George Orwell outside the whale

Ian McEwan in New Statesman:

I’ll start with a place, a Paris apartment in Montparnasse, and a date, 23 December 1936, and a gift from one writer to another of his corduroy jacket which, from the point of view of the recipient, may have had a few traces of whale blubber attached to its lapels. The generous donor was the American writer Henry Miller. He thought his visitor, George Orwell, on his way to Spain to fight in the civil war, would benefit from its warmth through the Spanish winter, though he pointed out that it was not bulletproof. The present, Miller said, was his contribution to the loyalist anti-fascist cause.

The encounter between the two men (the American was almost 45, the Englishman 33) had been well smoothed in advance by Orwell’s positive review of Miller’s novel, Tropic of Cancer, which was followed by a collegiate exchange of letters. The meeting presents us with a tableau vivant and source for the heart of Orwell’s celebrated essay “Inside the Whale”, published in book form just over three years later in 1940 by Gollancz. Despite a fair degree of mutual admiration, these two writers had much to disagree about. Henry Miller, self-exiled, strenuously bohemian, a cultural pessimist, hedonist, tirelessly sexually active – or tiresomely, as second wave feminists would point out through the Seventies. He had a profound disregard for politics and political activism of any kind. As a writer, he was, by Orwell’s definition, “inside the whale”. Such political views as Miller had were naive and self-regarding and light-hearted. In a letter to Lawrence Durrell he wrote that he knew he could head off the rise of Nazism and the threat of war if he could just get five minutes alone with Adolf Hitler and make him laugh.

More here.