Sunday, September 23, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW: D.J.TAYLOR'S THE LIFE OF ORWELL

REVIEW OF D. J. TAYLOR'S ORWELL THE LIFE BY JOHN CHUCKMAN, April 13, 2005


This is a difficult book to categorize. It is well written, contains many interesting anecdotes, but it misses the essential Orwell.

Taylor's gloomy, otherwordly, ex-Etonian, ex-imperial policeman simply does not add up to Orwell. The sum of the parts is much less than the man. Taylor's book is a bit like an autopsy, the pathologist clearly never being able to comprehend the stiff, dead flesh and bottled samples before him as the full human being they were. Nevertheless, autopsies do tell interesting tales.

Orwell's gloomy temperament puts him not outside the mainstream of writers but exactly in the company of so many important writers. The list of writers with some form of depression, whether alcoholism or gloominess, is so huge - Greene, Swift, Hemingway, Le Carré, Dickens, Gissing, O'Neill, Twain, Faulkner, etc, etc. - one comes to think of the quality almost as a job requirement. It provides one of the special lens through which critical writers see the world. One has to believe Taylor understands this, but his book conveys only clinical observations of gloominess snipped from letters, diaries, and conversations.

As far as Orwell's otherworldliness, Orwell was clearly in the great tradition of English eccentrics, and that is an important component of his appeal. There is a long and glorious line of them from Dr. Johnson and Jane Austen down to Alec Guinness, Margaret Rutherford, and Vanessa Redgrave. Yet Taylor only offers clinical observations and never puts them in their proper context.

Orwell was not an important novelist, so it seems a bit gratuitous to say so as Taylor does. In fact, he wasn't even a very good novelist. Yet books like Keep the Aspadistra Flying do provide a keen sense of his Englishness. Missing entirely from Taylor's autopsy is a sense of Orwell's quintessential Englishness. When Orwell writes of getting back to the feel of heavy English coins and having mahogany tea, readers get a sense of pure distilled Englishness. This comes through also in quasi-journalistic books like The Road to Wigan Pier or Down and Out in Paris and London - important early efforts at what today might be called investigative journalism - books which Taylor rather disparages both in terms of Orwell's re-arranging actual events and being an observer mentally wearing an Eton tie.

What Orwell was is a critic, and a rather magnificent one. I am reminded of Degas' description of Monet as "Only an eye, but what an eye!"

Orwell had an exquisite sense of justice and a very sensitive barometer for tyranny plus he had the words to convey vividly his sensibilities. Taylor virtually misses this in his examination of bile and stool samples. Taylor too often puts Orwell's political criticism down to miss-directed, soft-Left thinking of an ex-Etonian. Orwell himself recognized the simpering nature of much of the Left's views, yet he struggled bravely with finding a vocabulary to accommodate his sympathies. He possibly did not come to recognize himself for what he was, a scorching critic of both Left and Right. After all, his time was short. That is how it is when you die in your forties.

He was also an important literary critic, and while Taylor recognizes this, I don't believe he gives it a full enough examination.

Taylor sadly drags out the subject of anti-Semitism, perhaps the most overly-used epithet of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. If Orwell was anti-Semitic - and I do not believe this for a second - it was in the same vague sense of virtually all Englishmen of his time. The English have always had a degree of xenophobia, a quality whose obverse side is the very set of qualities defining Englishness. I am tired of discussions of whether Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice makes the greatest playwright in human history anti-Semitic, discussions which always ignore the human qualities and sense of justice Shakespeare gives his character, and just so, Orwell, overall a truly decent man.

There has been a good deal of writing in recent years about Orwell, much of it wrong-headed, from claims being made that he would have supported Bush's invasion of Iraq (!) to sentimentality. Little of it captures Orwell the independent and remarkably clear-thinking critic. Taylor gives us no sense of what it was that animated Orwell, other than some almost silly stuff about getting back at people like the headmistress of his school. There is almost a sense in this book of a high-class hatchet job done on Orwell, but I don't want to push that point. What makes Orwell truly important is minimized, and what wasn't important is given a good deal of weight. Perhaps that is the fate of great critics who support no one's ideologies and preconceptions.

This book should be read only with an awareness of its limited approach to the subject. This is not Orwell, but a somewhat interesting display of bits and memorabilia in museum cabinets.

Please see my review of Gordon Bowker's Orwell biography, a superior work (published in the same year) in most respects to Taylor's.

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