On the shelf
Viking: 220 pages, $ 28.
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More than two dozen books by essayist, cultural critic and activist Rebecca Solnit have wandered all over the map: hymns of praise for walks and wanderings off course (Wanderlust and A Guide to the Lost); the award-winning biography of photographer Idverd Muybridge (River of Shadows); and, of course, her often-quoted memoir on the devastating consequences of living in a misogynistic world (“Men explain things to me.” and “Memories of My Nothingness”).
George Orwell is known to wander the world too, which may be one of the reasons why the latest book of The Orwell’s Rose Solitaire, from the beautiful cover to the passionate code, is one of the its the best. This multifaceted tribute to one of her main literary influences is a reappraisal of a writer best known for his fierce criticism of totalitarianism as “a threat not only to freedom and human rights, but also to language and consciousness.”
Solnit’s outlook on Orwell widened and softened after she concluded that his deep appreciation for some of life’s cozier pleasures – including home comforts, natural landscaping, and gardening – sustains and pervades him. Job. Rereading his books and essays, she writes: “I found another Orwell, whose views seem to balance his cold view of the political monster.”
Orwell’s Roses is both a biographical study of this freedom fighter, an impressive piece of cultural and literary criticism, and a testament to the Sun’s all-round curiosity. Known for her penchant for deviations and deviations, Solnit does not disregard the ranks as she simultaneously explores the roots of Orwell’s prolific literary production and the fertile history of roses.
One of the many works Solnit returns to is Orwell’s 1946 essay “A Good Word for Priest Bray,” which, among other things, touches on the idea that planting a tree is a “botanical contribution to posterity.” Realizing one of her literary inclinations, she praises the work as “a triumph of sinuous movements.”
Orwell’s Roses is just such a triumph, the delight of retreats. This is in part because Solnit loves good stories, but also because, especially in this book, she skillfully trains her offshoots on a subsidiary grid: Orwell’s chronological lifespan (1903-50). Then she connects her story, repeating the first line of her book at the beginning of many chapters: “In the spring of 1936, the writer planted roses.”
Among the less anticipated forays by Solnit is a chapter on the fascination of Ralph Lauren’s 1980s Anglophilic calico cabbage roses fabrics that “lured from a never-existing land of an idealized past, a pastoral and heavenly past.” Another exciting path leads to the career of Tina Modotti, a photographer and ardent supporter of revolutionaries, whose teacher and married lover Edward Weston followed her from California to revolutionary Mexico in 1923. It was a year before Modotti directed Roses, Mexico City. »Her sensual modernist close-up of four white flowers in different stages of disclosure. By 1931, Modotti had abandoned art and roses and moved to Moscow to support Stalin’s Russia – a repressive regime, as Solnit makes clear, who later played an important role in Orwell’s work, including 1984.
Not everything works out in this study. Solnit’s pursuit of the origin of Orwell’s cherished flowers leads her to some dark places. Like Britain’s dependence on coal, the loss of life Orwell reported in Roads to Wigan Pier, the Western world’s love for roses has spawned another destructive and violent industry. In 2019, Solnit took a rare tour of one of the rose factories that was supposed to replace coca production in Bogota, Colombia. The dire working conditions she describes in the country’s huge greenhouses, which supply about 80% of the roses sold in the United States, could scare you off your next Valentine’s Day bouquet. “The modern world is full of things that look beautiful and are crafted in horrible ways,” she writes.
Solnit also explores Orwell’s deep family ties to colonialism. She learns that the harsh truth is that “Orwell descended from the colonists and servants of the empire, who lived off the fat of foreign land and labor.” Eric Blair, who took on a pseudonym at age 30, was born in India in 1903, where his father worked in the production of opium, an insidious “counterbalancing commodity” designed to offset British imports from China. Another somewhat inconvenient truth: instead of going to university after a failed performance at Eton (where he studied on a scholarship), Orwell worked for five years during the 1920s as a police officer for the British Imperial Service in Burma. This helped shape his political consciousness and led to his first novel, Burmese Days (1934), a dark portrait of the dying British rule.
Praiseworthy, Solnita’s tribute to Orwell does not ignore his “significant blind spots” in relation to gender, including his failure to review the books of women writers or to recognize “how marriages and families can become miniature authoritarian regimes.” She notes that he was “better at recognizing racism,” although he was a product of his age, “strategically oblivious to the inequalities that we have since worked hard to recognize.”
The central premise of Orwell’s Roses is that the strength and effectiveness of Orwell’s warnings of constant threats to totalitarianism to freedom, human rights, language, and truth were enriched by his strong, deep-seated commitment to “what he valued and desired.” Among them, as Solnit states in his humanizing portrait, was the peaceful kingdom of edible and ornamental plants that he so passionately cultivated at home.
McAlpin reviews books for The Times, NPR, Wall Street Journal and others.