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Viewed sub specie aeternitatis, the freelance literary life can sometimes look simply like a succession of odd jobs. And so, without wanting any sympathy for the torments wreaked upon my sensitive soul, I should straightaway confess that I have in my time scripted in-flight videos for Cathay Pacific Airways, written reports and accounts brochures for defence manufacturers, and interviewed Damon Albarn for the Mail on Sunday. Earlier this year, on the other hand, there arrived what in the context of book reviews, op-ed columns and demands for 800 words on ‘an incident you’ll never forget’ was a relatively unusual commission: an invite from messrs Penguin to compile an ‘annotated’ edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four for the student market.
Why ‘unusual’? Well, in normal circumstances critical treatments of this kind are dished out to books that are a century and a half old: buxom editions of Thackeray’s The Newcomes (1855), say, with a glossary on the meaning of obscure subcontinental expressions such as kitmutgars and cansomahs (both Urdu terms for ‘household servants’, by the way); revised Everyman classics of Bleak House and Dombey and Son; densely footnoted recensions of George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), with a prefatory essay on the ‘commodification’ of the late nineteenthcentury literary bourse. Orwell’s masterpiece, though, is a bare sixty-three years old and was first published within the lifetime of a good fifth of the current UK population. What is there in it that a contemporary reader might fail to understand?
Looking at the various passages that seemed to require editorial notes, I decided that there was quite a lot. Item one is the topography, which is intimately linked to the war-torn London of the Blitz that Orwell had observed on his journeys back and forth from Tribune’s offices in the Strand, where he worked as literary editor from 1943 to 1945. Then there are the incidental garnishes calculated to leave the specimen teenage reader of 2012 scratching his head. Who is there under the age of forty who would know that Mr Charrington’s antique shop, above whose frontage hang ‘three discoloured metal balls which looked as if they had once been gilded’, was once a pawnbroker? Finally, there are the paragraphs heavy with autobiographical scent, where the writer himself is fleetingly at large in the text. It is surely worth pointing out, for example, that when the voice from the telescreen at the Ministry of Love harangues a prisoner called Bumstead, Orwell is nodding at the grocer’s son who had lived opposite him in Southwold High Street in the early 1930s.
Three and a half thousand words of explication later, it became clear that Nineteen Eighty-Four has stopped being a ‘modern novel’ and turned into a historical artefact, and that its protocols and situations are by no means instantly apparent to a contemporary eye. If, as we suppose, people in the high-tech, cyber-crawling present find it ever more difficult to comprehend the past, then this difficulty is even more pronounced when it comes to comprehending the past’s literature. Asked, twenty years ago, how old a novel had to be before it needed semi-scholarly repackaging, I used to advocate a cut-off point somewhere in the 1890s. How else, to particularise, could a modern reader make sense of the scene in the Grossmith brothers’ The Diary of a Nobody (1892) in which Mr Pooter, out walking on Hampstead Heath on a Sunday afternoon, is refused service at a pub while his friends, who claim they have walked up from Blackheath, are allowed it? Or Gissing’s A Life’s Morning (1888), in which a whole section of the plot hangs on a character’s hat having blown out of a train window and his desperate attempts to replace it?
Two decades later, one has a suspicion that large numbers of well-known novels from the 1920s and 1930s require some kind of critical apparatus. Only the other day, leafing through Anthony Powell’s From a View to a Death (1933), I came across the passage in which Jasper Fosdick, anxious to get the deeply unsmitten Joanna Brandon to take some notice of him, offers the far from enticing come-on: ‘You like reading, don’t you? When you next come round to see us I’ll lend you the family copy of The Good Companions. That is, if you promise to take care with it and not turn down the corners of the pages, because father hates that.’ The reader who hasn’t made a special subject of Thirties literary in-fighting will probably realise that this is meant to be funny, but to ram the point home it would take a paragraph explaining that no literary man was held in greater contempt by the smart young writers of the era than J B Priestley and that by making the offer Jasper is exposing himself as a hopeless half-wit.
The important thing, amid this laudable enthusiasm to explain every little nuance and in-joke, is not to get carried away. The more exacting side of my nature looks at the phenomenon of the annotated edition with deep disquiet, on the grounds that literature demands a certain amount of effort from the readers who encounter it. If you stumble across a reference that doesn’t immediately yield up its meaning you are perfectly at liberty to go and look it up in a reference book. Thus when Powell, in another of his early novels, describes one of his characters as ‘the most popular man in Throgmorton Street’ he is tapping into a whole series of interwar era codes and assumptions that the reader who wants to understand his work will eventually have to set about investigating. In much the same way, the prospect of an annotated edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall in which Philbrick’s comment on the arrival of Mr Sebastian Cholmondley at the Llanabba sports (‘What price the coon?’) is solemnly glossed with references to Waugh’s ‘reflection of the casually racist attitudes of his age’, fills me with gloom. On the other hand, annotated editions of modern classics mean more work for yours truly, and who is he to complain? After all, it makes a nice change from all those encomia to the power of the tank or the necessity to be polite to pop stars. r m a y 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 1