Will Self & Orwell: who is right?

Will Self is in the news again, making out that George Orwell was a literary mediocrity and that his views on the importance of plain writing are plain wrong. (1)   You can imagine midlife pedants across the country, the kind who write letters to Private Eye’s Pedantry Corner about split infinitives and the misuse of the apostrophe, spitting out their cornflakes in fury. The fact that Will has a new novel out is of course a coincidence.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Will Self and his books. We need cheeky ageing punks to liven things up a bit. But he does remind me of a clever sixth-former who has just discovered Oscar Wilde. Take the article.

Orwell’s fifth rule was: never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Self breaks this rule twice in his piece, I am sure deliberately and mischeviously. Firstly:

‘…radio stations broadcasting their tepid lucubrations…’ And: ‘…whose dark countenance is lit up by brilliant fulguration…’

I have two dictionaries, an Oxford Paperback and a brick of an Oxford hardback. Neither words are in the paperback so I had to consult the full weight version, which I try and avoid as I think I must be developing arthritis in my fingers after all those years rock climbing. Lucubration derives from the latin lucubere to work by candlelight. Fulguration means flash like lightning and is derived from the latin fulgere to shine. So I’ve learned something. Well, no, what I’ve learned is that the latin-derived words are an irritation – I didn’t go to public school and don’t understand latin, and I had to break off from reading to consult a dictionary. I also learned that English equivalents would have been much better.  Something like ‘whose dark countenance is lit up by a flash of lightning’. I am not sure how anyone could work by candlelight on the radio so can’t help with that one.

It is true that Orwell’s ordinary novels – eg Keep the Aspidistra Flying – aren’t particularly good, and that his political novels 1984 and Animal Farm are a bit didactic. But his journalistic books – eg Down and Out in Paris and London – are brilliant. And his essays are wonderful. I re-read them when I’m feeling down.  One of the best is Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool. Tolstoy hated Shakespeare, in particular Ling Lear. Orwell digs out the truth – that Tolstoy made similar mistakes to King Lear in his own life and didn’t like to be reminded about it. If Orwell was alive today, no doubt he would write a riposte to Will Self along the lines of ‘that’s what a guru of modernism who is really an ex public schoolboy who loves to show off and use long words would say, wouldn’t he?’

Needless to say, I will buy and read Will Self’s new novel ‘Shark’. Bugger, the plan worked.