tory ought to sound like. He knows a few long and obscure words. He can employ a smattering of the Latin phrases that he picked up during his education at an expensive academy near Slough. Among the easily bamboozled, the double-breasted suits, the retro spectacles and the patrician drawl can be confused with seriousness. So I suppose that this attempt to show that he deserves a reputation as a Tory intellectual may do quite well at the bookshop at the next Conservative conference. Yet even the dimmer type of Tory may twig that they have been duped once they embark on 400-plus pages of inch-deep ponderings conveyed in plodding prose.”
That was his opening paragraph. On and on Rawnsley went, column after column, hammering away at Rees-Mogg’s “baffled synapses” and “muddle-headed” ignorance of history until this hopeful conclusion: “The only purpose of this dreadful pulp is to demonstrate why Britain’s past is no more safe in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s hands than its future.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
“You never make much money on the projects you think up when you’re young – the ones that are the most original, the ones that get you noticed. No, you cash in later, once you’ve made a name for yourself and begin to fail … Learn to milk whatever success you’ve had. You can keep doing the same thing over and over as long as you have a sense of humour about not having a sense of humour.” – Mr Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder by John Waters (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).