- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004


By Gordon Bowker

Palgrave/Macmillan, $35, 495 pages, illus.


By D.J. Taylor

Henry Holt, $30, 464 pages, illus.


A century after he was born Eric Blair and more than 50 years since he died of tuberculosis at age 46, George Orwell is still a lodestar for those who care about politics whether they be on the right or the left.

You might have thought that with the demise of communism — the last of that vile trio of 20th-century totalitarianisms — at century’s end, Orwell might lose some of his relevance to contemporary affairs. But, no, although the fastidious writer in him might have loathed that fashionable word and its overuse, it applies to him as much as ever.

For although we inevitably think of him as the dragon-slayer of totalitarianism, having actually fought against fascism in Spain and mobilized his formidable pen against Nazism and communism, he was equally the scourge of injustice, inequality, and cant of all kinds. Indubitably the political writer par excellence of his own century, he speaks to us today as powerfully as ever.

So at the dawn of this post-Orwell century and millennium, it is fitting that we have not one but two fine biographies to remind us of what he was and still is. While neither of these books can justly be called definitive, each is valuable in its way and adds to our understanding of the man, his life, and his works.

A newcomer to Orwell would be well-served by reading either book, since each provides a judicious, intelligent, nuanced analysis of his character and his writing. Yet even the most seasoned student of Orwell will find much in both books to enlarge his understanding.

D.J. Taylor and Gordon Bowker present rather similar views of their subject. Mr. Taylor’s “Orwell: The Life” is the more compressed and incisive of the two books. It is also more obviously thematic in its organization, with short chapters devoted to specific themes, such as anti-Semitism. Mr. Bowker’s “Inside George Orwell” is a more spacious but equally analytical and inquiring biography.

And it is interesting that at no point in reading either book did I think even for a moment that one of them was in any way de trop. So the dyed-in-the-wool Orwell fanatic, hungry for knowledge about him, will surely want to devour both.

Neither author glosses over Orwell’s less attractive traits. They exhaustively examine his rather unpleasant sexuality, revealing a singularly unappealing mix of puritanism, lubricity, sexism, and sadism. His long-suffering first wife, Eileen, had a lot to put up with, including his infidelity and insistence upon imposing his punishing version of asceticism on her; she did so nobly and emerges in both biographies as an admirable person, far more likeable than her husband.

Neither biographer gets hung up on the vexed question of Blair/Orwell’s dual identities which so obsessed some of his earlier biographers. It is inevitable that someone capable of being a bit of a poseur and wont to strike attitudes (to say nothing of actually adopting a pen-name that extended beyond the byline into his private life) is going to be viewed with some skepticism by an intelligent analyst, especially in view of his tendency to claim the moral high ground.

But on the whole, despite all his flaws, there is nothing in Orwell’s life and conduct that significantly vitiates the morality and integrity of his literary legacy.

Although most people remember Orwell for the political essays such as “Politics and the English Language,” the societal studies “Down and Out in Paris and London” and “The Road to Wigan Pier,” and his brilliant and influential dystopias, these biographies will also serve to remind people that he wrote some excellent novels in the 1930s. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” “A Clergyman’s Daughter,” and “Coming Up for Air” are well worth the reader’s attention and would definitely be an important part of the canon of interwar English fiction even if they were not by the author of “Animal Farm” and “1984.”

Orwell’s latest biographers do not shy away from the unpleasant fact that his work betrays unmistakable instances of gratuitous anti-Semitism. He does not seem to have been personally anti-Jewish, but you cannot beyond a certain point — as to some extent these biographers do — ascribe it merely to the times in which he lived and the sector of society from which he came. (That argument did not wash with T.S. Eliot and after all, Orwell, unlike him, rejected many of the other customs and beliefs of his class.)

He was also notably hostile to Zionism both before and after the Holocaust at a time when much of the left was not. In this he seems, unfortunately, to have been ahead of his time and his attitude towards the Jewish state should give pause to those neoconservatives who have been so anxious to claim Orwell as one of them.

If Mr. Taylor and Mr. Bowker cannot quite brush off Orwell’s taint of anti-Semitism, they obviously have a harder time dealing with his controversial naming of names, which seems to me such a natural part of his anti-communism. To their credit, they both eventually express at least qualified approval and understanding.

But Mr. Bowker I think errs when he indicates that Hollywood (aided and abetted by Orwell’s widow Sonia and his publisher Fredric Warburg, both of whom were involved with the Central Intelligence Agency-supported Congress for Cultural Freedom) hijacked “Animal Farm” (and also “1984”) for propagandistic purposes. He seems to forget that Orwell wrote “Animal Farm” and “1984” specifically referring to Soviet communism.

I have been reading and re-reading Orwell since I was 14 and I must say that Messrs Bowker and Taylor have made me reconsider some opinions and also confirm some entrenched ones. To say that their works are not definitive is in no way to denigrate their scholarship or their judgment.

This stems rather from a feeling that a writer as protean and a person as complex as Orwell cries out for an exhaustive biography written by someone on his own level. His major intellectual contemporaries (Cyril Connolly, Malcolm Muggeridge, Arthur Koestler) shirked this challenge for various reasons, some personal, others to do with the complicated issue of his having enjoined an authorized life.

As the Cold War wore on, the various members of the intelligentsia who might have undertaken the task would perhaps have been too caught up in claiming him for their side in that conflict to do justice to his uniqueness as a political thinker.

We can only hope that in this new millennium, a major intellectual (perhaps still unborn) will encounter his work with a fresh eye that will enable him (or her) to produce that definitive estimation of Orwell the man and the writer. I’d bet that George Orwell will continue to speak to young minds as they try to make sense of politics past, present and future, so the chances of this match happening are good.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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