It was George Orwell’s golden-eyed toad that made me a writer. This was all the more surprising since I was getting sick of schoolteachers forever going on about Orwell the peerless master of the essay, the very model of limpid clarity; not a word wasted, the epitome of strong English prose style.
My teenage heroes were elsewhere: the dithyrambic, mischievous Laurence Sterne; the mad mystic Herman Melville with his cetacean hulk of a book that was about everything; and above all, Charles Dickens, whom my father read out loud after supper and whose expansive, elastic manner seemed at the opposite pole from Orwell’s taut asperity. (I hadn’t yet read Orwell’s homage to Dickens; one of the most generous things he penned.)
It was the dancing riot of Dickens’ sentences; their bounding exuberance; the overstuffed abundance of names, places, happenings, the operatic manipulation of emotion, that made him seem to me if not the best then the heartiest writer of English prose there ever had been. I loved the frantic pulse of his writing, its tumbling energy, as swarming with creatures as the scamper of vermin through Miss Havisham’s bridal cake. I relished his painterly feel for life’s textures: “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it, as big as full-grown snowflakes,” in the opening of Bleak House (1853).
I resented the inexplicable absence of Dickens from our school syllabus, dominated as it was in the late 1950s by the epitomes of “The Great Tradition”, laid down by the Cambridge don FR Leavis with a Talmudic sense of the permitted and the forbidden. We got plenty of the metaphysical poets; Eliots, both George and TS; scads of EM Forster and Joseph Conrad, but so much as mention the possibility of Dickens (with the exception of the mechanically polemical Hard Times) and you’d get the kind of treatment handed to Oliver Twist when he asked for more.
More is what I wanted, a prose that recapitulated life’s chaotic richness, a writing brave enough to risk collapse under the weight of its own vaulting ambitions. (I also loved James Joyce, who seemed to me the heir to Dickens word-inebriation). I’d had enough of Leavis’s beetle-browed prohibitions.
I didn’t know, then, Orwell’s great 1941 essay on Donald McGill and the art of saucy English seaside postcards, where the emperor of hard syntax undid his buttons a bit, even though you never quite lost the sense of a high mind doing a little slumming to convince himself he was truly Of the People. But I had read his manifesto, “Why I Write” (1946), and presumptuously recognised an affinity: a childhood of many solitary walks spent making up stories inside one’s own head, featuring, of course, oneself (in my case with a perfect shiksa blonde called Kay, doomed to perish from a wasting disease) as well as the sense that the gangly peculiar thing that was me had at least been allotted the gift of the gab both in speech and writing; that I could break into a run of them even when I finished next to last in the hundred yards dash.
Orwell’s four motives for writing still seem to me the most honest account of why long-form non-fiction writers do what they do, with “sheer egoism” at the top; next, “aesthetic enthusiasm” – the pleasure principle or sheer relish of sonority (“pleasure in the impact of one sound on another”); third, the “historical impulse” (the “desire to see things as they are”), and, finally, “political purpose”: the urge to persuade, a communiqué from our convictions.
To that list I would add that writing has always seemed to me a fight against loss, an instinct for replay; a resistance to the attrition of memory. To translate lived experience into a pattern of words that preserves its vitality without fixing it in literary embalming fluid; that for me has been the main thing.
The best essay writing since Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who invented the genre, is where this reanimation of experience is shaped by the purposeful urgencies of thought. It is not the thoughtless recycling of experience for its own sake, the fetishising of impulse, which these days is what mostly passes as “blog”; a word well suited to its swampy suck of self-indulgence.
At any rate, at 16 or 17 I was reconciled enough to Orwell to open a collection of his essays, at random, in a shop on London’s Charing Cross Road. The book fell open at this, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” (1946): “Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water. Something – some kind of shudder in the earth, or perhaps merely a rise of a few degrees in the temperature – has told him it is time to wake up …At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not at any other time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.”
Immediately, this seemed to me (and still does) one of the most perfect things I have ever read, nearly a prose poem, exquisitely observed, a tour de force of cunning, ringing with exactly measured rhythms: that repetition of “before” in the first line. That simile – the Anglo-Catholic look – is genius in the shape of wit, and the art at its heart is the Orwellian overturning of stereotypes of beauty. A kissed frog may turn into a prince but never the warty toad, so the democratic Orwell naturally declares its chrysoberyl eyes the most beautiful of any living creature.
Only when Orwell is good and ready does he make it clear that his big subject in this essay is the immunity of nature from the tyranny of correct political discourse. It is, after all, 1946, life is heavily rationed, but what will become 1984 is beginning to stir like the toad in April. Nature is, in both senses, still free, gratis, “existing unofficially, as it were, in the very heart of London. I have seen a kestrel flying over the Deptford gasworks, and I have heard a first-rate performance by a blackbird in the Euston Road.” He concludes: “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun …”
When I handed over my two shillings and sixpence for the essays, I knew both that I would never write anything that good, and that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to spend my life trying. The long-form essay has been pronounced dead, or at least moribund, many times. Who has the time; who can get in that deep? But, actually, it might be just the thing to fight against the dumbness of the 140-character rule. Which does not mean that long-form should be long-winded, nor declare from its beginning some grandly sententious purpose.
The great essayists are all virtuosi of opening sentences that pull you into the matter with a dead-on observed moment or an epigram: Orwell again, in “Marrakech” (1939), a single-sentence paragraph: “As the corpse went past, the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.” Or William Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating” (c1826) with another insect-opener, the aspirate alliteration mimicking the scuttle, at once ominous and pathetic: “There is a spider crawling along the matted floor of the room where I sit …he runs with heedless, hurried haste, he hobbles awkwardly towards me, he stops – he sees the giant shadow before him, and, at a loss whether to retreat or proceed, meditates his huge foe.”
Or MFK Fisher (1908-1992), the greatest of all food writers since the man whose work she translated, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), and whose essay “Pity the Blind in Palate” (from The Art of Eating, 1954), begins: “Frederick the Great used to make his own coffee, with much to-do and fuss. For water, he used champagne. Then, to make the flavour stronger he stirred in powdered mustard.”
The flourish of the curtain-raisers put the reader on notice that a strong, memorable essay is, inevitably, something of a performance, its virtuosi never shy of doing the verbal fan-dance even when they pretended, like Orwell, to despise showiness. From William Hazlitt to Hunter S Thompson, Robert Hughes and David Foster Wallace, the strut of the ego is part of the pleasure.
Overdone, of course, this first-person singularity can become as alienating as being held hostage by the pub bore determined to recruit you to his obsessions. But the best essay-writing has always been self-consciously conversational and informal, the enemy of any “house style” template, so that to read it is to have the illusion of spending time with an old friend or making the acquaintance of an exciting new one. The delivery of informal “voice” is trickier than it might sound. Hazlitt, who wanted to overthrow the studiously epigram-loaded “high” manner of Dr Johnson, gave stern advice that true “familiar style” “utterly rejects not only all unmeaning pomp, but all low, cant phrases, and loose, unconnected, slipshod allusions. It is not to take the first word that offers, but the best word in common use; it is not to throw words together in any combinations we please, but to follow and avail ourselves of the true idiom of the language.” (“On Familiar Style”, 1822).
The line between casual eloquence and self-conscious mateyness is dangerously thin but somehow those who have reinvented the form over the past half century – Tom Wolfe’s early journalism; Clive James’s television columns; Thompson’s gonzo writing on the campaign trail; Lester Bangs giving no quarter to the overinflated self-regard of rock stars; Hughes’s uppercuts to the art world; Christopher Hitchens’ political pugilism; Geoff Dyer’s essays on anything, but especially photography – have all managed it. Their respective styles are the enemy of the formulaic, the banal, the ponderous opinion-forming column. They are literary voices that come with actual people attached.
As such, they reproduce another trait inaugurated by Montaigne, implied in the word he chose for this kind of writing: the essai, the open-ended “try” or experiment; something unbound by formal conventions (in his day, those of classical rhetoric). The self-propulsion of a ranging intelligence is the dynamo that drives a powerful essay; the headlong gallop of thought to a destination the reader can’t predict and which may not have occurred to the writer when he began. The sudden, unexpected twist is as much part of a great essayist’s technique as of a short story writer. Try reading Orwell’s “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” (1947), which begins on a disingenuously academic note and then swerves away, off into sudden revelation, without slapping your forehead and exclaiming, “Of course, you cunning old bugger!”
But all these tricks of the trade are beside the main point, which is that the essay be about something that matters. This distinguishes the essay from reportage. Its true modus operandi is to lead from the sharply observed particular moment to a bigger reflection on the human condition. Hazlitt’s spider, for example, takes us to a bleak recognition of our glee in the misfortune of others.
In one of his more breathtaking performances (which is saying something), David Foster Wallace, at a state fair, moves from looking hard at the prize pigs: “Swine have fur! I never thought of swine as having fur. I’ve actually never been up very close to swine, for olfactory reasons” to thinking, with Swiftian mercilessness, not just about what happens when the pigs are industrially processed, but how we contrive to deal with that routine slaughter. “I’m struck, amid the pig’s screams and wheezes, by the fact that these agricultural pros do not see their stock as pets or friends. They are just in the agribusiness of weight and meat …even at the fair their products continue to drool and smell and ingest their own excrement and scream, and the work goes on. I can imagine what they think of us, cooing at the swine: we fairgoers don’t have to deal with the business of breeding and feeding our meat; our meat simply materialises at the corn-dog stand, allowing us to separate our healthy appetites from fur and screams and rolling eyes. We tourists get to indulge our tender animal-rights feelings with our tummies full of bacon.” (“Ticket to the Fair”, 1994).
This passage does everything Montaigne would have wanted from his posterity: self-implication without literary narcissism; a moral illumination built from a physical experience. Like the best non-fiction long-form writing, it essays a piece of the meaning of what it’s like to live – or, in the case of Hitchens’ last magnificent writing, to die – in a human skin. Essay writing and reading is our resistance to the pygmy-fication of the language animal; our shrinkage into the brand, the sound bite, the business platitude; the solipsistic tweet. Essays are the last, heroic stand for the seriousness of prose entertainment; our best hope of liberating text from texting.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published