Struggle with Orwell: Ian McEwan on the Art of the Political Novel – Audio Long Reads

When George Orwell traveled to Spain in the winter of 1936 to fight General Franco and the Fascists, he stopped en route in Paris, where Henry Miller gave him his coat. The two men couldn’t be more different: the passionately political Englishman, and the American who disdained any form of activism. As Ian McEwan writes: “In a letter to Lawrence Durrell, he wrote that he knew he could prevent the rise of Nazism…if he could just spend five minutes alone with Adolf Hitler and make him laugh. .”

The encounter inspired Orwell’s 1939 essay “Inside the Whale”, in which he defended Miller’s freedom to refuse political involvement. Should a novelist insulate himself from larger, harsher realities (i.e. write “from within the whale”) or confront a dark political landscape head-on (write “from outside the whale “) ? Orwell, McEwan argues, pulled off the unusual trick of doing both – a tension that informs books such as One thousand nine hundred and eighty four and farm animal.

Adapted from his fascinating 2021 Orwell Memorial Lecture, McEwan’s essay examines the choices he and other novelists have made about writing — and living — in times of crisis. How far away can a 21st century writer be from politics now that “even inside the whale there is super-fast broadband”?

Endnote: This article first appeared in the New Statesman on December 9. It is adapted from the Orwell Memorial Lecture 2021, delivered on November 26, 2021 and hosted by the Orwell Foundation.

You can read the text version here.

Read by Adrian Bradley.

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