Richard Lance Keeble celebrates Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as a wonderful example of literary journalism, focusing on just the opening pages
One of the most striking aspects of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), his eye-witness account of fighting alongside the Republican militia in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1937), is the range of literary genres and tones incorporated into the text. For instance, there are profiles (of individuals, cities, groups), sections of very direct, personal, emotional writing (conveying an earnestness to convey authentic/real experience); elements of background description, generalising comment and concrete experience; and personal commentary together with eye-witness reportage informed by a social political awareness. In addition, there is a journalistic emphasis on the extraordinary and the contradictory; confessional writing; a practical, down-to-earth awareness/sensibility; press content analysis/critique; political analysis (however reluctant); wit, irony, humour; there’s the droll debunking of the heroism of war and the claims of history – and political analysis/commentary. All of that packed into little more than a couple of hundred pages.
In my teaching of literary journalism I often take as an example worthy of constant analysis and debate the first few pages of Homage where Orwell describes so vividly meeting an Italian militiaman. He begins in traditional journalistic style: spelling out concisely and emphatically the ‘where,’ (In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona’) the ‘when,’ (‘the day before I joined the militia’) the ‘who,’ (‘I’) and the ‘what,’ (‘saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers’ table’). As Lynette Hunter comments in George Orwell: The Search for a Voice (1984): ‘It is an abrupt start to the book. There is no introductory prelude for the “I” who writes. The reader is thrust into a situation which he is supposed, in some way, to recognize: the detail is so concrete it assumes our familiarity with it.’
Orwell then describes/profiles the militiaman. There is extraordinary intensity in his gaze, perhaps with an element of homo-erotic excitement in it, as he dwells on the violence of the man: he stresses he was ‘a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders. His peaked leather cap was pulled fiercely over one eye. … Something in his face deeply moved me’. He says there were ‘both candour and ferocity in it’. But then a somewhat patronising, contemptuous tone emerges (perhaps from his educated, Old Etonian, ‘lower upper middle class’ background) as he mocks his ‘pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed superiors’. Interestingly, this homoeroticism also appears in the poem ‘The Italian Soldier Shook my Hand’ Orwell composed in 1939 about the experience: ‘To meet within the sound of guns/But oh! What peace I knew then/In gazing on his battered face/Purer than any woman’s’ (see George Orwell: The Complete Poetry, edited by Dione Venables, Finlay Publishers, 2015).
Orwell is clearly not hiding his feelings at the opening of Homage. The mockery continues: ‘Obviously he could not make head or tail of the map; obviously he regarded map-reading as a stupendous intellectual feat.’ Yet, paradoxically, the man’s ignorance adds to his allure which is matched by Orwell’s own confessed ignorance. He writes: ‘I hardly know why, but I have seldom seen anyone – any man, I mean – to whom I have taken such an immediate liking.’ As Hunter comments: ‘The lack of knowledge, combined with ignorance, paradoxically creates for the reader an elusiveness similar to the response to the Italian soldier and points to the past narrator’s inability to define the situation.’
Having gazed at a distance at the man, Orwell propels his dramatic narrative towards closer, more intimate contact: first, they engage in awkward, clipped dialogue as the Italian raises his head. Then, from gazing and dialogue the intimacy quickly moves on to the level of touching, and there is a certain ‘violence’ in the contact which Orwell clearly finds attractive: ‘As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard.’ And he adds: ‘Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger!’ This generalisation serves two purposes: from the isolated incident Orwell is able to draw out an observation about the human predicament and at the same time avoid the personal voice: perhaps Orwell felt for a moment a certain embarrassment/shame about the intensity of his feelings for the stranger. Significantly, he quickly returns to the personal voice stressing the ‘utter intimacy’ of the contact: ‘It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him.’ The battle front had, then, became the traditional site for male bonding.
Looking back on the incident, Orwell reflects, with a certain sadness: ‘But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again.’ And from the personal he shifts to the impersonal, generalised ‘one’ voice – as if to distance himself from a certain pain: ‘One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.’ As Hunter says: ‘The movement from optimistic fervour to criticism alerts the reader to a duality of naïve commitment yet clear detachment in the narrative. The duality is primarily one of chronological difference. There are two narrative voices: the earlier, immediately experiencing voice of the past, and the older, more reflective voice of the present.’
Orwell moves on to profile, in effect, the city of Barcelona, including personal impressions and vivid observations – while the emotional intensity of the writing captures both his own exhilaration and the extraordinary nature of the events witnessed. He quickly moves from the ‘I’ voice to that of the passionately engaged eye-witness: ‘It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. … Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared.’
Orwell, the narrator of the past here, is deeply inspired politically by what he sees. Looking back, he is able through the benefit of hindsight to acknowledge his ignorance: ‘There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.’ And he admits to his innocence and naïveté: ‘Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ state and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the worker’s side.’ The voice of the more reflective, present narrator adds: ‘I did not realize that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.’ This tension between detachment and involvement (and between past and present narrators) is a constant feature of the reportage.
Yet, Jeffery Meyers, in his 2000 biography, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, is critical of Orwell suggesting that his ‘intoxication’ with the radical politics he witnessed in Barcelona meant that he failed to acknowledge adequately the atrocities that accompanied the raising of the red and black flags: ‘Despite the shocking desecration of the churches, the persecution and murder of priests and nuns, Orwell was intoxicated by the atmosphere of Barcelona.’
• Richard Lance Keeble is chair of the Orwell Society and Professor of |Journalism at the University of Lincoln. His latest edited collection of essays, George Orwell Now! has just been published by Peter Lang, of New York. His own chapter compares Orwell’s journalistic writing styles in Homage (as explored in this article) and in his despatches from the European Continent in World War Two in 1945.