Toward the end of his life, George Orwell declared that his overriding aim had been "to make political writing into an art." The more we ponder this celebrated phrase, the more problematic it comes to seem. There is the initial question about what it could mean to make such writing into an art ("into an art," not "into Art," suggesting something nearer to cookery than to ballet). Orwell’s syntax also makes us wonder what this sort of writing had been before, such that he needed to effect this transformation on it. (Or is it just the transformation of his earlier political writing?) Any writer can, of course, have more than one goal in mind at the same time, but the phrase also prompts us to consider whether this was the best, or even an appropriate, way to describe, say, Orwell’s revelations about the Communists in the Spanish Civil War or his denunciations of the "russophile intelligentsia" at home? What relation had this overarching aesthetic project borne toward the more immediate purposes of getting some facts known and some untruths exposed? Is more artful or artistic political writing likely to achieve these goals more effectively, or the reverse? Orwell was famously the apostle of "plain speaking," telling it like it is, but perhaps, we come to think, that is not quite such a straightforward matter. Perhaps it requires no little art if we wish to be plain.
"Political writing" is the label Timothy Garton Ash applies to Facts Are Subversive, a selection of his work from the past decade, and he is explicit about his indebtedness to, and admiration for, Orwell. Garton Ash identified his life’s work with some precocity: "In the long summer after I took my first degree at Oxford, I read the whole of Orwell’s work, read him self-consciously as example and guide for a would-be writer." He then sought out some very Orwellian subjects to write about—East Germany in the grip of the Stasi, Poland in the heady days of Solidarity, Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. He wrote from the front line, having become friends with several leading Eastern European dissidents, but he also wrote as a trained historian. In the 1990s he went on to cultivate this dual identity in relation to other political and military hot spots in Europe, notably the Balkans. By this point he held a fellowship at St Antony’s, the Oxford postgraduate college that specializes in the politics and cultures of, essentially, the non-Anglophone world, and he had begun to contribute long, vivid, well-informed essays to The New York Review of Books. In addition to more detailed historical monographs, he also published collections of his occasional writings, beginning in 1989 with The Uses of Adversity, followed eleven years later by History of the Present. The latter volume contained a spirited defense of the "hybrid" enterprise he was engaged in, falling across and between journalism and scholarship, usually combining firsthand reporting with in-depth analysis.
Since that last collection, he has extended his geographical range well beyond Europe, writing increasingly about the United States (since 2000 he has held a part-time appointment at the Hoover Institution at Stanford) but also about Brazil, Iran, Burma and elsewhere. Above all, the past decade has seen him addressing the many cultures and questions folded into the term "Islam," whether pondering sympathetically the plight of poor immigrant communities of Muslims in Europe or the larger geopolitical questions focused around "terrorism." And since 2002 he has had a regular column in the Guardian that is syndicated to various publications across the world. So he is now acknowledged as an influential commentator on international politics, invited to advise heads of state almost as often as he is asked to speak to packed auditoriums around the globe.
The appearance of this third collection is an occasion for asking how far Garton Ash has made political writing into an art, and indeed, to what extent that is a desirable goal. American readers may be forgiven for thinking that it is a kind of writing on which the English have something of a corner—though, interestingly, few of the leading contemporary practitioners are in fact Anglo-English. For example, Ian Buruma is Anglo-Dutch, Perry Anderson Anglo-Irish; Tony Judt (who died in August) grew up in England as the child of Russian Jews before spending the later decades of his life in the United States. Garton Ash is at least as cosmopolitan as any of his peers (a better linguist than many, better traveled than most), though he is the only one who is Anglo-English and has remained tied to Oxford. This company also helps identify some of Garton Ash’s distinctiveness: he is, for example, less of a storyteller than Buruma, less analytical and Olympian than Anderson, less angular and polemical than Judt. His forte is the exceptionally well-informed, vivid account of the personal, cultural and geopolitical elements at work at a moment of political decision in a country most of his readers previously knew little about. His writing is more personal and more dramatic than that of most historians, but more scholarly and more comparative than that of almost all journalists.