Jun. 25, 2012

Brendel Playing Schubert

by Lisel Mueller

We bring our hands together
in applause, that absurd noise,
when we want to be silent. We might as well
be banging pots and pans,
it is that jarring, a violation
of the music we've listened to
without moving, almost holding our breath.
The pianist in his blindingly
white summer jacket bows
and disappears and returns
and bows again. We keep up
the clatter, so cacophonous
that it should signal revenge
instead of the gratitude we feel
for the two hours we've spent
out of our bodies and away
from our guardian selves
in the nowhere where the enchanted live.

"Brendel Playing Schubert" by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together. © Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of George Orwell (books by this author), born Eric Blair in London (1903). He is most famous for his novels Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949). Both books were published during the last few years of his life, years filled with illness and personal tragedy. In late 1944, Orwell and his wife adopted an infant named Richard. Four months later, his wife went in for a hysterectomy and died under anesthesia. Orwell was devastated. He struggled to raise his infant son alone, so he hired a housekeeper. One of his friends described Orwell's small flat in London as "quite emphatically bleak."

Orwell had written for the Observer for several years, and the paper's publisher, David Astor, had a family estate on a remote, rocky Scottish island named Jura. Astor offered to let Orwell stay there if he felt like he needed a change of scenery, and Orwell was enthusiastic. He left London with not much more than a cot and some pots and pans. Shortly after he arrived, he wrote to a friend: "The journey really isn't so formidable as it sounds on paper […] It's only that one has to walk the last 5 miles, and maybe next year we shall have a vehicle that works. Bread rationing has hit us rather hard, but [we] get by on oatcakes and porridge. One has to catch and shoot a good deal of one's food, but I rather like doing that."

The next winter was one of the coldest on record, and the house on Jura had no electricity. He had a peat stove and used kerosene lamps. When the weather was good, he went outside with Richard, fishing and hiking. But most of his time was spent chain-smoking and writing his new novel, The Last Man in Europe. His health deteriorated, and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His sister Avril moved in to cook meals and help out.

One day Orwell was out in a boat with Richard and some friends, and they got caught in a whirlpool and nearly drowned. Everyone survived, but Orwell grew even sicker, and his cough became constant. He refused to go to a doctor. By that winter, he was so sick that he was confined to his bed, but he kept writing his novel. He was put on a new tuberculosis drug, and it helped his symptoms but had terrible side effects, including hair loss, throat ulcers, and the disintegration of his fingernails. He was in the hospital in March of 1948 when he got a letter from his publisher, who said that he needed the book by the end of the year. So Orwell went back to Jura and devoted himself to writing. He thought his manuscript was terrible, and by that fall, he could not get out of bed, and could barely sit upright to type. But he finished it by December and sent it in, changing its title from The Last Man in Europe to 1984.

Soon after that, he checked himself in to a sanatorium. Aware of Orwell's condition, his publisher rushed the manuscript through publication, and 1984 came out in June of 1949 to rave reviews. In September, he was transferred to a specialist at a hospital in London. In October, he married Sonia Brownell, a beautiful young editorial assistant, in a bedside ceremony. He was busy scheming up ideas for books, including a study of Joseph Conrad and a novella set in Burma, where he had served in the Imperial Police Force. He believed that if he had a book left to write, he would not die.

He died two months later, at the age of 46. Up until his final days, he was planning a trip to the Swiss Alps. Just before his death, he asked that his gravestone use his real name, not "George Orwell." His funeral was held a few days later, and one of his friends described it as "a rather melancholy, chilly affair, the congregation … almost entirely unbelievers; the church unheated." According to his wishes, his gravestone read only "Here lies Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1949."

Orwell said, "So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information."

And, "Never use a long word where a short one will do."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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