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Kristin Bluemel, George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics: Intermodernism in Literary London (New York & Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, £45.00, xi-246 pages, ISBN 1403965102)—Antoine Capet, Université de Rouen

Could Kristin Bluemel’s new book (1) be the archetypal representative of that elusive genre, "Cultural Studies"? This is the type of question which the potential reader is inevitably tempted to ask when reading the publishers’ "blurb":

Undertaking a biographical-political-cultural-literary criticism, Kristin Bluemel brings to life the radical eccentrics' potentially transformative conversation, suggesting fascinating new approaches to the study of literary London during the 1930s and 1940s.

The Radical Eccentrics in question are, beside Orwell: Stevie Smith (1902-1971), Mulk Raj Anand (1905-2004) and Inez Holden (1906-1974). Whereas everyone, whatever his specialism, is familiar with Orwell, different readers will have different (or non-existent) knowledge of the lives and works of the other three. What unites the three is their personal link to Orwell, though some also had inter-personal relationships outside the presence of Orwell. Bluemel justifies her cast of characters in two very ambitious sentences:

I have chosen to focus on Smith, Anand, and Holden because their eccentric social positioning enrich our understanding of the history and possibilities of radical English literature in ways that the group’s most powerful and famous radical, Orwell, cannot. I argue that their lives and writings are importantly eccentric and radical not because they are consistently socialist or Communist (they are not), but because they consistently resist inhibiting, often oppressive assumptions about art and ideology—about standard relations between literary form and sex, gender, race, class, and empire—that dominate English culture at every point of the political spectrum. [7-8]

At this stage, the reader begins to take fright, because who can possess the necessary intellectual equiment to feel able to discuss the "oppressive assumptions about art and ideology—about standard relations between literary form and sex, gender, race, class, and empire—that dominate English culture at every point of the political spectrum?" To add to the difficulty, the author coins a new temporal category, "Intermodernism," whose introduction she tries to defend by arguing that it opens new vistas:

Intermodernism, like modernism and postmodernism, is best thought of as a kind of writing, discourse, or orientation rather than a period that competes with others for particular years or texts or personalities. I offer intermodernism as a literary-critical compass, an analytical tool or useful guidepost, an attractive neologism that can help scholars design new maps for the uncharted spaces between and within modernisms. Encouraging critics to think in terms of threes—‘inter’ always forging a connection or bridge between at least two other territories—intermodernism permits a more complex, sensitive understanding of many writers’ relations to literary London and mid-twentieth-century English history. [6]

The argument will be taken up before the Epilogue:

This book advocates adoption of a new vocabulary of intermodernism in order to disrupt the bad habits and intellectually limiting frameworks that have blinded us to the diversity and dynamism of literature connecting the 1930s and 1940s. [165]

Raising such expectations at the beginning of the book, Bluemel obviously plays for very high stakes, because her discourse will lose all credibility if the reader feels that she does not "deliver." Does she? This is the central question in what purports to be a trail-blazing book, and before we attempt to answer it, it is in order to make a few remarks on the format and structure of the book.

Bluemel obviously does not write with the average student or simply curious academic colleague in mind. She assumes perfect knowledge of the lives of her three relatively obscure authors (their dates, given above, come from personal information, as Bluemel does not bother to clearly indicate them), just as she immediately begins her analysis of their books with the assumption that all her readers are perfectly familiar with their content. The book is evidently written by a specialist for specialists.

The central thread in Bluemel’s discussion of Stevie Smith is the author’s supposed or real anti-Semitism, most notably in her two novels, Novel on yellow Paper, or, Work it out for yourself (London: J. Cape, 1936) and Over the Frontier (London: J. Cape, 1938). Does the evident anti-Semitism of her published writings reflect a personal anti-Semitic prejudice? After a superficial discussion of English suburban life—admittedly an enormously complex subject—Bluemel concludes in favour of Smith against her Jewish critics, sometimes her own good friends:

Many years later, it seems that her special relevance for the history of intermodernism is her confrontation with the painful pieces of a traditional English nationalism, its imperialism, its militarism, and its anti-Semitism, and her creation out of this confrontation of a new ideal of Englishness based on ordinary suburban life. [66]

In Bluemel’s examination of Anand’s work, the emphasis is on feminism, with special reference to The Bride’s Book of Beauty (1946), written in collaboration with Krishna Hutheesing. "Anyone who picks up the book hoping to find romantic or titillating narratives about life as an Indian bride will be thoroughly disappointed" [74], she warns—and here again she sets her sights very high: "I want to prove that Anand’s intermodern texts provide an understanding of radical eccentricity as complex and exciting as anything we might read by Orwell, in part due to their combinations of androcentric bias and feminist utopian impulse" [79]. Her attempted demonstration rests on a analysis of Anand’s fiction, in particular Untouchable (with a preface by E.M. Forster, London: Wishart Books, 1935) and its 1936 sequel, The Coolie. Much of the discussion is based on a critique of Margery Sabin’s Dissenters and Mavericks: Writings about India in English, 1765-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2002), and she evidently reproaches her (and her contemporaries) for giving short shrift to Anand’s writings "because, at their most exceptional, they resist theoretical mastery, stimulating interest and analysis to the degree they baffle and even contradict expectations" [102].

Inez Holden perhaps provides the exception to the rule indicated above in that she benefits from a few (welcome) pages of biography. But it is not clear what Bluemel is trying to "demonstrate"—a word which she particularly likes. Her final, concluding sentence to the chapter devoted to Inez Holden, is cleverly written, but it could apply equally well to countless talented wartime writers and commentators: "Her role was to find plot when others saw random events, see heroes when others saw workers, create stories when others saw no story there" [134]. The verdict on her preliminary claim, "In the process of introducing Holden’s literature of the 1930s and 1940s, this chapter provides my book’s best evidence of the need for widespread adoption among scholars of twentieth-century literature of the category of intermodernism" [104], has to be "Not Proven," unfortunately, and one can only surmise that few if any readers will be convinced by this particular chapter of the necessity to embrace the new periodisation category whose creation she advocates. Not that it is uninteresting, of course: one only has to consider her insightful discussion of Holden as the unlikely author (qua former "quintessential girl-about-town") of Night Shift (London: John Lane, 1941), "a novel that impressed H.G. Wells as 'First rate' and earned J.B. Priestley’s jacket comment, 'The most truthful and most exciting account of war-time industrial Britain'" [109]. But there is a far cry between offering a convincing analysis of Night Shift and making thereby an irresistible case for the adoption of "Intermodernism." That Inez Holden is important in Bluemel’s eyes is made clear by the fact that she deliberately decided to devote the book’s Epilogue to that author, and indeed the last paragraph of George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics contains a heart-felt plea: "This epilogue seeks to gain new readers for her rare literary forms […] this study makes its case for her inclusion in English literary history through the scholar’s tools of citation, analysis, and footnotes" [173].

There is no doubt that Bluemel has "read everything" on Orwell—no mean task when one considers the vast size of the literature on him, with of course two more substantial Biographies published to coincide with the centenary of his birth in 2003. (2) She exploits her extensive readings to explore the theme of Orwell’s position in the group of four whose existence she strives to establish: was he really the solitary, asocial creature, the "odd man out" [140] that so many commentators have described? Referring to her other three protagonists, she argues that they are important in countering this widespread misconception: "The point of this book is to show that their relatively unknown stories help us read Orwell differently" [140]. The reasoning is based on simple geometry: if Orwell was at the centre of a (social) circle—the circle formed by Smith, Anand and Holden—he cannot be described as "asocial." Still, Bluemel seems to have few illusions about her chances for success: "Unfortunately," she continues, "no single study can dislodge the myth of Orwell the last man, the best eccentric and most radical writer of mid-century England" [140].

Naturally, Bluemel does not imply that Orwell’s links with her three Radical Eccentrics were always dominated by intellectual empathy—on the contrary, in her discussion of Orwell’s negative review of Anand’s The Sword and the Sickle: A Novel (London: J. Cape, 1942), the last volume of the trilogy initiated by The Village and Across the Black Waters, she very convincingly shows that Orwell had little understanding of and even less sympathy for Anand’s Nationalist position. More riskily, Bluemel embarks on a clearly announced debunking exercise of Orwell, trying to offset his "writings" strengths—oral, literary, intellectual, political, against his "weaknesses of logic, imagination, compassion, and moral vision in his published and private writings" [147]. For that, she chose what she calls "A Case Study," namely "Orwell and the Holocaust." This study has to be done by antithesis, because Orwell never mentioned the Holocaust proper—but then his silence is revealing, according to Bluemel:

This essay attempts to further the discussion on Orwell and anti-Semitism begun by Walton (3), Loewenstein (4), and Fyvel (5) by pursuing one undeveloped strand of Fyvel’s argument: the idea that Orwell’s inability to write in any detail about the implications of the Holocaust was due to his crude analogies between Palestine and India, Arabs and coolies, Jews and the kinds of Anglo-Indian rulers and businessmen that made up his own family. [149]

The gist of the argument is that Orwell’s distinction between British antisemitism until 1933 (more or less acceptable) and antisemitism from 1934 (then unacceptable) is a spurious one, like his postwar distinction between antisemitism and the British anti-Zionist policy which he unreservedly supported. In her complicated, and therefore not immediately convincing, parallel between Orwell-and-the-Jews and Orwell-and-the-Indians, Bluemel makes much of the fact that in his "Reflections on Gandhi" (1949), "Orwell does not make any direct moral or political judgments about Gandhi’s recommendation that German Jews seek out a self-imposed Holocaust" (Gandhi is reported to have argued in 1938 that "all German Jews should commit collective suicide in order to arouse the world to Hitler’s violence" and to have "justified himself after the war by pointing out that the Jews had died anyway and they might as well have died significantly") [162]. But Orwell seems to be caught in a no-win situation: if he criticises Gandhi (as he did before the war), Bluemel rebukes him and if he does not (as in this instance in his 1949 essay), she also rebukes him—damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

As suggested before, George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics is evidently not recommended for undergraduates; it would set a bad example of apparent woolly thinking and ostensibly pretentious language ("I want to prove"), when they should be taught impeccable intellectual rigour and prudent academic humility. The many adversaries of Cultural Studies will claim that their arguments are vindicated by Bluemel’s heterogenous mixture of literary analysis, social and political criticism, feminist militancy, and occasional references to history. Traditional exponents of established literary and historical periods, probably a priori ill-disposed towards Bluemel’s claims that she will revolutionise the existing periodisation by her demonstrations, will of course close the book reassured that their familiar landmarks have not been convincingly overthrown. Experienced members of editorial committees will immediately perceive that the book was, if not "cobbled together," as least constructed from various conference papers on the different "eccentrics," with artificial transitions and perfunctory links introduced post facto—many sub-chapters are in fact self-standing and could have been published as excellent separate essays.

And yet, beyond the confused structure, beyond the irritating overambitious claims, beyond the whole artificialty of the exercise, Bluemel has many fresh points of view, many insightful perspectives to offer (very often, irritatingly for the reader’s comfort, in the excellent copious endnotes, which run to forty pages) on that most complex period and some of its protagonists. It is obvious that the last word has not been said, far from it, on "class," "sex" and "race" (including antisemitism) relations in 1930s and 1940s Britain, let alone on their perception by writers and commentators in essays and fiction of the time. Bluemel’s analyses no doubt usefully add to our knowledge of the "facts," and perhaps even more subtly to our understanding of the underlying issues.

As a sum of its parts, George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics seems to have little to recommend it—but the book will be found worth reading by most of those who are interested in and familiar with the period 1930-1949 precisely for its parts. Read as a collection of separate essays with occasional connections, with the reader forgetting about all that talk of "intermodernism" and the falsely binding notion of "radical eccentrics," Bluemel’s book becomes something totally different—and far more rewarding. And the magnificently detailed 22-page classified Bibliography (with publications up to 2003) will provide those who are interested in, but not yet familiar with the period with a superb reading list to get them started. So, Bluemel does "deliver," she does break new ground—but probably not in the way she intended.

1/Her first book was devoted to the writer Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957): Experimenting on the Borders of Modernism: Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
2/See the review of these two books on:
3/Walton, David. ‘George Orwell and Antisemitism’. Patterns of Prejudice 16 (1982): 19-34.
4/Loewenstein, Andrea Freud. ‘The protection of masculinity: Jews as projective pawns in the texts of William Gerhardi and George Orwell’. In Cheyette, Bryan [Editor]. Between ‘Race’ and Culture: Representations of ‘the Jew’ in English and American Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996: 145-164.
5/Fyvel, T.R. ‘Wingate, Orwell and the “Jewish Question” ’. Commentary (February 1951): 137-144.

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