Burmese Days – George Orwell (1934)

0108_Burmese_days__Penguin_book_cover_-_1969_with_borderThese days the term Orwellian is overused and almost without meaning. So much so that conspiracy-minded thinkers could develop a theory that the term has acquired mainstream usage and thus dissuades further investigation into authoritarian political action. Nevertheless, the term Orwellian was not born with the publication of 1984. Nor should the radical politics and writings of George Orwell be solely subject to the contemporary news cycle. So, in an effort to better understand the man and etymology behind the term Orwellian, Living with Literature is looking at Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days.

Burmese Days examines British imperialism in the Burmese town of Kyauktada. The story centers around the lonely English expat John Flory and the nasty domestic politics which ensnare him. While power is predominately designated to the ruling British, a corrupt local Burman named U Po Kyin seeks to aggrandize his personal authority within the country’s existing bureaucratic structure.. His method? Pit the virulently racist British in Burma against Flory and the growing Nationalist movement that he (unassumingly) represents. Ironic and paradoxical? Yes, but so is the world of Burma under British rule.

The most obvious characteristic in Burmese Days is the transparency in Orwell’s motives of criticism and themes. Empire. Imperialism. Power structure. The characters in the novel are important, yes, but in the same way chess pieces are important to the player. Orwell, who spent five years as a police officer in Burma, translates this reality without regard for nationality or personal association:

“Since then, each year had been lonelier and more bitter than the last. What was at the centre of all his thoughts now, and what poisoned everything, was the ever bitterer hatred of the atmosphere of imperialism in which he lived. For as his brain developed — you cannot stop your brain from developing, and it is one of the late tragedies of the half-educated that they develop late, when they are already committed to some wrong way of life — he had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as the final object. And as to the English of the East, the ‘sahiblog’, Flory had come so to hate them from living in their society, that he was quite incapable of being fair to them.

In one of the (highly recommended) Arena episodes chronicling Orwell’s life, a friend mentions that while the writer despised imperialism, he saw it as a necessary evil to educate primitive cultures. An argument can be made to substantiate that such sentiments were had. However, such a thesis is still too elementary to detail Orwell’s understanding and vicarious connection with native Burman life. While the friend continues to detail the writer’s problem with ‘ridicule from Buddhist monks’, passages in Burmese Days illustrate such conflicts were unavoidable as a result of imperialism — and that the culture can be appreciated despite of them:

“‘I knew this would interest you; that’s why I brought you here. You’ve read books and been in civilized places, you’re not like the rest of us miserable savages here. Don’t you just think this is worth watching, in its queer way? Just look at that girl’s movements — look at that strange, bent-forward pose like a marionette and the way her arms twist from the elbow like a cobra rising to strike. It’s grotesque, it’s even ugly with a sort of willful ugliness. And theres something sinister in it too. Theres a touch of the diabolical in all Mongols. And yet when you look closely, what art, what centuries of culture you can see behind it! Every movement that girl makes has been studied and handed down through innumerable generations. Whenever you look closely at the art of these Eastern peoples you can see that – a civilization stretching back and back, practically the same, into times when we were dressed in a woad. In some way that I can’t define to you, the whole life and spirit of Burma is summed up in the way that girl twists her arms. When you see her you can see the rice fields, the villages under the teak trees, the pagodas, the priests in their yellow robes, the buffaloes swimming the rivers in the early morning, Thibaw’s palace.'”

What Orwell obviously understands is power. Whether it be from his English home or as a Burmese transplant, how to achieve and keep control over others is his grand thesis in Burmese Days and (from what I’ve read) his other literature. As many have read in 1984 and Animal Farm, it is not through kind motives that such control is implemented. Rather, in Orwell’s view, it is through fear and manipulation:

“U Po Kyin had even sent one of his anonymous letters to Mrs. Lackersteen, for he knew the power of European women. Dr. Veraswami, the letter said, was inciting the natives to abduct and rape the European women – no details were given, nor were they needed. U Po Kyin had touched Mrs. Lackersteen’s weak spot. To her mind the words ‘sedition’, ‘Nationalism’, ‘rebellion’, ‘Home Rule’, conveyed one thing and one only, and that was a picture of herself being raped by a procession of jet-black coolies with rolling white eyeballs. It was a thought that kept her awake at night sometimes. Whatever good regard the European might once have had for the doctor was crumbling rapidly.”


Labeling an act as Orwellian is, of course, citing an example of arbitrary power. However, contemporary usage forgets the depth of the man behind the label. Orwell did not simply see and describe dystopian socialist worlds as a malignant display of power. Rather an accurate use of Orwellian would encompass the entire scope of social injustice, from individual to institution, the bad as well as the good. Anything else is a rewriting of biography.

‘1919’ – John Dos Passos

livro-1919-john-dos-passos-21201-MLB20206812462_122014-OThe second installment of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A trilogy is a world apart from its predecessor. Or, well, an ocean apart. 1919 moves from away the 42nd Parallel‘s rambunctious pre-war American landscape to post-World War I Europe. It is expected to be a time of peace. However, as echoed by various characters in the 1919, “If you thought the War was bad, wait until the Peace.”

While the narrative setting in 1919 has changed, Dos Passos’ intoxicating Modernist style has not. Or, as I like to call it, his “lighting prose”. Dos Passos exceptionally synthesizes individual experience with the then-contemporary cultural atmosphere. While this skill is prevalent in the previous book, the author has matured for a more concise presentation in 1919. Some wonder if Dos Passos actually shared the “historically correct” racial slurs of his characters. Knowing his deeply Leftist sentiments, I find it doubtful. Nevertheless, this atmospheric rendering not only stands as an entertaining historical artifact, but one without any painfully archaic feeling:

“Nedda wouldn’t get undressed, but wanted to see Joe’s money. Joe didn’t have any money, so he brought out the silk stockings. She looked worried and shook her head, but she was darn pretty and had big black eyes and Joe wanted it bad and yelled for Charley and Charley came up the stairs and talked wop to the girl and said sure she’d take the silk stockings and wasn’t America the greatest country in the world and tutti aleati and Presidente Veelson big man for Italia. But the girl wouldn’t go ahead until they’d gotten ahold of the old woman who was in the kitchen, who came wheezing up the stairs and felt the stockings, and musta said they were real silk and worth money, because the girl put her arms around Joe’s neck and Charley said, ‘Sure, pard, she sleepa with you all night, maka love good.'”

Another noticeable improvement in 1919 is the Camera Eye sections. These stream-of-consciousness interludes were undoubtedly the most underdeveloped portions in The 42nd Parallel; even if they were enjoyable and, as many believe, autobiographical. Some blogs, so incensed by the Camera Eye sections, even decry the narrative intrusions as a reason to remove the U.S.A. trilogy from the Canon. In 1919, while the prose remains irreverent, the vision becomes vicarious. The subject is the reality of World War I and the horrors of mustard gas and trench warfare — which any high school graduate knows about. Not to mention, Dos Passos also tackles the nefarious Versailles Peace Treaty that laid the groundwork for World War II. These sections, undboutedly, illuminate readers on why 1919 is labeled the most “anti-war” of the trilogy:

“[R]emembering the gray crooked fingers the thick drip of blood off the canvas the bubbling when the lungcases try to breathe the muddy scraps of flesh you in the ambulance alive and haul out the dead”

I have yet to read The Big Money, the final installment of U.S.A., but hear that Dos Passos noticeably pivots to the political Right. Many credit this ideological shift to the contradictory actions of the Communists in the Spanish Civil War; specifically the murder of José Robles (which irrevocably broke the friendship of Dos and Hemingway). Dos Passos was also turned off by the lockstep adherence of American Leftists to Soviet policy — even under Stalin. Nevertheless, 1919 sees Dos Passos at his farthest Left. Like the anti-war Camera Eye sections, a rigorous strain of pacifism is obvious in the writing. Dos Passos is unequivocally blunt in his sentiments that war is encouraged by potential profiteers (e.g. munitions dealers) and the conflict’s victims are, inevitably, “the working class“:

“Joe got to talking with two guys from Chicago who were drinking whiskey with beer chasers. They said this wartalk was a lot of bushwa propaganda and that if working stiffs stopped working in munitions factories making shells to knock other working stiffs’ blocks off with, there wouldn’t be no goddamn war. Joe said they were goddam right but look at the big money you made. The guys from Chicago said they’d been working in a munitions factory themselves but they were through, goddam it, and that if the working stiffs made a few easy dollars it meant that the war profiteers were making easy millions. They said the Russians had the right idea, make a revolution and shoot the goddam profiteers and that ‘ud happen in this country they didn’t watch out and a damn good thing too. The barkeep leaned across the bar and said they’d oughtn’t talk thataway, folks ‘ud take “em for German spies.”

Opinion on 1919 remains divided. This is the usual consensus on every middle piece of a trilogy, as the narrative is neither a beginning nor an ending. However, middle pieces, especially in the case of U.S.A., are an integral part of the narrative and authorial tapestry.

Dos Passos’ sharp turn against Soviet Communism and its long tentacles seeking to control the American Left would seriously affect his writing. The author’s reaction and political re-alignment was so fierce that he penned op-eds against Roosevelt’s New Deal actions and, eventually, wrote for arch-conservative Bill Buckley’s National Review. This monumental transformation was occurring while Dos Passos’ penned the second installment of U.S.A. and it would permeate throughout the rest of his literature. In fact, many believe that after The Big Money, the author had lost his imagination.

Thus, the importance of this particular middle piece, 1919, is a radical confronting his optimistic idealism for Soviet Communism with the increasingly horrific execution by Stalin (pun heavily intended). And that makes for good literature.

‘The Moviegoer’ – Walker Percy

photoIt is salient to point out that The Moviegoer is not about movies. At least not entirely. There are a few cameos, some allusions to then-contemporary films from the 50’s like Fort Dobbs. But cinema is certainly not the intent of Walker Percy’s debut novel. Published in 1961, Percy’s Southern gothic would beat out Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Heller’s Catch-22, and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road for the National Book Award. Living with Lit seeks to understand this considered upset and, once again, verify if The Moviegoer is still relevant.

The Moviegoer follows the humbly complacent Lousianan named Binx Bolling. Mister Bolling is on a quest for purpose. Chronicling the week up to his 30th birthday, the New Orleans resident has an itch to ‘discover’ a yet-to-be-named ‘something’. His aunt believes a formal pursuit of medical schooling would satisfy Binx’s sought after life-path. Binx, on the other hand, believes women or God may be the answer. Or, maybe, there is no answer at all.

Percy slowly constructs the mysterious Binx Bollig throughout The Moviegoer. Fragmented pieces and morbidly-poetic strands from his oblique past work to form a the protagonist. Percy achieves this technique by indulging in unexpected moments of reflection.These irreverent reveals are coupled with the contemporary Binx, in which every interaction is slightly cockeyed and rather intense. Readers begin to wonder: is it Binx that is oft-kilter or the zany world around him?:

“We talk, my aunt and I, in our old way of talking, during pauses in the music. She is playing Chopin. She does not play very well; her fingernails click against the keys. But she is playing one of our favorite pieces, the E flat Etude. In recent years I have become suspicious of music. When she comes to a phrase which once united us in a special bond and to which once I opened myself as meltingly as a young girl, I harden myself.”

An obvious characteristic of The Moviegoer is the slow drawl in Percy’s actual voice. The prose reads heavy and paced, with no intent of conforming to a succinct style. This is not necessarily enjoyable for all readers. However, those who finish the (admittedly short) book, understand that the forced patience with the writing is necessary for the Southern portrait:

“Here is the public service truck with its tower, measuring the clearance under the oak limbs and cutting some wet drooping branches. We wait to see the flambeaux bearers and now here they come, a vanguard of half a dozen extraordinary Negroes dressed in dirty Ku Klux Klan robes, each bearing aloft a brace of pink and white flares. The flambeaux create a sensation. The bearers stride swiftly along the very edge of the crowd, showering sparks on everyone. They look angrily at each other to keep abreast, their fierce black faces peeping sidewise from their soiled hoods. Kate laughs at them. The Negro onlookers find them funny, but their bold manner, their contemptuous treatment of the crowd, excites them too. “Ah now!”, they cry. “Look at him! Ain’t he something though!”

Being a character-driven novel, what makes The Moviegoer so notable is Binx’s transformation. This is best displayed textually. Speed increases and the writing style evolves as our main character departs from his emotionally stolid New Orleans for a business trip to the North. Like Hemingway’s irreverent translations (or ‘Papa’s prose‘) in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the conclusion of the novel utilizes an eccentric style with infections precision:

The delegates are very decent fellows. I find myself talking to half a dozen young men from the West Coast and liking them very much – one in particular, a big shy fellow from Spokane named Stanley Kinchen, and his wife, a fine-looking woman, yellow-haired and bigger than Sharon, lips curling like a rose petal, head thrown back like a queen and a tremendous sparkle in the eye. What good people they are. It is not at all bad being a businessman. There is a spirit of trust and cooperation here. Everyone jokes about such things, but if businessmen were not trusting of each other and could not set their great projects going on credit, the country would collapse tomorrow and be no better off than Saudi Arabia. It strikes me that Stanley Kinchen[business associate] would actually do anything for me. I know I would for him. I introduce Kate as my fiancee and she pulls down her mouth. I can’t tell whether it is me she is disgusted with or my business colleagues. But these fellows: friends and-? What, dejected? I can’t be sure.”

The Moviegoer is a novel of self-discovery that attracts young souls. It is one of those books that will ‘find you’. In my case, a Texan thrust it into my hands, proclaiming it was his favorite novel – ever. While Percy isn’t explicit – and is ‘contradictory‘, apparently – in his intentions for The Moviegoer, to quote Robert Burton, “Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli.*”


Percy would go on to write five more novels and many essays. When The Moviegoer won the Best Fiction Novel in 1961, few had read it – at least relative to the aforementioned contenders. Does that mean the Award and the novel’s place on the Time’s Top Novels of the 20th century are a fluke? Whatever Percy’s debut novel may lack in 21st-century relevancy, The Moviegoer makes up for in reminding readers that Southern literature does exist.

*“According to the capabilities of the reader, books have their own destiny.