Sunday, September 23, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW: GORDEN BOWKER'S INSIDE GEORGE ORWELL

REVIEW OF GORDON BOWKER'S INSIDE GEORGE ORWELL BY JOHN CHUCKMAN, June 22, 2005


This book is the best of the newer Orwell biographies, but it still falls short in some respects. Bowker does a far better job than D. J. Taylor at creating a sense of continuity and purpose in Orwell's life. Bowker is a good writer, occasionally showing bits of inspired analysis, but still there are passages of utility-grade stuff.

The two biographies, Bowker and Taylor, published in the same year, offer readers an opportunity to compare two quite different treatments of the same life, treatments that both use previously unknown materials. Taylor's treatment is more episodic and seems to lose no opportunity to highlight something dark, unflattering, or unpleasant about Orwell.

Bowker gets at Orwell's quintessential Englishness. I was happy he used exactly that word, Englishness, which I think is an important and appealing aspect of Orwell. It is a word I've always associated with Orwell much as I do with figures such as Dickens or Graham Greene. This is a quality virtually ignored by Taylor, unless you accept his references to old-boy school snobbery as a rough substitute, references I believe are clear distortions.

Bowker is sympathetic to his subject without ever being servile or sentimental, a position which is right for a biographer. While Taylor makes some effort to convince us of his old admiration for his subject, his words ring false. Taylor displays strong antipathy towards his subject, releasing it slowly through the book, and to my mind this is never the correct position for a biographer. Moreover, the clash between Taylor's claims of admiration and his clear antipathy introduces a howling note of falseness that warns of the author's intent.

Bowker does an excellent job of summarizing the saga of Orwell's widow (his second wife) Sonia and his literary legacy - a tale in which the new Cold War becomes an important element - an interesting topic with which Taylor doesn't do much. Bowker also does a nice job of explaining why a biographer would write about Orwell despite the author's well-known wish that he wanted no biography.

The portion of new material in either book dealing with Orwell's sex life does not shed a pleasant light on part of his character. I couldn't help thinking of passages in Benita Eisler's Byron dealing with the poet's grotesque servant-boy swapping and Mediterranean tours to buy boys in various countries - activities that would put him in prison today - passages that frankly left me feeling as though I needed fresh air. No, Orwell wasn't as twisted as Byron, but he was double-dealing in his sexual affairs and apparently sometimes found the charms of young girls selling themselves in exotic lands an irresistible purchase.

I very much agree with Arthur Koestler's observation, quoted in Bowker, "I don't think George ever knew what makes other people tick, because what made him tick was very different from what most other people tick." Orwell was in many ways what contemporary speech might describe as "out of it." He was, if you will, an authentic English eccentric. This may help explain why Orwell was such a powerful critic and observer while remaining a second-tier novelist.

In a way, something like this may be said of many incisive critics and great artists. The divine Mozart with his scatological letters and often buffoonish behavior. Beethoven's constant moving to new apartments, thunderous emotional storms, and self-destructive attachment to a worthless nephew. The ticks and quirks of the magnificent Samuel Johnson. Dicken's unbelievably obsessive, compulsive behavior.

At the more extreme end of the scale, we have Rousseau's bizarre temperament, always ready to attack friends and admirers. The strange Herman Melville who may just have murdered his wife. Marcel Proust's sadistic penchant for sticking pins into live mice.

Sometimes I think it is better just to enjoy the work of genius rather than digging too deeply into the lives of its creators. For this reason I am almost fearful of reading Norman Sherry's third volume on Graham Greene (reported to focus heavily on the unsavory aspects of Greene's life), one of my favorite twentieth-century writers and critics. But then again, we want to understand, and we find it almost irresistible to read about the lives of artists we have come to love. And whatever unpleasant we may learn, it remains the greatness of their work that drew us to them.

Orwell wrote some of the twentieth century's best essays and occasional pieces, and, in 1984, not long before his death, he displayed a kind of penetrating political insight rarely seen before or since. Since great writing is so often the work of mature people, we undoubtedly missed a great deal when he died at 46.

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