Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 25 Dec 2016

Orwell’s Nose by John Sutherland

The writing of George Orwell has been a constant in my life for as long as I’ve been a serious reader – that’s a little over 45 years now – and I still reread his novels and essays on a pretty regular basis. Although I recognise that he was often an indifferent novelist and frequently inconsistent and contradictory in his opinions or judgements, his acute sense of the preposterous and his evident commitment to exposing the misuse of power has been a guiding light in my life.

What I’ve always found most authentic about Orwell’s writing is something I struggle to articulate and what I can only describe as his very specific and immediately identifiable sensibility. Orwell sees the world in a very specific and tangible way and he frequently describes this through his physical senses – the way things look, taste and, most graphically, how they smell. Reading Orwell is an immersive experience and, if you share his sensibilities,you get that and if you don’t I suspect you only get part of the Orwell phenomenon. The way he developed as a writer, his famous simplicity and clarity of expression, comes I think from a desire to transmit these experiences of the world mediated through his physical being as well as his extraordinary intellect.

His acute sensibility and his Swiftian capacity for disgust can be both brutal on his subjects and very, very funny. Often the laughter is that of sudden recognition, as well as embarrassment, and although comic effect is not the prime intention it  just happens that in his outrage and under his withering stare he has a knack for finding the phrase that reduces the subject to its most absurd level. Orwell may not be a ‘comic’ or ‘humorous’ writer  in the traditional sense of those words but for those of us who share a common sensibility he can often reduce a reader to helpless laughter.

So, I was thrilled when I stumbled on John Sutherland’s recent book, Orwell’s Nose, which ostensibly takes a look at the life and career of Orwell through the prism of his sensitivity to smells – mostly bad smells, it has to be said. Sutherland himself has completely lost his own sense of smell and as a result he has become acutely conscious of just how vividly Orwell references his olfactory disgust. Here, at last, I thought was a book that might get to grips with the link between Orwell’s sensory acuteness and his penetrating world view. Sadly, I have to report that on the whole I found this effort  something of a disappointment.

I have read plenty of Sutherland’s other books and I have found them interesting and often idiosyncratic  - he has a very engaging and conversational style, something that also finds its way into Orwell’s Nose. However, I found much of the content of the book both lazy and unconvincing – there is way too much reliance on reheated information from other biographies ( especially those of Gordon Bowker and D.J.Taylor ) which added nothing at all to the sum knowledge of Orwell’s life and attitudes.

When Sutherland does get onto the issue of smells he fails to get much beyond  some speculative quasi-psychology – there is very little attempt to craft a compelling explanation of how Orwell used smells or why within the text itself and just what contribution it makes to the overall impact of his writing. For me, Sutherland indulges in far too many ‘maybes’ and ‘possiblys’ to be convincing –  guessing at motives that fit a thesis is not evidence of the sort of rigorous thinking I would normally associate with his work.

But the biggest beef I’ve got with this book is that Sutherland doesn’t actually seem to like George Orwell very much. He constantly harps on the failings and contradictions of the novels and he takes the author to task for the fact that his fiction isn’t a fair reflection of the biographical reality of Orwell’s life. If all novelists felt constrained to use their biographical details accurately in their books, there would be quite a lot of books that would never have made it to the shelves. Whether Orwell was ‘fair’ to family and friends is really neither here nor there in the context of a fiction – and even less consequential to the question of Orwell and his use of the sense of smell.

Sutherland seems to be overly fascinated in speculating about Orwell’s sexuality. I can see the importance of smell in enhancing the erotic elements of the books Orwell produced but Sutherland goes well beyond this into the authors biography and gets as close as makes no difference to suggesting Orwell was a sexual predator with ‘abnormal’ urges. It’s certainly true that Orwell/Blair was pretty clumsy around women and had a number of ill-fated relationships and obsessions  but those are accusations that could be levelled at very many men of that generation ( and plenty more since). What this adds to the notion of analysing the impact of Orwell’s sensitivity to smells is not clear to me.

All in all I found this book a wasted opportunity and in reality a short essay inflated into a small book. I remain unconvinced that Sutherland’s own loss of the sense of smell really gives him a new insight into Orwell’s sensibility –  if you don’t like your subject then empathy is a difficult quality to summon up and to really appreciate Orwell’s unique sensitivity to smell you have to be able to sniff through his nose.

Terry Potter

December 2016