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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Orwell: Wintery Conscience of a Nation

Reviewed: February 23, 2005
By: Jeffrey Meyers
Publisher: W. W. Norton and Co.
380 pages, $24.95

Eric Arthur Blair, or George Orwell, as he would eventually be known, came to fit the definition of a self-made man over the course of his relatively brief life. Now that I have been alive longer than he was, I find myself wondering even more about the forces which shaped and honed this man whose work was so powerful that his pen name become an adjective.

The habit of referring to things as Orwellian didn't come to an end after 1984, though a lot of people thought it would. The notion of a heavily monitored society in which people can be tracked electronically and manipulated by false rhetoric and mangled language (doublespeak) seems more relevant today than it did 21 years ago.

Oddly, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn't terribly prophetic in most of its features even when it was new. By the simple additions of the clock striking thirteen and the omnipresent telescreens to the world of Airstrip One, Orwell managed to make use of the actual postwar squalor in which England found itself after 1945 to portray a future world in which none of the mess was ever fixed and things got worse. When you view documentary footage from the period, you quickly realize that you are looking at the world of Oceania and that very little of the physical setting of the book had to be invented.

He took his own work with the BBC during the Second World War and mutated it only slightly into the reality control system for which Wintson Smith, his central character, worked.

His experiences in Burma as a police officer helped him to understand how power corrupts and can be abused. The time he spent in the Spanish Civil War made him aware that those political parties with the slightest of differences may become the worst of foes, and that lies are the intellectual currency of a certain brand of leadership.

His seminal essay, "Politics and the English Language", is as apt a critique of spin-doctoring now as it was when he wrote it, and it, too, became part of the underpinning of Big Brother's nightmare world.

Jeffrey Meyers does an admirable job of explaining just how young Eric Blair, son of a lower middle class civil servant, managed to become George Orwell, eulogized by others as "the wintery conscience" of his generation.

Meyers does not idolize his subject. Indeed, it appears that Orwell was far from a perfect husband, and a lot of the hardship that he went through was self-imposed. Sometimes, as during his final years in an isolated farmhouse in exactly the opposite sort of place in which a man in his state of health ought to have been living, he was downright stupid about things.

Looking at the gaunt pictures which generally accompany anything written about him, it is hard to imagine Orwell as a ladies man. Indeed, his awkward way with sexual scenes in his novels, and the desperate manner in which he set about finding a second wife after Eileen died, hardly prepare us to see him as a philanderer, and yet he had numerous affairs both before and after his marriage to her.

In the long run however, Meyers provides us with a portrait of a man who seems to have been driven by two things: a powerful urge to write, and a desire to challenge injustice. Orwell himself was probably overstating the case when he famously quipped that he never set pen to paper unless there was some lie he wanted to expose. From this book, and from his collected works, it would seem that he would have tried to find something to write about anyway. Consciously or unconsciously, he mapped out a life that gave him the intellectual and emotional fuel he needed to do just that.

Meyers deals with both the life and the writing, and does not make the mistake of giving us a book consisting of plot summaries of the great man's work. Indeed, most of Orwell's novels do not strike me as needing more than one read, but the nonfiction books, the essays, and the two final novel of his career make you read the earlier material in order to understand where the later stuff could have come from.

For me, Orwell remains a writer who demands to be read and to be taken seriously. When I present him to high school English classes they find him depressing, but they also tell me that the time they spend in his dystopias was time well spent. That's about as much as you can say about any writer.

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