A Friendly Conversation
By Louis Martin

When I checked into Caulaincourt Square Hostel in Montmartre, I was skeptical about having a conversation with anyone about anything ever again (Paradise Lost). I dropped my suitcase off in my room and headed out for a walk. As I walked out of the room, I passed a tall, square-jawed young man who smiled and said hello to me. I mumbled something back. He looked like trouble to me; he looked, if I were not mistaken, argumentative.

How wrong I was. About a half hour later, when I returned from my walk, I fell almost instantly into conversation with the young man. He was British and very interested in the writing of George Orwell. I also had the greatest interest and admiration for Orwell. We compared notes on Down And Out In London and Paris, Homage to Catalonia, a collection of essays called All Art Is Propaganda, and 1984. We didn't fight, we didn't argue. There was no baiting, no barbs. He didn't hate "North America." We exchanged ideas and impressions without bitterness or recriminations. It was delightful.

Greg was the young man's name. He told me he had a "nothing" job back home but loved reading, especially prose. He mentioned an essay Orwell wrote on readability of literature for the average citizen. I mentioned Orwell's comments on T.S. Eliot's later poetry. Orwell said he could virtually memorize Eliot's early poems with a single reading. But his later poetry he could not remember. He wondered what had gone wrong, or seemed to have gone wrong, in Eliot's later poetry. I mentioned that some of my stuff was pretty obscure but that I didn't care. I sometime wrote simultaneously in several languages and was more interested in the unusual sounds and the odd combinations of meanings than in conveying any definite thought. That, among other "faults," didn't make me very popular among the "meaning" freaks, those people for whom every utterance has to be tied to some definite meaning. Ever and forever endeavor, sincère et sévère, 真诚和严重 ...

Regarding the Spanish Civil War experiences of Orwell, I expressed a degree of skepticism about his actual participation as a combatant. Was that really helpful in understanding the war, I asked. I understood Orwell's passion and admired it but I wondered if participating in the killing was a good idea for writer.

We discussed Orwell's getting shot in the neck—his voice, it was said, was different afterwards—and his statement that he didn't blame the person who shot him. He said, given the opportunity, he would have done the same. That seemed a bit callous. By contrast, Hemingway's experience of being injured while working as an ambulance driver in World War II led to his early stories about the psychological trauma of war. They are sensitive stories and some of the best every written. With the volumes written these days about post-traumatic stress syndrome, I'm surprised they are never mentioned.

We talked about World War I and World War II—I filled Greg in on Emperor Hirohito of Japan and the fact that he was never held accountable for his complicity in the actions of his war ministers. This is baffling to me and others to this day. Why did General MacArthur, who was the commander in charge of the Pacific region during World War II, support this?

We talked about Hitler's madness, his own men's attempt to kill him towards the end of the war, and his suicide.  We talked about neo-Nazism in Germany and the United States.

We could have argued and fought over all this stuff but we didn't. We had open-minded discussions. Now maybe you could say that we were already in agreement about most things. What was there to argue about? I have found that people can have much in common yet still find plenty of things to argue about (Paradise Lost).

But I can give you an example of a discussion that does not lead to anger and indignation even though both would be justified. (See The Afghans.)