The last job for Orwell biographers is to examine his faults and catalogue his enemies. But it only serves to confirm his virtuesby Geoffrey Wheatcroft / June 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
His shadow still lengthens. Writing in Prospect on the 50th anniversary of Orwell’s death, I noted how eerily he had dominated the 20th century, the first half of which was his lifetime, the second half still more the “age of Orwell,” overshadowed by his memory. This June’s centenary of his birth finds him as much with us as ever. His collected works—every scrap of them—were published several years ago in a 20-volume edition; he is endlessly invoked, not least by those for and against recent military actions; he was apostrophised in Christopher Hitchens’s polemic Orwell’s Victory; he was chosen by Simon Schama, along with Churchill, as one of two men personifying the past century of English history; he already has been the subject of numerous biographies; and now he receives two more-one from DJ Taylor (Orwell: The Life) another from Gordon Bowker (George Orwell).
With almost any other writer—maybe even with Orwell—this would begin to sound dangerously like too much of a good thing. Might not his memory finally have become unbearable? Isn’t there something stifling about the cult surrounding him? Is his work, all of it, actually as good as his devotees insist? Didn’t he exaggerate the difficulties and reverses he had suffered during his lifetime-and wasn’t his friend Malcolm Muggeridge near the mark in saying that self-pity was Orwell’s most salient characteristic? Couldn’t he be called in some ways objectionable, didn’t his personality exhibit neurotic symptoms, and wasn’t he touchy and suspicious to the point of persecution mania? And does he really justify any more books about him?
That last is answered quite easily, since Taylor’s and Bowker’s books are very well worth reading, for different reasons. If I prefer Taylor, that is partly because I have always admired the way he writes, as much as ever in this clever and subtle book. (I have never met either biographer, incidentally; something worth mentioning in view of Orwell’s persistent belief—another side of his prickly cantankerousness—that literary London is an iniquitous den of mutual backscratchers.) Bowker sometimes seems to have rather little affinity with Orwell, and his scolding tone can be a little wearing, but the great strength of his book is its original research and revelations.
Even now, however much of his work we read, and however much is written about him, we still don’t quite know what Orwell was like. Taylor remarks on how elusive he remains, not least as a corporeal being. There are plenty of photographs, but not only is there no filmed moving image of him (ironically, the creator of Nineteen Eighty-Four died just as television arrived), there is no extant recording of his voice, rather extraordinarily so since he worked as a broadcaster for the BBC for several years.
We do have, on the other hand, as with earlier saints and martyrs, the testimony of the many eyewitnesses who knew him, the last of them only now passing from the scene. Reading these books I was struck by how many people I have known, less or more well, who had also known him: Muggeridge, Michael Meyer, Anthony Powell, Paul Potts, Graham Greene, Lucian Freud. In a way, he is part of my life. But then, in a way, he is part of all our lives.
Any new biographer feels Orwell’s shroud weigh heavily, and feels obliged at least intermittently to put “The Case Against,” as Taylor calls one short chapter in his book. There is no shortage of charges on the rap sheet, beginning with the man’s sheer, exhausting glumness.
Orwell’s wonderfully depressive claim that every life is a series of defeats when seen from the inside has a real psychological truth in it. But in his own case the idea was, as Taylor points out, frankly absurd.
Here was a man who won a scholarship to the most famous public school in England, who had an adventurous and absorbing early manhood, who published his first book at 29 and then in his thirties added four novels along with two famous political books (even if The Road to Wigan Pier is possibly his worst book and Homage to Catalonia only achieved its justified fame after his death), who produced an enormous body of work as a political and literary journalist, who wrote for the Observer when it was the best paper in London, for Partisan Review when it was the most exciting of all little magazines, and for the New Yorker when it was the most illustrious of all American weeklies, who enjoyed the friendship of some of the most interesting men and women of his age, and who ended by writing two books which changed the way the world saw itself. If that was failure, what would success have been?
Other charges for the prosecution include his antisemitism (though how much should be made of it is a thorny question), his “homophobia” (an illiterate coining, as he might have pointed out), and what Gordon Bowker, in a fine prim phrase, calls “a poor attitude to women.” In his assumed role of devil’s advocate, Taylor continues: “As a novelist, Orwell scarcely begins to exist.” His books are derivative, and in any case, “projections of his own self-pity”; his autobiographical writings are distinguished by selectiveness and outright misrepresentation; “Such, such were the joys,” his essay about his prep school, was the product of 30 years of brooding to avenge trivial and possibly imagined slights at the hands of a schoolmaster’s silly wife.
He had an authoritarian streak, which showed in displeasing ways. The supposed conscience of his generation barely seemed aware of the death camps, and was openly callous about the bombing of civilians. His posthumous reputation is close to being a literary fraud: “Once established, his significance naturally had to be pushed back in time, with the result that Orwell’s four third-rate novels now crowd out the real heroes of the 1930s.” This is half true but is actually a neatly done pastiche by Taylor posing as Comrade X, author of the imaginary Twentieth-Century English Novelists: a Marxist Guide.
And that’s the point. If you judge a man by his enemies, then Orwell’s stature can only increase with every year that we learn and understand more about the realities of his age. Long before Nineteen Eighty-Four, Taylor notices that one of the commonest sensations in the early novels is “the feeling of being spied on.” In the sleepy provincial town in A Clergyman’s Daughter, “an enemy” lurks “behind every window.” George Bowling in Coming Up for Air has a terror of being found out. Orwell shared this sensation with his creations; after the war, living on Jura, he believed that he was being spied on by communists and that his mail was being opened. Taylor mentions all this in another divagation called “Orwell’s Paranoia.” But then we don’t need Delmore Schwartz to tell us that paranoiacs have enemies too.
Since his death Orwell has been subjected to a barrage of denigration from the left, which in itself would justify the idea of concerted persecution, and in his lifetime he had many bitter and well-nigh deadly enemies. He was mendaciously maligned. He was surreptitiously censored: Animal Farm was turned down by a series of London publishers, in at least one case on the advice of Peter Smollett, a Soviet agent. And Orwell was spied on. Bowker’s most riveting discovery is that, when Orwell was in Spain fighting in the civil war, the British Communist party, acting on instructions from the Comintern, sent David Crook to “play a small part, of which I am not proud,” as he put in old age, “in the crushing of the POUM,” the revolutionary socialist party in whose militia Orwell fought.
Crook was taught Spanish by none other than Ramon Mercader (the man who subsequently assassinated Trotsky). He reported to another agent of Moscow called Hugh O’Donnell, and then set about following Orwell and other English volunteers from the independent left. It’s quite clear that in Spain Orwell was for a time in real danger of his life, not only-or even so much-in action at the front as from the attentions of the communists. In a final extraordinary touch, Bowker has found that O’Donnell was operating under the code name “O’Brien.” Orwell can never have know this when he gave that name to the character who befriends and betrays Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but in some uncanny way it adds a final validation to all that Orwell said and did.