Orwell’s Many-Thorned Bomb Shelter: A Conversation with Rebecca Solnit

October 13, 2021   •   By Andrea Hoag

THE YEAR WAS 1984 and I was 14 years old. Raised by kind, gentle people, I was poorly prepared for the monochromatic hellscape of junior high. Reacting as I always did when faced with anything unpleasant, I escaped into the emotional bomb shelter of books. Then I discovered Orwell.


My class was in the unique position of reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in the year 1984. For a girl whose only experience of a totalitarian regime was that experienced within the nightmarish hallways of eighth grade, Orwell’s rich sequences of Technicolor prose proved a welcome escape.


Rebecca Solnit’s new book, Orwell’s Roses, is less a biography of the great novelist’s political theories and journalistic peregrinations than a pure celebration of the rich natural world found within Orwell’s writing.


Plagued by lifelong illness, the writer pushed himself to the outer limits of physical stamina to report from war-torn territories, experiences that solidified his horror of tyranny. In the spare, elegant prose we’ve learned to expect from Solnit, she details the myriad ways Orwell managed to find beauty in even the ugliest of places. Likewise, she pushes readers to treasure the small moments of grace to be found in the natural world, even now, in the face of climate catastrophes and global unrest.


I was grateful for the chance to speak to Rebecca Solnit on the phone.


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ANDREA HOAG: Before we discuss the book, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you a question about the writing life. What would your advice be to a young writer right now, just starting out?


REBECCA SOLNIT: If you aren’t going to make your living from your writing, I think the question must be: What’s most compatible with writing?


Contrary to popular belief, adjunct teaching is not necessarily it. I’ve always thought that there are a lot of stable, well-paid jobs outside the “pyramid scheme of academia.” I’ve often thought that’s what I would recommend to people: find something that doesn’t devour the energies you need for your work.


I really never expected to make a living at writing. I had an editorial job out of grad school and expected to have a day job editing or something like that for the rest of my life. I left a job like that in 1988, and I just haven’t gotten around to getting another job since then. Thirty-three years this month, actually.


Congratulations!


Thank you. It’s a great surprise to me. I actually feel fortunate in some ways that everyone had very low expectations for me. I was just happy to reach another increment and another increment. I’m sure you’ve met a lot of young men who thought they were going to write the great American novel or otherwise were hugely ambitious, then they weren’t interested in doing all the necessary stuff in between, and so they just … didn’t.


With me, I began by publishing 800-word pieces, which was so exciting. Then I built up to 1,500-word pieces, which felt amazing. Then I did a 5,000-word piece. When I wrote my first book, I was terrified I wouldn’t find that doable. I told myself: if I can write an essay, I can write a chapter. Essentially, 17 chapters was like writing 17 essays and I realized I could do it. One thing led to another.


In Orwell’s Roses, there is a discussion of an essay of his, “Why I Write,” in which he discusses his desire to maintain his childhood worldview. You just mentioned people having low expectations of you. In spite of that, have you managed to maintain your own baseline childhood worldview?


Yes and no. Before I learned to read, I was in love with places in the natural world. I was in love with stories. And then I learned how to read and fell in love with books and the autonomous access to stories. Pretty soon I was writing them myself. So, in that way, very little has changed.


I was brought up with a kind of dismal misogyny and with what I think of often in relation to my family — and a lot of other people — as the capitalism of the heart. In other words, the less you give, the more you have. That way of thinking comes from an inner poverty. I hope and aspire to have left that behind me. But my interests from childhood are still there.


The childhood interests Orwell was talking about were his passion for the natural world. He had that in great intensity as a child and never lost that. It was with him until the end. He died with a fishing rod in his hospital room, hoping to fish at the sanatorium he was supposed to fly off to.


There are so many things that, in my mind, and I’m assuming yours, too, he got dead-right, but the one thing that did surprise me, not only in Orwell’s Roses, but in other biographies I’ve read, was that he did not treat his first wife, Eileen, quite as well as he might have, something he readily admitted. In the book, you quote a letter she wrote early in the marriage that I confess I found humorous. Eileen apologizes to the recipient for not having written sooner, but she’d been so busy with Orwell she assumed she would have to wait for the “murder or the separation” before she could dash off a few lines. Having said that, should we institute some sort of statute of limitations on great men of the past who behaved poorly? How do we reconcile his personal limitations?


You know, they were pretty committed to each other! She was writing him loving letters on her deathbed. He was devastated when she died. As he said to a friend, it was a real marriage, meaning they were really connected and committed. He wasn’t always faithful. Orwell himself said he could have been better, which is more than a lot of men ever admit, as we all know.


But I don’t think this is Norman Mailer, Picasso–level misogyny. I think it’s just ordinary selfishness, ordinary opportunism, and for me, it didn’t make a huge impact. Like Orwell said of Gandhi, “Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”


He wasn’t a saint, but he was also not a horrible person as far as I could tell, and the record is full of men who were. And you know, the recent controversy about the Philip Roth biography business was really very much about that: men who genuinely hate women, who harm and disempower them. Orwell was not by any measure a feminist — he could have learned a lot more from his suffragist aunts — but I do think he was a fundamentally decent person.


Since you mentioned the scandal surrounding Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth biography, as soon as I heard it was being pulled from the shelves, I quickly downloaded the audiobook version. I suppose when someone tells me I’m not going to be able to read a book, the first thing I’m going to do is rush out and read it. But I have to ask: Where do you stand on even entertaining the idea of reading an author like Blake Bailey, accused of some fairly egregious things where women are concerned? Did you read it? Would you read it?


I did not read it, mainly because I dislike Philip Roth. I don’t want to spend more time with him. I do think it’s hilarious Roth picked his own biographer, kind of rigging the game, assuming someone he chose would look favorably on things they shouldn’t. It feels like history played a huge joke on Roth, in that the person he thought would treat him well turned out to be accused of some pretty horrific behavior toward women. I have to say I kind of enjoyed the scandal.


The karmic justice of it.


But it’s not even like it happened accidentally. I think Roth wanted someone who would “go light” on his misogyny, and who better to go light on a misogynist than another misogynist? This is an era in which we occasionally punish misogynists for their misogyny. So there you go, all tied up with a bow!


It feels really perfect in terms of cementing Roth’s legacy.


[Laughs.] Lots of cement!


You note that Orwell believed paradise was behind him.


There are always exceptions to “everyone is either X or Y,” but most writers are either utopians or arcadians. Utopians believe that technology and the manipulation of nature will bring about a better world, and that way of thinking was a huge force in Orwell’s time. This idea that came from so many places, from the hyper-capitalists (remember, Diego Rivera was painting for Ford and Rockefeller!), to the Soviet Union, was that we were going to conquer nature itself, and industrialize and create this world that had never existed before. Of course, there were always people who were skeptical of it, who felt that small societies, traditional societies, earth-bound societies, were better. William Morris, for example, thought this way, and I think Orwell had a great deal in common with him. It wasn’t that they were thinking about the limits on social roles; Orwell was not nostalgic for feudalism, but he was very cognizant of the fact that women fared far better in the intact, pre-enclosure peasantry than they did in the industrial era. The standard of living went down, self-determination decreased, and a lot of traditional culture went downhill.


He was not nostalgic for feudalism and traditional roles and hierarchy. He was cognizant of what people wanted to escape about the past, but also thought the old agrarian world was better than the new industrial world. I think there are a lot of ways we can agree with him, especially as we sit here on the brink of climate catastrophe.


I was just speaking with an Englishman this weekend about the Britain that I think young people don’t remember: London was black with coal. Glasgow, which I visited in 1976 when I was 15, was black with coal. Even in the early ’80s when I reached Dublin, it was black with coal smoke. There was just this sheer direct toxic foulness about that old coal era.


One of the things I found quite amusing when I was writing this book is that most people think that moving to a remote Scottish island was some kind of suicidal madness for Orwell, as if staying in London would have been the perfectly reasonable thing to do. London in those years had an air quality comparable to modern-day Shanghai or New Delhi.


He moved to a place with very clean fresh air. Very far from medical care and everything else, but for a man suffering from lifelong respiratory illnesses, London would have been an incredibly deadly place.


Two years later, the “great smog” would kill, they estimate now, approximately 12,000 people. Another happened right before he left, in 1946.


Yet even so, those days almost appear to be an Eden looking back from a contemporary 2021 perspective. Without being too depressing, do you feel any optimism that our current environmental efforts, such as they are, will make a difference?


I work on climate issues, I’m on the board of Oil Change International, a major climate activist group, and I’ve been paying a lot of careful attention to the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and the report that was just released.


As I wrote in Orwell’s Roses, even though you had the organized toxicity of coal burning in densely populated regions, in Orwell’s time we had not yet burned enough fossil fuels to raise the parts per million of carbon above a safe level. I was born 11 years after he died. For perspective, the maximum safe level defined by Professor James Hansen is 350 parts per million, which is why the environmental group 350.org chose that number as its name.


That was before Rachel Carson, and a lot of people were dumping toxins into rivers. There were no pollution controls in his time, and human beings were recklessly “fouling the nest,” but it hadn’t progressed to the point it has now. The Amazon was still intact. The polar ice caps seemed permanently stable. The pH of the ocean hadn’t begun to shift. There were environmental problems in Orwell’s time, but climate change was not one of them.


It’s a very separate topic from the book, but the IPCC report that just came out depicts the dire situation we are in, and for people following the scientific information all along this wasn’t really new information, yet they do talk about the possibility that we can stop and reverse it if we do what we know that we should do, and do it now. Climate organizers know how to do it, and all the obstacles to these changes are political. We need to destroy the fossil fuel industry and stop the use of fossil fuels in the next decade. We need to go carbon neutral. If we can protect enough forests and plant enough trees and go beyond being carbon neutral, we could actually reverse climate change.


It really just depends on whether we have the popular will to do it. It is obviously a long-shot at this point, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible.


I never describe myself as an optimist. An optimist is someone who thinks things will be all right no matter what. It is the flip side of being a pessimist, which means thinking everything will be bad no matter what. What I am is hopeful. Being hopeful means there are possibilities, but it is up to us to seize them and make something of them. We will see.


It is actually Glasgow, that town that was so black from coal when I saw it in the 1970s, where the UN climate change conference COP26 will happen early November, and the world needs to make a massive commitment at that point. We are running out of time. We are not out of time. But we are running out of time.


Returning to the book, you discuss a scene in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory where the lifetime lepidopterist encounters a fellow hiker emerging from the woods and asks if he’d seen many butterflies on the trail. The hiker replies: “None!” and Nabokov goes on to see beautiful swarms of butterflies during his walk.


I first read Speak, Memory when I was young, and that was such a memorable passage for me because it’s such a beautiful illustration of the principle that “you see what you are looking for.” This relates to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which I first read as a teenager, and have reread many times since. It was really extraordinary to go back and read it again with the “new equipment” of having a sense of an Arcadian Orwell, Orwell the passionate gardener, someone who is not nearly as grim and pessimistic as he’s always been made out to be. Rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four and finding that, although the torture is still there, the totalitarianism is still there, the propaganda is still there, the counter he offers is not just resistance to that in the blankest way, but these moments of pleasure Winston Smith seizes that are all so often moments of beauty, moments in the natural world. It was surprising to find out, on this reading, how lush the novel was, how it describes a range of pleasures that mattered to Winston Smith and mattered to Orwell … from the golden country to the coral paperweight, to the birds singing.


And going back to read Nineteen Eighty-Four again, I found that it actually really lined up with that different sense of Orwell I’d gained by running into his roses. I asked myself: what does it mean that this famous voice against totalitarianism planted roses and was a great gardener and lover of the natural world? These little moments are the antidote to Big Brother’s world … these little cracks in the totalitarian world in which you have erotic and emotional life and love and action and a life of the senses and these things that are beautiful.


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Andrea Hoag’s writing has appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Los Angeles Times, among others. After more than 20 years as a book critic, she is completing her first novel.