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.