A Kind of Compulsion
is Volume 10 of The Complete Works of George Orwell
. The first nine volumes are Orwell’s books. Volumes 10-20 contain his letters, essays, poems, journalism, book reviews, movie reviews, diaries, drawings, tax records, long division calculations, grocery lists, ticket stubs, and sudoku puzzles. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little bit, but only a little (I’m not kidding about the long division).
This volume is aptly titled, because editor Peter Davison clearly had a kind of compulsion in trying to track down everything
Orwell wrote. Ever. He then meticulously traced and verified it all, working out dates for undated material, identifying all of the people referenced in letters, analyzing Orwell’s writing in the Eton school paper to see if unsigned pieces were written by him, evaluating anything anyone who knew him had written or said about Orwell to help place material, and footnoting everything with all of this information. Davison faithfully notes where Orwell has crossed things out and misspelled words (Orwell apparently had trouble with the words “aggressive” and “address” his entire life). You can get a visual sense of the type of effort involved here by looking at Davison’s editing of Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Facsimile of the Extant Manuscript
(my review has some pictures), where he valiantly deciphered handwriting and typescript. Extrapolate that to the thousands of pages involved in The Complete Works
to get a sense of what a monumental task this was.
Volume 10 covers the years from 1903-1936, giving the widest variety of writing in The Complete Works
. The first item is a 1911 letter from eight-year old Eric Blair in boarding school, writing home to his mother:Dear Mother
I hope you are quite well, thanks for that letter you sent me I havent read it yet. I supose you want to know what schools like, its ? alright we have fun in the morning. When we are in bed.
There are articles from the Eton paper, short stories, newspaper pieces in French with corresponding English translations, and a play about Charles II that Orwell wrote for his students to perform when he was a teacher, with large sections in blank verse. Later letters involve the publication of his earlier novels and the changes he had to make to avoid libel charges (a very serious issue at the time that could involve jail sentences for writers, publishers, and even the printers), as well as his research for The Road to Wigan Pier.
I’ll conclude here with one of Orwell’s sketches for Burmese Days (handwritten in ink on reverse of Government of Burma paper), an epitaph for John Flory. I think it’s kind of catchy.JOHN FLORY
Died of Drink 1927.
Here lies the bones of poor John Flory;
His story was the old, old story.
Money, women, cards & gin
Were the four things that did him in.
He has spent sweat enough to swim in
Making love to
married stupid women;
He has known misery past thinking
In the dismal art of drinking.
O stranger, as you voyage here
And read this welcome, shed no tear;
But take the single gift I give,
And learn from me how not to live.