Orwell remains a sardonic gentleman

The centennial year

November 30, 2003|By Norman Birnbaum | Norman Birnbaum,Special to the Sun

The Cold War and the 20th century are over; new fears and quandaries beset us. George Orwell, however, is still with us. To think of politics in Great Britain and the United States is to recall his legacy. His belief that writing is giving one's word, that politics requires truthfulness, attests to his inexpungable Protestantism. He bore witness to democracy's torments, intellectuals' responsibilities and history's disappointments.

Five years as a British policeman in occupied Burma gave Orwell experience of empire. An Etonian from a genteel family, he plumbed the miseries of Depression-era Britain. As a volunteer with the anarchists in Republican Spain, he escaped imprisonment by the Stalinist-influenced government.

He thought, on patriotic grounds, that Britain needed a social revolution and, on political ones, that only a revolutionary Great Britain could win the war against fascism. As London correspondent of Partisan Review in the 1940s, its legendary years, he believed that the United States had exhausted its democratic promise. He was a socialist contemptuous of capitalism but despairing of the people. Animal Farm and 1984 were written by an intelligent skeptic of the left who rejected the enthusiastic concurrence of the philistines of the right. They did not understand, he complained, that he was depicting not Stalin's Soviet Union alone but all the pathologies of modern power.

He died in 1950, after a long bout with tuberculosis, at age 47. His life so reflected the agonies of mid-century that he was our ideological everyman. His ceaseless inner political conflicts were the most interesting thing about Orwell, and his agonized efforts to resolve them explain his two great fictional tracts.

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, we have three new books about him. Scott Lucas, in Orwell (Haus Publishing, 180 pages, $14.95), seeks to disabuse us of the Orwell of the Cold Warriors and their natural children, the current crusaders against "terrorism." Lucas argues that now one Orwell, now another, has been called into service to justify one or another crusade.

Though he rightly describes as sordid Orwell's surreptitious denunciation in 1949 of 36 other writers to the British intelligence services, he wrongly intimates that this episode was somehow the climax of Orwell's life, invalidating much else in it. Orwell's encounter with the Stalinist apparatus in Spain had burdened him; the tin lies of apologists for the U.S.S.R. obsessed him. Naming names was a ghastly step for someone usually so critical of all governments, but he didn't make a full-time job of it.

Gordon Bowker, in Inside George Orwell (Palgrave Macmillan, 468 pages, $35), gives us a proper biography. It is, perhaps, too proper: Orwell's truncated life, in Bowker's view, has a beginning, middle and end. That is not what Orwell thought, and as he faced death he was desperately anxious to repair the torn fabric of his existence.

About his marriage, literally on his deathbed, to the much younger Sonia Brownell, he said: "I suppose everyone will be horrified, but it seems to me a good idea. Apart from other considerations, I think I should stay alive longer if I were married and had someone to look after me." Bowker makes elegant use of the evidence and is both acute and delicate in his psychological observations.

Bowker's work is admirably straightforward and by any standard a very good biography; the trouble is that Orwell's life was anything but straightforward, and its hidden currents are difficult of access.

The work by D.J. Taylor, Orwell: The Life (Henry Holt, 468 pages, $30), is rewardingly dense. Like Bowker, he is clear about Orwell's terrible difficulties with women, the looseness of his human attachments, the loneliness he came to regard as both inevitable and indispensable. Taylor sets Orwell in his place and time, with his family and friends, books and schools. Richard Blair, Orwell's father, was a conventional minor British civil servant in India. His mother was the daughter of a French merchant in Burma, and Orwell had Asian relatives.

Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, India, but soon brought to England. His paternal ancestors had prospered as Jamaican planters but lost wealth and standing as the 19th century progressed; one understands his later empathy with Dickens' characters as they fought for respectability. His aggressive insouciance at Eton was his way of dealing with being a scholarship boy.

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