Reviews: Orwell’s Political Ideals, Around the World in 80 Words

Browser reviews: Revolution and Civil War in Dublin, Tell them of battles, kings and elephants

Liberty, Equality and Humbug: Orwell’s Political Ideals

David Dwan
OUP, £25

George Orwell is "part of the political vocabulary of our times" but "what he stands for remains opaque". David Dwan seeks to explain what he sees as Orwell's inconsistencies "by exploring the broader moral conflict at the centre of his work". He was a "political thinker" rather than a "political philosopher", lacking the neutrality and coherence of the latter. Dwan devotes a chapter each to the "core values" of liberty, equality, solidarity, truth and happiness, which he believes were the "basic grammar" of Orwell's politics. He could forcefully express contradictory views in some of his remarkable "ideological pivots". Although he believed art should be above politics, he thought his own writing stronger when informed by political ends. Indeed, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he invented the term that encapsulates this approach: doublethink. Dwan makes the case that the novel as a form attracted him because it presented "a home for his uncertainties, allowing them to take refuge in its . . . plurality of voices". Inconsistency may not be bad as it shows a receptive mind ever open to reconsidering.
Brian Maye

Around the World in 80 Words

Paul Anthony Jones
Elliott and Thompson, £12.99

"What makes a place so memorable that it survives forever in a word?" PA Jones travels five continents to find out. Some of the words explored are obscure and indeed practically extinct but most aren't and many have surprising geographical origins. "Vaudeville" comes from what were originally "bawdy accompaniments to drunken binges" in the vau-de-Vire, a town in west Normandy; "cravat" from Croatia; "coach" from the little Hungarian village of Kócs; "copper" from Cyprus; "buggery" (originally a word for religious dissent) from the same Latin origin as Bulgaria, and "dollar" from silver coins originally mined in Joachimsthal (called "joachimsthalers" and then just "thalers") in Bohemia. Words such as "balaclava" (from that place-name in Crimea), "port" (from Porto in Portugal) and "sherry" (from Jerez in Spain) are probably well known. Ireland provided the origin of the five-line rhyming "limerick" and "donnybrook" for a scene of uproar and disorder, as Donnybrook's famous 600-year fair turned into. But whether well known or not, what is fascinating is the stories behind the items.
Brian Maye

Revolution and Civil War in Dublin - An Illustrated History, 1918 - 1923

John Gibney
Collins Press, €27.99

It is said that one picture is worth a thousand words - and perhaps even a history lesson. Printed on beautiful paper, this book is a history lesson in itself from posters and programmes from the productions showing at the Gaiety and Abbey theatres in 1918 to a poster from 1923 for a benefit in aid of the "Santa Claus Fund" for poor Dublin children. The poster for the French play at the Gaiety, Damaged Goods, carried a warning, "Adults Only", as it was about syphilis. The armed conflicts inevitably loom large in the book. Raids, rallies, searches, arrests, dead bodies, burning buildings and British soldiers lounging around between patrols are shown. It is surprising to see how many scores of British soldiers were sent to search a house or office, or perhaps make an arrest. Perhaps the most jarring pictures of the book are the photos in Mountjoy Prison in 1921 of two young, soon-to-be-executed (and thrown into a prison grave) IRA prisoners smiling and joking with their "Auxie" guards.
Frank MacGabhann

Tell them of battles, kings and elephants

Mathias Enard
Fitzcarraldo Editions £10.99

In this beguiling novella Enard takes the historical bones of Michelangelo's sojourn in 16th century Constantinople and makes the artist flesh. The story of Il Maestro's invitation from the sultan to design a bridge over the Golden Horn is beautifully wrought in its simplicity - credit must go to Charlotte Mandell's translation - with a perfectly paced narrative that reaches a dramatic denouement.


Enard sketches Michelangelo's contrasting characteristics with economy: from creative inspiration to the banality of compiling lists; his huge temper and suspiciousness, his openness and tenderness. Our empathy is formed in the artist's flaws and failings as he experiences the exoticism of the Ottoman Empire; all the while contemplating bridges, both literal and metaphorical, and what runs beneath. Enard's taut prose carries the reader swiftly and satisfyingly through chapters (which are more like fragments, really) to the extent that one does not wish for the tale to end. Upon closing the book one feels like reading it again. I did. Enard won the 2015 Prix Goncourt for Compass. He is a writer worth discovering.
NJ McGarrigle

Reading Machiavelli: Scandalous Books, Suspect Engagements & the Virtue of Populist Politics

John P McCormick
Princeton University Press

In the field of Machiavelli studies Prof John P McCormick of the University of Chicago is one of the best in the business. His new book is entitled Reading Machiavelli and he intends it "to serve as an endeavour in interpretation and counterinterpretation" and chooses to focus on three interpretations of Machiavelli: those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Leo Strauss (1899-1973) and the Cambridge School.
McCormick makes the case that "a fierce populism seeded all of Machiavelli's political writings, one that manifested itself in radically democratic institutional prescriptions". These days "populism" has come to be regarded as a "dirty word" so it is noteworthy that McCormick uses it in a positive way.
The chapter on Leo Strauss is particularly strong. Strauss was the author of Thoughts on Machiavelli. Although McCormick describes that as "staggeringly impressive and ceaselessly provocative" he argues that Strauss did not understand Machiavelli's commitment to democracy.
A criticism that might be levelled is that the chapters are arguably somewhat disjointed but McCormick's book is definitely a must-read.
Michael Sanfey

Blowing the Bloody Doors Off

Michael Caine
Hodder and Stoughton, £20

Michael Caine has already published two autobiographies, so this might be considered a part-memoir where he gives us the benefits of life lessons learned along the way. Despite his enormous success, he acknowledges that the 1960s were good for aspiring white working-class actors like him, that there were thousands of others, as good if not better, who didn't get the breaks, and that women and people of colour had to wait decades more for the same opportunities. Success didn't come easily and among the lessons learned were: "Learn what you can from what you get"; "Be lucky: be prepared"; "Use the difficulty", and "Whatever it is, give it 100 per cent". Luck helped but he shows us how hard he worked and that he never took anything for granted. Although the lessons can become a bit tedious at times, overall he comes across as a likeable, grounded and decent person who tells us to treat everyone with respect and value our loved ones as they're most important in our lives - not the fame and all that goes with it.
Brian Maye