The other George Orwell

A stylish new series from Penguin further obscures the early novels

This lunchtime in Cheapside’s Daunt Books I watched an assistant stock the shelves with new editions of George Orwell’s best-known books. The most striking was David Pearson’s daring Nineteen Eighty-Four: adapted from the Penguin Classics series he successfully riffed upon for his Great Ideas, Great Loves, Popular Classics and Pocket Penguins.

The design makes a statement: both title and author have been censored. The status of Nineteen Eighty-Four is disproportionately skewed when placed beside the hobbitry of J R R Tolkein; but just as every child in Britain is at some point faced with the prospect of making tracks to Middle Earth, so they are, perhaps more crucially, ushered by their guardians into Room 101.

The new series also includes Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia and Politics and the English Language. The reissues are officially released on 21 January, the day Orwell died. This date has been chosen by Penguin, the Orwell Estate and Orwell Prize to celebrate the prolific author’s life and work in perpetuity. You can view the range in full on the Creative Review website.

While the canon atrophies, spare a thought for the following three novels – snubbed by critics over the years, their pages browning in some abject corner of an Oxfam Bookshop near you.

The Clergyman’s Daughter (1935): Orwell’s most experimental novel, it includes a chapter in which the eponymous daughter, Dorothy Hare, spends time living rough in Trafalgar Square, written under the influence of the Circe (“Nighttown”) chapter of Ulysses. Follows Dorothy from her father’s country rectory to hop picking and homelessness after she suffers from amnesia and wakes up on the Old Kent Road. Contains some of Orwell’s most revealing thoughts about belief and the individual.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936): When he reviewed the book for the NS in 1936, Cyril Connolly called the book a “harrowing and stark account of poverty,” written “in clear and violent language, at times making the reader feel he is sitting in a dentist’s chair with the drill whirring”. He summed it up as follows: “The hero works for two pounds a week in a bookshop. He has a girl whom he is too poor to marry, and is writing a poem on which he is too poor really to concentrate. It is winter. The book is the recital of his misfortunes interrupted by tirades against money and spiritual evil it causes.”

Coming Up for Air (1939): Written in Morocco while Orwell coalesced following his return from the Spanish Civil War, the novel is narrated in the first-person by George Bowling, who revisits his childhood home only to find the country of his youth has been “paved over” and his erstwhile aspirations smothered by quotidian responsibilities. Bowling is, as Orwell himself put it in his essay about Miller's Tropic of Cancer, “inside the whale”, too busy with himself to resist the oncoming war, about to rip through the country, concrete and not.

Beginning on 21 January, the New Statesman website will run pieces from the archive by and about Orwell, including a piece the magazine’s editors famously refused to run.

The new Nineteen Eighty-Four. Photo: Creative Review.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear