Edward W Batchelder

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Orwell: The Life
D. J. Taylor
(Henry Holt)

cover of Orwell:The Life

It’s a testimony to George Orwell’s skill as a writer—or perhaps merely to the grim realities of the past century—that his name has become synonymous with the worst excesses of state control. From Stalin’s cult of personality to the PATRIOT Act, from Hitler’s mass rallies to Saddam Hussein’s grip on Iraq, Orwell’s dystopic vision has become the standard by which all governmental repression is measured.

In fact, outside of his European counterpart Kafka—who explored similar terrain on a much more metaphysical quest—it’s hard to think of another writer whose name alone summons up such a distinct worldview, even among those who have never actually read him.

Yet where Kafka’s life remains, despite innumerable biographies and critical studies, fundamentally a mystery, Orwell’s life seems as transparent as the prose style he aspired to. It’s a testimony to D.J. Taylor’s skill as a biographer that he is able to restore the mystery that lays concealed beneath this apparent clarity.

Born in India to a declining middle-class family in the colonial bureaucracy, Orwell grew up in England, returned to work for several years in Burma as a young man, then moved back to England at the age of 24. It was at this point, having published only a few journalistic pieces, that he announced to his dismayed family his intent to become a writer.

From there on, superficially at least, it seems a fairly easy task to connect the dots between the life he lived and the works he published. A period spent penniless in Europe, for example, appears as Down and Out in Paris and London; a similar period in England becomes The Road to Wigan Pier. Homage to Catalonia covers his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, while Burmese Days and essays like “Shooting an Elephant” draw on his experiences as a colonial policeman. It’s almost as if Orwell were the first practitioner of the New Journalism, throwing himself into one difficult experience after another, then writing it up for publication.

As Taylor notes, however, “Orwell is nearly impossible to pin down.” A committed Socialist, he legendarily pawned the family silver to go to Spain, not to write but simply to fight; though he remained a Socialist, the vicious political infighting among the Republicans turned him into an ardent anti-Communist.

His time in Burma was similarly ambiguous. Orwell’s writing can be scathingly critical of the mechanics of the British imperialism, but his colleagues from the time remember him as a standard-issue colonial bureaucrat, capable of “resorting to the traditional stances of pukka-sahibdom when he thought the situation demanded it.”

As for his writing about the poor, Taylor details the condescension and outright contempt that often went along with Orwell’s sympathy, as well as his frequent exaggeration for the sake of effect. Among other distortions, it turns out Orwell’s time in Paris was spent less among the impoverished working class than among the voluntary bohemians that flocked to the city between the world wars.

While all this might seem to diminish Orwell, Taylor’s motives are not to cut Orwell down to size. Rather, in his frank and straightforward writing style, he wants to restore to him the complexity he deserves. It’s to Taylor’s credit that he documents these sorts of contradictions and inconsistencies without feeling the need to condemn, or justify, or even resolve them. In many ways the book is like a meticulously drawn silhouette that captures the exact contours of Orwell’s profile without venturing into the large dark space in the center.

The ultimate effect is that Orwell comes across more as a writer—messy, contradictory, and flawed—than as a moral force. This is as it should be for several reasons.

The first is that Orwell himself was notoriously suspicious of anyone on a pedestal. “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent,” Orwell wrote about Gandhi, and one assumes he would be the first to dismantle the myth of “Saint George” that has grown up around him.

The second is that, despite the enormous volume of political reportage and commentary he produced, it is his creativity as a novelist that has had the greatest effect. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-Four have sold over forty million copies, and his fictional creations—the shrewdly manipulative pig Napoleon, the brutally omniscient Big Brother, and the insidiously shrinking language of Newspeak—have stayed with us in a way that transcends the particular disputes of the day. These are the sorts of insights that don’t require a saint, and in his depiction of the ambiguous and enigmatic writer behind them, Taylor’s biography takes us one step closer to a truer appreciation of Orwell’s greatest contribution.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from The Tennessean)

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