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An ideological everyman

Orwell; Scott Lucas; Trafalgar Square: 180 pp., $14.95, paper Inside George Orwel, A Biography; Gordon Bowker; Palgrave Macmillan: 496 pp., $35 Orwell: The Life; D.J. Taylor; Henry Holt: 468 pp., $30

November 09, 2003|Norman Birnbaum | Norman Birnbaum, university professor emeritus at Georgetown University, is the author of "After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century."

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 inexpugnable 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 midcentury 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," 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 USSR 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. If the CIA propagated his work, there is no evidence that he joined his admirers in New York in conspiring with it in the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Writing as though he were annotating the margins of a singularly poor tutorial essay, Lucas finds Orwell's work on mass and popular culture praiseworthy but treats everything else he wrote as a single text marred by incoherence. In the end, he tells us much more about the Orwellians than about Orwell.

Gordon Bowker, in "Inside George Orwell," 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. The tone is benign but a bit distant, like an obituary in the old Times of London ("Orwell was no saint; he was a flawed human being, full of contradictions and strange tensions"). Orwell struggled with the furies of modern history. Bowker confronts these -- his chapter on Orwell in Spain is exceptionally illuminating -- but the protagonist's outer demons and inner troubles remain oddly unjoined. 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," 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.

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