Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life, by Anna Funder, Viking, 464 pp, £10, ISBN: 978-0241482728 Eileen O’Shaughnessy married George Orwell in 1936 and remained married to him until her unexpected and untimely death in 1945. Anna Funder’s Wifedom is primarily an analysis of that nine-year marriage, which Funder concludes as having been throughout to Eileen’s disadvantage, an ‘arms race to mutual self-destruction: she by selflessness, and he by disappearing into the greedy double life that is the artist’s, of self + work’. The Orwell that emerges from this account was variously exploitative, neglectful, hypocritical and adulterous, not to mention a tepid... Anna Funder finds that George Orwell’s previous biographers, in neglecting the role of women in his life, have been guilty of ‘fictions of omission’. To compensate for these perceived failings she has interpolated a number of imagined episodes into her own study, most of them showing Orwell in a bad light. While these are clearly signalled in the text, their long-term effect could be to confuse the readers as to which elements of her narrative can be taken as fact and which have been invented.
Intellectual life is not beholden to any specific constituency. Given this freedom, academics in the Irish context should extend the framework of their inquiry, moving beyond asking which of two unions – a United Ireland or the United Kingdom – best caters to national allegiance. Nationality should not determine the remit of government. The legitimacy of a regime depends on the quality of its administration, not the principle of nationality as such.
Reversing the standard model of a progressive metropolitan centre modernising a backward rural periphery, struggles in the Irish countryside ushered in the modern, but with a notable difference: instead of producing ‘economic man’ or homo economicus, the ‘land for the people’, in the eyes of figures such as Andrew Kettle, redefined proprietorship itself as part of a wider, collective political project of national self-determination.
Maybe the best guides to living ‘the good enough life’ are the Greeks, like Socrates, who while interested in the nature of the world and how we know it, and the nature of right and wrong, did not obsess but mostly got on with living, happy to hang out at the gym, staying healthy and taking pleasure in talk and company. He might have been happy in Skerries, being, in Miller’s words, ‘a philosopher who fully understood the principle of good craic’.
How fast is the influence of the far right in Ireland growing? This question has been on the agenda of public discussion since the assertion of the Garda Commissioner in May 2023 that the far right has failed to grow in Ireland, bucking trends in other European countries. ‘Across Europe,’ he said, ‘we have seen a growth in the far right that hasn’t actually been replicated in Ireland,’ adding that the numbers in the Republic remained small. The Commissioner’s measure of growth was the number of anti-immigrant protests taking place – which went down in the first half of... We may be entering an era of post-democracy, a malaise linked to pessimistic nostalgia, where a manipulative minority claims to speak for vaguely defined ‘ordinary people’, who can be induced to want whatever their leaders need them to want. Current developments on the far right may well be the seedbed for future digital post-democratic parties who hammer home a number of populist messages using the best organisational and user-surveillance techniques of the Internet age.
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The pervasive national mood of cynicism makes it easier for a Republican or independent who dislikes Trump to vote for him. If all politicians are liars, the reasoning goes, and if Democrats are bent on creating a socialist state, I may as well support the liar who will uphold conservative values. Take the unbudgeably loyal MAGA, add in conservatives willing to vote holding their noses, and the possibility of a Trump majority becomes real.
Anna Funder finds that George Orwell’s previous biographers, in neglecting the role of women in his life, have been guilty of ‘fictions of omission’. To compensate for these perceived failings she has interpolated a number of imagined episodes into her own study, most of them showing Orwell in a bad light. While these are clearly signalled in the text, their long-term effect could be to confuse the readers as to which elements of her narrative can be taken as fact and which have been invented.
The Letters of Seamus Heaney, Christopher Reid (ed), Faber & Faber, 848 pp, £40, ISBN: 978-0571341085 Seamus Heaney was a steadfast and indefatigable letter-writer – though how he kept up the practice alongside his escalating activities and responsibilities, literary, academic, domestic and international, is a mystery. It wasn’t just a matter of dashing off missives at odd moments – though, on one short flight to Salt Lake City (we read), he completed a total of fourteen letters, ‘and as many more to do on the way back’. That these were mostly testimonials and recommendations doesn’t diminish the effort, or the... Seamus Heaney’s letters, many of them related to his escalating responsibilities as he became increasingly celebrated, amply demonstrate his personal kindness and the scale of his generosity to friends and others. They also reveal his fear of the effects of being just too visible, of becoming ‘a mascot’, or even, as he delicately phrased it, ‘conniving in the overstatement of my own meaning’. For all his amiability, indeed, he was always prepared to put his foot down whenever it came to overtures which he felt overstepped the mark.
France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain, by Julian Jackson, Allen Lane, 445 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0241450253 The essence of a nation is that all the individuals constituting it will have many things in common; and also that they will all have forgotten many things. Ernest Renan On August 25th, 1944, four years and a month after a victorious Hitler had himself photographed with Albert Speer and the sculptor Arno Breker against the background of the Eiffel Tower, the forces of the 2e DB (second armoured division) under General Leclerc entered the French capital, where, encountering relatively little opposition, they took... In essentially political trials like Pétain’s, various factors are at play, including revenge for the formerly persecuted – now the victors – and some degree of consolation or closure for victims’ families. They are also exercises in national pedagogy, enabling the new authorities to assert their particular version of history. For de Gaulle the kernel of the lesson to be delivered was that the Vichy regime was an aberration and that active collaborators with the occupiers had never constituted more than ‘a handful’ of the French people.