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216 × 138 × 25 mm
264 pages
40 illustrations
01 Aug 2016
  • £15.00

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Orwell’s Nose A Pathological Biography John Sutherland

In 2012 John Sutherland permanently lost his sense of smell. At about the same time he embarked on a re-reading of George Orwell’s works, and his lack of olfactory sense cast an entirely new light on the re-evaluation. What he now noticed was just how acutely attuned to scent Orwell was: rich descriptions of odours, fetors and reeks occur throughout his works, from Winston Smith’s apartment building in Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats’, to John Flory’s concubine Ma Hla May in Burmese Days: ‘A mingled scent of sandalwood, garlic, coconut oil and the jasmine in her hair floated from her.’

Orwell’s Nose is an original and imaginative account of the life and work of George Orwell, exploring the ‘scent narratives’ that abound in Orwell’s fiction and non-fiction. Along the way the author elucidates questions that remain unanswered in previous biographies, and addresses gaps in the evidence of the writer’s life and legacy. Orwell covered his tracks well; this illuminating and irreverent book provides a new understanding of one of our most iconic and influential writers.

‘Sutherland is able, with the straightest of faces, to talk about Coming Up For Air being the most aromatic of Orwell's novels a book that, his researches insist, fairly caresses the nostrils. A conventional academic critic which Sutherland is not would probably throw up his or her hands in horror at this insouciance, but it takes only the briefest saunter through the Eng Lit canon to establish that the University of Londons former Lord Northcliffe Professor is on to something, not merely in the matter of Orwells nose but with literary life in general.’ — DJ Taylor, The Times

‘This clever little book packs in a great deal: a prefatory essay on smell in literature, a breakneck biography of George Orwell and three quirky appendices including smell narratives of two of his books. Sutherland has an impressive nose for the pongs in Orwells prose . . . this biography is redolent, above all, of Sutherlands enduring enthusiasm for a writer he has been reading for more than half a century.’ — Sunday Times Culture

‘Having read three biographies on Orwell before, I wondered what more could be excavated from the bones of Eric Blair and his alter ego George with Orwells Nose. Sutherlands book is an excellent read though. Written with a breezy and freewheeling style, he skilfully manages to encapsulate the life of one of the 20th centurys most important writers in about a third of the word count of other books. The prose is infused with wry humour and apt judgment on Georges endeavours. If youve yet to read an Orwell biography, it is a fine starting point. If you cant resist all things Orwell, like me, then pinch your nose and dive in on this admirable portrait of a deeply flawed man with faultless prose.’ — Irish Times

Orwells Nose is highly readable in a quick, casual style with many felicities . . . this book sent me walking about nose aloft, like a Bisto Kid, hungry for (in Sutherlands phrase) lifes olfactions.’ — Financial Times

Orwells Nose is an olfactory cornucopia, a brilliant thematic biography and a compassionate exposure of an almost clean conscience in an invariably dirty age.’ — Wall Street Journal

‘In thispathological biography, a noted critic rereads Orwell and determines that the writer was born with a singularly diagnostic sense of smell. In addition to the infamous assertion in The Road to Wigan Pier that lower classes smell, Sutherland, who recently lost his own sense of smell, turns up other pungent landmarks of Orwells life.’ — New Yorker

‘irreverent, conjectural, even scurrilous, Sutherlands narrative delights in the funky underside of this most revered of literary figures, even as it clearly exhibits a continued affection for him.’ — LA Review of Books

Orwells Nose is well-suited to London-based Reaktion Books peerless list of offbeat but intellectually compelling titles. Compelling this pathological biography is. For an Orwell lover, just contemplating Sutherland teasing out what he calls the writers smell narratives, is to be pitched into the opening of 1984 and into a new appreciation of its literary, as opposed to political, power.’ — Macleans, Canada

‘As the title suggests, this entertaining and scholarly, if somewhat eccentric, biography examines the life and works of George Orwell through the lens of his olfactory preoccupations . . . What emerges is a rigorous, rollicking, and at times ribald portrait of the author, from his childhood born into a class neurotic about sanitation to the lower-class smell of his barracks as a British colonial policeman in Burma and his eventual marriage and purchase of a grand building, still smelling of oats and horse piss . . . The overall depiction is diligently researched and scrupulously evenhanded, with the two authors (perhaps) shared fixation providing a unique scaffolding for a fresh look at a luminary of English letters.’ — Publishers Weekly

‘As a literary critic, rather than a traditional biographer, Sutherland takes the surprisingly atypical approach of viewing the work as central to the life. The result is a relatively short book that captures the essence of Orwell better than the average 600-page biography . . . In the universe of smells that Sutherland presents, the smells of teak, of English pastures, of industrial poverty, and of dying humanity, it was the smell of a working typewriter, of ink running off a ribbon, that most regularly greeted Orwells nasal passages. In Orwells work, as in his nose, we find the odor of mortality and the mystery of creation paired in a vibrant paradox.’ — LA Review of Books

‘A happy conjunction of author (John Sutherland, who has lost his sense of smell) and subject (Orwell was obsessed with scents and with crafting smell narratives) makes this superb, self-described pathological biography a huge contribution to understanding the English writer.’ — Macleans 2016 Books of the Year

‘John Sutherland is a skilled, entertaining, and often humorous writer, so interested readers can look forward to the finished publication.’ — NewPages.com

‘A good biography, [Orwell] asserted, needed two things: piety and wit. John Sutherlands extraordinary new book, Orwells Nose, abounds in both . . . As with Orwells writing style, very little goes to waste here, and the book is a remarkable achievement of synthesis. His demeanour and habits are subjected to an examination that, despite its brevity, is in some ways as forensic as those offered by the lengthier investigations of Sutherlands predecessors . . . As one would expect from a writer of Sutherlands stripe, theres an easy familiarity with Orwells output, the reams of criticism in print, and also the countless literary allusions found in his writings, all of which make it an effortless read.’ — Popmatters

‘Do we need another biography of George Orwell? The answer is yes, if it is as racily readable as Orwells Nose. Orwells obsession with smells, agreeable and (more often) offensive has been noted before, but never explored to such effect, not excluding the smells of shag tobacco and BO he emitted himself. Sutherland combines admiration for Orwells perfect prose with a candid registration of his imperfections as a man, and his almost masochistic tendency to make life difficult for himself which often however inspired his finest work.’ — David Lodge

‘Its difficult to describe this odd, wonderful, and exhilarating book. Sutherland is without doubt one of the best minds at work in literary studies, and one expects from him the unexpected. Orwells Nose is certainly one of his most unexpected books, and might well be his best to date. Hes a first-rate critic, a writer of enviable skills. This shrewd and riveting book deserves a wide audience.’ — Jay Parini, author of Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies: The Life of Gore Vidal

‘An unusual perspective illuminates a much written-about author.’ — Kirkus Reviews

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John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and the author of some thirty books, including A Little History of Literature (2013), How to be Well Read (2014) and Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography (Reaktion, 2017). He is a reviewer and essayist for The Times.

A Note on Notes



The Life

Appendix I: Blair/Orwell's Smoking Diary

Appendix II: The Smell Narrative of A Clergyman's Daughter

Appendix III: The Smell Narrative of The Road to Wigan Pier


Acknowledgements and Photo Acknowledgements