Wrestling with Orwell: Ian McEwan on the art of the political novel

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When George Orwell travelled to Spain in the winter of 1936 to fight General Franco and the fascists, he stopped en route in Paris, where Henry Miller gave him his coat. The two men could not have been more different: the passionately political Englishman, and the American who disdained of all forms of activism. As Ian McEwan writes: “In a letter to Lawrence Durrell he wrote that he knew he could head off the rise of Nazism... if he could just get five minutes alone with Adolf Hitler and make him laugh.”

The encounter inspired Orwell’s 1939 essay “Inside the Whale”, in which he defended Miller’s freedom to refuse political engagement. Should a novelist insulate themselves from bigger, harder realities (ie, write from “inside the whale”) or confront a bleak political landscape face-on (write “outside the whale”)? Orwell, McEwan argues, managed the unusual trick of doing both – a tension that informs books such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.

Adapted from his compelling 2021 Orwell Memorial Lecture, McEwan’s essay looks at the choices he and other novelists have made about writing – and about living – in a time of crisis. How removed from politics can a 21st-century writer be now that “even inside the whale there is ultra-fast broadband”?


Endnote: This article was first published in the New Statesman on 9 December. It was adapted from the 2021 Orwell Memorial Lecture, delivered on 26 November 2021 and organised by the Orwell Foundation.

You can read the text version here.

Read by Adrian Bradley.


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