Fiction & Biography


Orwell’s Victory (Allen Lane £12.99) 0000

HILARY SPURLING The Girl from the Fiction Department (Hamish Hamilton €9.99) 00

Strange to think there was once a time when Big Brother made you think of George and not Davina. Equally strange to think that on his death in 1950, George Orwell had yet to take his place in the canon of 20th century greats. And similarly fascinating to see just what a rough ride the poor man has had at the hands of academics and politicos in the intervening years.

In Orwell’s Victory, Christopher Hitchens sets about reclaiming the good - he stops short at ‘saintly’ - name of the journalist, volunteer and author of 1984. He does it with breadth, authority and a taste for battle worthy of a chess grandmaster.

There is only one word for his approach: Orwellian.

Like his subject, he doesn’t let his enthusiasm cloud the evidence. Just as the left-leaning Orwell was not hoodwinked by Stalin, so Hitchens is ready to criticise George - for homophobia, an intemperate dislike of WH Auden, awkwardness with women - despite believing him to be the great radical 19003 British voice. What he admires in Orwell is the ability to think freely, untethered by the party line.

With a level of erudition that borders on the intimidating, Hitchens subjects Orwell’s critics, from left and right, to intense analysis. His conclusion, in nearly all cases, is that the detractors had flawed motivations, distorting Orwell’s beliefs for their own purposes. In the cold light of the 21st century, he

decides, the author of Animal Farm was simply right.

It’s a short, compelling book written with the kind of intelligence that is harder to find in The Girl from the Fiction Department. Like Hitchens, Hilary Spurling sets out to reclaim someone from history’s rough hands. Her subject is Sonia Brownell, immortalised in fictional form as Julia in 1984, married to George for about five minutes before his

The Orwells’ contradictions are laid bare

death and, thereafter, the Orwell estate guardian.

She was also considerably more than that. As Spurling shows, Sonia was a pivotal part of the literary crowd that set the agenda in London and Paris during World War II and its aftermath. She was bright, desirable and perceptive. But there was also a dark seam of unhappiness and a fearsome quality that could make her unapproachable. Spurling recognises these traits, but doesn’t reconcile them with the generosity and liveliness of spirit described elsewhere.

That Spurling finds it easier to talk about the people who surrounded Sonia than the woman herself only exacerbates the book’s enigma. It’s not Spurling’s fault that, after numerous passionate affairs, Sonia entered into both her marriages almost whimsically (after Orwell, she had a disastrous marriage to Michael Pitt-Rivers, who’d spent 18 months in prison for homosexual offences), but she could have done a better job at explaining the contradictions.

It seems that in trying to salvage Sonia’s name from those Orwell biographers who condemned her as uncooperative (she called it loyal), Spurling has been too timid in addressing the contrary impulses that made her the woman she was. (Mark Fisher)

GHOST STORY ALICE THOMPSON Pharos (Virago £6.99) .00

Feel your bones chill

100 THE LIST 8—21) Jun 7002

There's nothing quite like a rollicking old ghost story which chills you to the bone. Apparently. us humanoids love to be scared and get a kick out of creeping off to bed convinced that the usual creaking of walls and clicking of pipes is actually some demented presence hell-bent on chopping you to bits in your sleep.

Strangely. there are not too many authors writing books which have that effect these days. Somewhere along the line i‘. was deemed way too uncool to concentrate on the life (and death) of the spirits. and those things that go bump all through the night especially when there's a thunderstorm raging at y0ur double glaZing.

So. thank heaven (and hell) for Alice Thompson. Former editor of The List and Woodentops player. her previOuS spooky novels. Justine and Pandora's Box. have won acclaim for merging modern psychoses with ancient myth. And in Pharos. she's at it again.

setting her scary st0ry in a lighthouse situated among the remotest wilds of Scofland.

Cameron. the keeper, and Simon. his assistant. are the sole lodgers until a woman. Lucia. is washed ashore with her dignity just about intact but her memory having been wiped out by the waters. When only she starts to see images of a young girl. is it merely evidence of Lucia‘s impending madness or is she party to some wider spectral drama?

While Thompson can certainly set a mood and turn a spooky phrase. there is something mildly insubstantial about the whole thing. Perhaps it's because of the mere 150 pages you have to get through or the ghost story's natural tendency to have little bearing outwith its own universe. However, it's unlikely yOLi'll put Pharos down for the last time without being haunted into the wee small hours.

(Brian Donaldson)


Classic nove/s revisited. This issue: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 3/4 Published Twenty years ago. What‘s the story Sue Townsend's ClaSSIC satirical tragi-comedy introduced millions of readers to her well-meaning adolescent aspiring poet and his dysfunctional family and friends. Along the way we are treated to Adrian's pithy and often deeply subversive observations on love and marriage. parenthood. literature and politics. What the critics said 'I not only wept. I hooted and howled and had to get up and walk around the room and Wipe my eyes so that l COLild go on reading' said Tom Sharpe. Key moment Adrian's soporific Summer holiday to Scotland with his mother and her lover. ‘Ratfink' Lucas. Will SOLind a familiar note to any teenager forced to spend two weeks playing cards in a log cabin in a drizzly glen. The y0ung artistes 'My Thoughts on Scotland' are particularly DCignant. beginning: 'The hallowed mist rolls away leaVing Scotland's lTEZiJQSllC peaks revealed in all their majesty.‘ Postscript Townsend later claimed she created Mole as a gUIde for mothers wrth sons about to embark Oh those perplexmg teenage years. Suffice to say the popularity of the first diary spawned a monstrously Successful franchise that includes f0ur seouels to date and three teleVisiOn series. Adrian, now in his 305. continues to write every Saturday in the Guardian. First line test ‘My fathe.r got the dog drunk Ol‘ cherry brandy at the party last night. iAllan Radcliffe

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