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Orwell's Nose: A Pathological Biography

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In 2012 writer John Sutherland permanently lost his sense of smell. At about the same time, he embarked on a rereading of George Orwell and—still coping with his recent disability—noticed something peculiar: Orwell was positively obsessed with smell. In this original, irreverent biography, Sutherland offers a fresh account of Orwell’s life and works, one that sniffs out a In 2012 writer John Sutherland permanently lost his sense of smell. At about the same time, he embarked on a rereading of George Orwell and—still coping with his recent disability—noticed something peculiar: Orwell was positively obsessed with smell. In this original, irreverent biography, Sutherland offers a fresh account of Orwell’s life and works, one that sniffs out a unique, scented trail that wends from Burmese Days through Nineteen Eighty-Four and on to The Road to Wigan Pier.             Sutherland airs out the odors, fetors, stenches, and reeks trapped in the pages of Orwell’s books. From Winston Smith’s apartment in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which “smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats,” to the tantalizing aromas of concubine Ma Hla May’s hair in Burmese Days, with its “mingled scent of sandalwood, garlic, coconut oil, and jasmine,” Sutherland explores the scent narratives that abound in Orwell’s literary world. Along the way, he elucidates questions that have remained unanswered in previous biographies, addressing gaps that have kept the writer elusively from us. In doing so, Sutherland offers an entertaining but enriching look at one of the most important writers of the twentieth century and, moreover, an entirely new and sensuous way to approach literature: nose first.  


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In 2012 writer John Sutherland permanently lost his sense of smell. At about the same time, he embarked on a rereading of George Orwell and—still coping with his recent disability—noticed something peculiar: Orwell was positively obsessed with smell. In this original, irreverent biography, Sutherland offers a fresh account of Orwell’s life and works, one that sniffs out a In 2012 writer John Sutherland permanently lost his sense of smell. At about the same time, he embarked on a rereading of George Orwell and—still coping with his recent disability—noticed something peculiar: Orwell was positively obsessed with smell. In this original, irreverent biography, Sutherland offers a fresh account of Orwell’s life and works, one that sniffs out a unique, scented trail that wends from Burmese Days through Nineteen Eighty-Four and on to The Road to Wigan Pier.             Sutherland airs out the odors, fetors, stenches, and reeks trapped in the pages of Orwell’s books. From Winston Smith’s apartment in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which “smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats,” to the tantalizing aromas of concubine Ma Hla May’s hair in Burmese Days, with its “mingled scent of sandalwood, garlic, coconut oil, and jasmine,” Sutherland explores the scent narratives that abound in Orwell’s literary world. Along the way, he elucidates questions that have remained unanswered in previous biographies, addressing gaps that have kept the writer elusively from us. In doing so, Sutherland offers an entertaining but enriching look at one of the most important writers of the twentieth century and, moreover, an entirely new and sensuous way to approach literature: nose first.  

30 review for Orwell's Nose: A Pathological Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Terri

    Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) was born in 1903 in Motihari, Benghal Presidency, British India. Maybe it was the smells of India that would transport him to another place but in Orwell's books, smells of all kinds were important. He used them over and over again to describe his characters and where they lived. The good and the horrid, it didn't seem to matter. After reading this book, I believe that Orwell was a HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) which would explain his noticing his environment to Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) was born in 1903 in Motihari, Benghal Presidency, British India. Maybe it was the smells of India that would transport him to another place but in Orwell's books, smells of all kinds were important. He used them over and over again to describe his characters and where they lived. The good and the horrid, it didn't seem to matter. After reading this book, I believe that Orwell was a HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) which would explain his noticing his environment to such a complex degree as he does in his writing. Professor John Sutherland does a fine job in spelling out the smaller (more gossipy) details of Orwell's life story. Much of it I was familar with, he covers his childhood, family, friends, his health and work habits. What I didn't know about was Orwell's courage and candor in his writing, for he did not seem to care who he offended. Orwell was also brave in that he stood by his "truth" even if others strongly disagreed with him. I have always been a fan of George Orwell's writing, since I was a young teen, but now I want to go back and re-read his books and look for the smell clues that the author writes about. I gave this book a four star review.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Charles Finch

    Provocative, smart, and certainly not hidebound - Sutherland, though he's a great scholar, is willing to take intuitive leaps. Some of them pay off (I've never read a better account of Eileen O'Shaugnessy) and others less so (his argument for Orwell's various sexual fetishes is suggestive at best). But the book is fast, fun, bright, anecdotally brilliant, and never boring. Perfect for a lover of Orwell who already knows many of the basics. Provocative, smart, and certainly not hidebound - Sutherland, though he's a great scholar, is willing to take intuitive leaps. Some of them pay off (I've never read a better account of Eileen O'Shaugnessy) and others less so (his argument for Orwell's various sexual fetishes is suggestive at best). But the book is fast, fun, bright, anecdotally brilliant, and never boring. Perfect for a lover of Orwell who already knows many of the basics.

  3. 5 out of 5

    SheAintGotNoShoes

    Overall an interesting and informative book but my interest was waning in the last third. It is the kind of book where anybody can just pick up and enjoy. It is a book that expects that you would know things about communism, socialism, Burma, India, his contemporaries, etc. He uses a ton of parenthesis in order to explain or clarify things, but they are of no use if you do not know much or anything about the subject matter written.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Neale

    ‘Orwell’s Nose’ is not so much a biography of Orwell as an extended essay on his life with particular regard to his highly-developed sense of smell – it is like one of those critical essays which consider a writer’s work in relation to a certain theme, but in this case the life figures as well. There are no new revelations, but Sutherland has read the biographies thoroughly, and the works themselves with the devotion of a lifetime. The pleasure of this book is its quirkiness, its clear-sightedne ‘Orwell’s Nose’ is not so much a biography of Orwell as an extended essay on his life with particular regard to his highly-developed sense of smell – it is like one of those critical essays which consider a writer’s work in relation to a certain theme, but in this case the life figures as well. There are no new revelations, but Sutherland has read the biographies thoroughly, and the works themselves with the devotion of a lifetime. The pleasure of this book is its quirkiness, its clear-sightedness and the author’s willingness to be personal and opinionated. One of the author’s quirks is a determination to read the novels strictly as autobiography – if, for example, Orwell gives a character an unsympathetic wife, this is seen as a kind of rebuff to his own wife, who was far from unsympathetic. Overall, Orwell as a human being does not come out of the book very well – one can see why he was chary of biography. As an approach to life-writing, Sutherland’s ‘pathological’ approach is interesting, and could be widely applied – I would like a read ‘Gogol’s Nose’, which would consider the primary importance to the life and work of the great Russian satirist of his gigantic hooter…

  5. 4 out of 5

    Debbie Young

    I seized this book enthusiastically off the library shelf, intrigued by its premise and eager to read more about one of my writing heroes from a quirky and creative viewpoint, but I confess, I wimped out and didn't finish it - not because there was anything fundamentally wrong with the book, but because I have a very powerful sense of smell and the strong scents described in the narrative were making me feel queasy! I know, I'm a wimp. But well done to John Sutherland on an engaging, fresh and a I seized this book enthusiastically off the library shelf, intrigued by its premise and eager to read more about one of my writing heroes from a quirky and creative viewpoint, but I confess, I wimped out and didn't finish it - not because there was anything fundamentally wrong with the book, but because I have a very powerful sense of smell and the strong scents described in the narrative were making me feel queasy! I know, I'm a wimp. But well done to John Sutherland on an engaging, fresh and attention-grabbing approach that will probably win new readers for Orwell as well as gratifying established fans always eager for more.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Elaine

    A gossipy, unpleasant look at GeorgeOrwell’s life, focussing on Orwell’s sensitivity to smell. I felt that the writer overlooked Orwell’s genius as a writer, and really only looked at his less attractive personal traits. Very poor taste comments about some women in his life with salacious speculation on their lives. This could be very hurtful to descendants/their families and tributes nothing to our understanding or appreciation of Orwell’s ideas and writing. Shame Mr Sutherland.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    Sutherland isn't really an Orwell fan - the highest praise he reserves for Orwell's enjoyment of fishing, which wouldn't even be in the top fifty things to recommend Orwell. But its biographical detail is up to date, and to the degree there is analysis it compares Orwell's own claims to the surviving evidence, generously or otherwise. Sutherland isn't really an Orwell fan - the highest praise he reserves for Orwell's enjoyment of fishing, which wouldn't even be in the top fifty things to recommend Orwell. But its biographical detail is up to date, and to the degree there is analysis it compares Orwell's own claims to the surviving evidence, generously or otherwise.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Connelly

    There have been many Orwell biographies and memoirs. John Sutherland, a latecomer to the field, explores a dimension neglected by the others. Sutherland calls his book a ‘pathological biography’. Orwell was possessed by an acute sense of how things and people smell. Though Orwell’s pathologies were not confined to his acute sense of smell - ‘hyperosmia’ is the technical name for the condition - it is his hyperosmia that dominates Sutherland’s account of his life. Orwell’s Nose is suffused by sme There have been many Orwell biographies and memoirs. John Sutherland, a latecomer to the field, explores a dimension neglected by the others. Sutherland calls his book a ‘pathological biography’. Orwell was possessed by an acute sense of how things and people smell. Though Orwell’s pathologies were not confined to his acute sense of smell - ‘hyperosmia’ is the technical name for the condition - it is his hyperosmia that dominates Sutherland’s account of his life. Orwell’s Nose is suffused by smells. There are even, for readers who might have had enough by the end of the main text, two appendices which provide an olfactory obbligato or ‘smell narrative’ for A Clergyman’s Daughter and the ‘long trail of nauseating stink’ that runs through The Road to Wigan Pier. Sutherland is a retired professor of English literature and a prolific author and editor of standard literary texts, biographies and critical studies. He concedes that this late contribution to the extensive body of his published works may seem a ‘very strange’ project. Three years before publication, in the course of re-reading Orwell, Sutherland suddenly lost his own sense of smell. This late onset of anosmia cast Orwell’s novels, essays and polemical pieces in a new and illuminating light. (It is difficult to avoid visual metaphors when describing the olfactory dimension of Sutherland’s altered view of Orwell’s work.) He offers a biographical approach to his subject ‘from oblique, self-indulgent angles’. There is a pervasive sense of disgust with his fellow beings that runs, like a polluted stream, through Orwell’s corpus. He felt his own origins to be contemptible. Orwell was born in Bengal as Eric Arthur Blair, the son of a minor British civil servant and reared in England in what he later described with condescending precision as a ‘lower, upper middleclass’ home. The young Blair was elevated to Eton College by scholarships and the sacrifice of their own well-being by his parents and younger sister. Later, under his authorial pseudonym, chosen to commemorate the river Orwell where he enjoyed coarse fishing, he found his subject matter as a participant observer among the dispossessed and unwashed who gave him ample cause for disgust. Sutherland takes from Orwell’s classic study of poverty, The Road to Wigan Pier, an introductory epigraph: ‘four frightful words…the lower classes smell.’ Orwell himself, on the testimony of those who knew him well, stank of sour sweat, black shag tobacco and halitosis which made him turn his head aside in conversation, so as not to afflict others with his breath. Quite apart from the olfactory dimension, there is much to dislike about Orwell in Sutherland’s account of his life. He was a thankless leech to his family who nurtured his scholastic aptitude and sent him to Eton where he learned contempt for his origins. Though Orwell subsequently described Eton College as a ‘festering centre of snobbishness’ he sent Richard, his adopted son, to be schooled there and throughout his career called on an old boys’ network of wealthy and influential Etonians to rescue him from penury and promote his publications. He was a brutal and perfunctory lover, a persistent groper and grabber, always ready to betray his friends, if he could, by making sexual advances on their wives and girlfriends. He was a faithless husband, twice married, who reduced his wives, who were talented women in their own right, to drudgery and servitude in support of his own work. His fiction and social comment are remarkable for their savagery – a ‘vein of nastiness’, often directed against those closest to him, to whom he owed so much. He was, like DH Lawrence, a great hater. Both, incidentally, were taught by their mothers to despise their fathers. The unfairness and inaccuracy of much of his literary excoriation of family, teachers, lovers and friends brings Sutherland to the point of expressing a visceral dislike for Orwell who perpetrated some of his more pitiless and slanderous attacks, ‘coward that he was’ from hiding, behind his adopted pseudonym. On discovering a depiction of herself in one of the novels his first lover said she felt ‘torn limb from limb’. None of this detracts from his achievement as a writer. Distanced from others by mutual disgust he sacrificed himself to record, with clarity and sensory acuity, the cruel hypocrisies of what was, in retrospect, a particularly horrible period of human history. What sustained him, it seems, was a persistent fantasy of a lost rural England and bucolic joys of harvest and innocent love among the sheaves. He enjoyed the smell of agriculture and the smell of grazing ungulates but hated the omnivorous pig. The olfactory dimension in pervasive in Animal Farm, his despairing fable of socialism subverted. His enduring fame, says Sutherland, is his dystopian vision of humanity, expressed in prose that has the clarity of a windowpane on reality. Sutherland is predictably well informed and penetrating in descriptions of Orwell’s intellectual influences and cultural milieu. His account of Orwell’s relationship with William Empson, a poet and the ‘cleverest literary critic of the century’, is particularly illuminating. These two ‘supremely clever men’ engaged in extended and disputatious discussion about the nature of linguistic communication during the war years, when they worked from adjoining cubicles in the BBC. These disputes and discussions helped to crystallize their very different views on the nature of language. Sutherland suggests that Empson owed a debt to these discussions in his 1951 monograph, The Structure of Complex Words, published in the year following Orwell’s death. Orwell’s famous essay, Politics and the English Language and his subsequent elaboration of Newspeak, the language of totalitarian dominance in 1984, owed a similar debt to the stimulation provided by Empson. In this last and most enduring of Orwell’s books, William Empson appears as Ampleforth, who is employed in the Ministry of Truth to bowdlerize ideologically unacceptable poetry. The intellectual relationship between Empson and Orwell at the BBC had its predictable concomitant. Orwell made a determined effort to seduce Empson’s fiancé who rejected him because of his smell.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Tom Allman

    ‘but it was shot through by a sharper reek of sweat, which -one knew this at the first sniff, though it was hard to say how -was the sweat of some person not present at the moment.’ This book is a Quirky and Snarky Treat! It is not like any other biography you will ever read, or likely will ever read. And, that is a great thing! Mr. Sutherland has managed to write an unforgettable picture of an unforgettable writer. Sutherland, who has permanently lost his sense of smell, examines Orwell's life ta ‘but it was shot through by a sharper reek of sweat, which -one knew this at the first sniff, though it was hard to say how -was the sweat of some person not present at the moment.’ This book is a Quirky and Snarky Treat! It is not like any other biography you will ever read, or likely will ever read. And, that is a great thing! Mr. Sutherland has managed to write an unforgettable picture of an unforgettable writer. Sutherland, who has permanently lost his sense of smell, examines Orwell's life tangentially, through his descriptions of the fascinating world around him. Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) is an incredibly fascinating person. His will stated that he wish no biographies. So any attempts were done without permission of his estate. It turns out, after reading this book, you will never read him the same again. Oh what a sense of smell! Here are some examples: 'Poverty is spiritual halitosis' 'four frightful words...The lower-classes smell'-the Road to Wigan Pier 'The hallway smelt of smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.' [Victory Gin] 'It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit.' ' "Communism" draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, "Nature Cure" quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.' 'Their[Burmese Women] slender flanks and pointed breasts... the odour of spices that clung to their satiny skins. I have read about half of Orwell’s books, and I'm working my way through the rest, and I must say that I hardly knew ye, Mr. Blair. If Mr. Sutherland writes more biographies like this, say on Marx or Conrad, I'm in. So many quotes, so little space. What I can say is that if you've only read 1984 and Animal Farm, you are missing out. If I could I would suggest 'Why I write', it's short and is all kinds of fantastic. 'Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship, and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you can remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win.'

  10. 5 out of 5

    Erin

    Although I had noticed Orwell's tendencies to use smell quite a lot in his novels, I had never really thought about it until reading this book. But Orwell wasn't just obsessed with smells (although it's his main sense that he focuses on) but concentrates on gross things in general. In Down and Out in Paris and London table and countertops are often greasy and waiters spit in the food at an upscale hotel. In A Clergyman's Daughter Dorothy watches a woman's saliva string and slobber from the commu Although I had noticed Orwell's tendencies to use smell quite a lot in his novels, I had never really thought about it until reading this book. But Orwell wasn't just obsessed with smells (although it's his main sense that he focuses on) but concentrates on gross things in general. In Down and Out in Paris and London table and countertops are often greasy and waiters spit in the food at an upscale hotel. In A Clergyman's Daughter Dorothy watches a woman's saliva string and slobber from the communion cup (my stomach turns at just thinking about that scene and typing it out). In A Road to Wigan Pier a woman wipes her mouth with greasy strips of newspapers and throws them on the ground in a pile. Gordon Comstock's rooms are freezing beyond belief in Keep the Aspidistra Flying; as well as the abuse he inflicts on the poor title plant in his flat. And the senses are often attacked constantly in Nineteen Eighty-Four; too many times to count. These are just the ones that stand out in my mind the most. Sutherland wasn't afraid to point out times when Orwell was a hypocrite or being silly, which I appreciated despite being a huge fan of Orwell's to the point of obsession. This isn't a detailed biography, those wanting that should look elsewhere---I recommend Bernard Crick (got the impression Sutherland doesn't like Crick's biography) or, recently, DJ Taylor. But it's an interesting and refreshingly new take on George Orwell.

  11. 4 out of 5

    David Linzee

    The "pathological biography" angle is sort of a gimmick. Yes, Orwell was good at describing smells (mostly stinks), and the author talks about that aspect of his work in the intro, and a couple of brief "smell narratives" at the end. In between, though, is a standard short bio that doesn't have all that much to say about Orwell's nose. Fortunately, it's an entertaining bio. Much of the credit goes to the subject. Author biographies are famously dull, being about people who mostly sit at home wri The "pathological biography" angle is sort of a gimmick. Yes, Orwell was good at describing smells (mostly stinks), and the author talks about that aspect of his work in the intro, and a couple of brief "smell narratives" at the end. In between, though, is a standard short bio that doesn't have all that much to say about Orwell's nose. Fortunately, it's an entertaining bio. Much of the credit goes to the subject. Author biographies are famously dull, being about people who mostly sit at home writing, but Orwell managed to lead a life full of ordeals and adventures while churning out an astonishing amount of great prose. Sutherland is lively, irreverent, and rather dirty-minded. He's out to undermine the saintly Orwell of literary critics from Trilling to Hitchens, and to explode the anti-Communist pro-Tory Orwell fabricated by the British establishment. It does eventually come out, though, that he admires Orwell's courage and candor. If George Orwell is your hero, as he is mine, you'll grumble a bit while reading this saucy book, but end up knowing that the author agrees with you. And you'll know a lot more than you did before.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Stewart Cotterill

    A strange book which lovingly deals with the smells that so fascinated Orwell in his private life and through those, that populate his work. A strange biography of sorts. It defies proper description really.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Graeme Stewart

    Sharply written and sharply observed, a fine biography of Orwell, warts and all. Tends towards gossip in places, but Sutherland has provided a fascinating thesis on the many motivations of an exceptional writer.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Edward Sullivan

    Eccentric, original, and entertainingly irreverent.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jon East

    A striking and amusing view into the life of George Orwell (born Eric Blair).

  16. 5 out of 5

    Yooperprof

    Inisightful, original, concise.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Josh

  18. 5 out of 5

    Anne Harvey

  19. 4 out of 5

    Susan Paxton

  20. 5 out of 5

    Darcy

  21. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  22. 4 out of 5

    Alexis

  23. 5 out of 5

    Gabriele Gregory

  24. 4 out of 5

    Colin P McDonald

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ian

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ben Kirwan

  27. 4 out of 5

    Daryl

  28. 5 out of 5

    Dr M J Ruddy

  29. 4 out of 5

    Povilas

  30. 4 out of 5

    Vesna Jusup

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