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A mass of contradictions; Orwell: the Transformation, by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $12.95

By Edith MiltonEdith Milton is a free-lance reviewer. / June 9, 1980



Not a great novelist, not a remarkable stylist, a man whose politics were passionate but often contradictory, George Orwell holds a rather anomalous place among English writers.

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As Peter Stansky and William Abrahams make clear in "Orwell: the Transformation," he was the victim of his own powerful and totally opposing impulses; simultaneously moved toward compassion and fury, toward politeness and disgust.

His genius for objective observation and his need to remain aloof clashed with a tendency to feel, as his own, every injury and injustice he saw in the world around him. It is hardly surprising that his equivocation between indignation and clarity, as well as the odd and unassailable niche he has acquired in the Pantheon of English letters, should remind one of Jonathan Swift , who, like Orwell, was remarkably fertile in contradictions, and who, like Orwell, could express the paradoxes he saw both in his world and in himself only through an intense exercise of the imagination -- as fantasy -- or through an intense exercise of the rational mind -- in a misanthropic essay.

"Orwell: the Transformation" covers the period of Orwell's early novels, and it quite convinces me in its suggestion that, as a writer of conventional fiction, Orwell was hardly majestic. It is only in his later fantasy novels ("Animal Farm," "1984") and in his essays and reportage ("Shooting an Elephant," "Homage to Catalonia") that he achieves his real mastery.

This is the second of Stansky and Abraham's studies of the subject. Their first, "The Unknown Orwell," took the writer through his youth, when he was still Eric Blair. "Orwell: the Transformation" begins with the publication of his first book and with the first, initially tentative, adoption of his pseudonym.

From their opening sentence, in which they herald the birth of "George Orwell ," Stansky and Abrahams strike one as witty, thorough, and entirely reliable.

The book opens in 1933 and closes in 1937 on Orwell's retirement from the Spanish Civil War, 13 years before his own passing in 1950. It is in no sense a real biography. Even for a biographical study it is narrow in its focus -- just four years, which miss Orwell's London life during the war, which do not even glance toward the fact of his second marriage or the blocks which so far have stood in the way of a formal biography of him.

But despite its limitations, it is invaluable: for seeking out and preserving the memories of Orwell's friends while they are still alive; for relating biographical fact to Orwell's translation of it into fictional half-fact; for interpolating contemporary criticism of Orwell's work as it appeared with Stansky's and Abraham's own, later judgments.

They illuminate Orwell's political conversion, when his vaguely leftist sympathies were made adamant during his travels among unemployed miners in the north of England. They are brilliantly exact in their details of Orwell's disillusionment with the mess that was the Spanish left in 1937. They are painstaking in their vivid evocation of Eileen O'Shaughnessy, who was Orwell's wife from 1936 until her passing in 1945, and who emerges here dramatically as the cause for any happiness, any satisfaction he may have had amid the vituperations.

What Stansky and Abrahams cannot do in their brief study, and what perhaps no biographer will do in a later one, is to furnish a real insight into the divided and paradoxical man who was at home neither in the polite nor the proletarian world.

"Under the bland, fair, mild, empirical and fair-minded manner which he perfected in the essays," they quote Isaac Rosspite and contempt . . . . He condoned his own failure to be a gentleman or -- it came to the same thing -- managed to forgive himself for being one."

His discomfort as a writer and political being is never made comprehensible, though it is evident on every page, and becomes excruciating in the revelation of bigotries one might like to think were beneath him: his pathological dislike of Scots, for instance, his reference to the Auden-Spender circle as "the pansy left," and his general consciousness of class, which all mark him as the perpetrator of English middle-class prejudices even as he was foremost in the fight against them.

A difficult man; a rather faceless man. The lack of biography has left him without the convenient mask of instant myth; and history, which never does well with elusiveness, has saddled him with an unextraordinary persona and an awkward tinge of political and literary saintliness. "Orwell: the Transformation" is an excellent and robus correct of that mistake.