George Orwell -- 30 years after
George Orwell is one of those writers -- Thoreau remains the great American example -- who imprint themselves on the public by sheer weight of character as much as by what they have to say. His eyes, peering out of their caves, as it were, stare straight through us, like a bully's or a saint's.And, 30 years later , we squirm. That famously gaunt, grave face seems to belong in a desert, framed by wild animal skins rather than a dust jacket.
Here, Orwell's expression informs every camera, is a man who takes life seriously -- too seriously to lie, almost too seriously to use words at all.
There are writers who live in such a state of anarchy that one marvels they get a single line written. Dylan Thomas is the classic case. There are other writers -- like Orwell, like Thoreau -- who equally astonish us, but for the opposite reason. They are so morally intent -- so bent on their salvation -- that writing, just writing, seems too frivolous, too self-indulgent an act for them to stoop to.
No matter what he wrote Orwell managed somehow to give it the tone of a cautionary parable or a meditative journal. The reader feels a certain atmosphere of austerity -- of white walls, stone floors, and 4 o'clock in the morning. (More than one reader of such parables as "1984" and "Animal Farm" has noted an astringent resemblance to "Pilgrim's Progress.")
At times Orwell appeared almost desperate to prove that he was doing more than "just writing." He turned his back conspicuously on literary London from the beginning, and systematically disenfranchised himself as an old Eton boy, as if he were atoning for an early disgrace. He went down and out as a dishwasher in the kitchens of London and Paris, and made his pilgrimage to the Spanish civil war. And this is how we remember Orwell: doing duty for us stay-at-homes as moral witness in dark and difficult places of history -- developing those eyes that, as V. S. Pritchett observed, "looked far away over one's head as if seeking more discomfort and new indignations."
In fact, Orwell spent barely six months in Spain, and a not inconsiderable part of that time he was scribbling the notes that became the first draft of "Homage to Catalonia." His firsthand excursions into the underworld of the proletariat -- those steamy kitchens -- actually occupied only a matter of weeks out of his life.
What Orwell did, day in and day out, was write. To a slightly unlikely admirer, Edith Sitwell, he was a "born writer." Friends went further and judged that writing, for him, was an "obsession." His first wife, Eileen, who gave up a future as a child psychologist to build her life (as well as his) about his writing, concluded without rancor: "His work comes before anybody."
In an essay titled "Why I Write" Orwell argued that, in all good writing, one "constantly struggles to efface one's personality." To which one critic quite properly replied that Orwell's "personality is all over his prose." He keeps standing modestly in the shadows of pseudo-understatement until the reader cannot keep his eyes off him as he throws away those lines that, in reality, throw nothing away.
Orwell was certainly a bit of an actor as he created the subtlest of all writer's roles: the writer who was not "just a writer."
In the second volume of their charmingly sensible biography, "Orwell: The Transformation," Peter Stansky and William Abrahams have performed the simple and profound task of unmasking Orwell as a writer -- first and foremost. While not relinquishing their thoroughly particular grasp on their man and his times, they have had the breadth of scholarship and the wit to make Orwell -- rather in his own parable style -- Every Writer.
The process of forging an identity and "cannibalizing" one's life into one's writing is, they imply, precisely what writing is about. To say that George Orwell began as a bit of a self-dramatization is not necessarily a criticism. Indeed it may be taken as a tribute to the awkward and solitary struggle through which an apprentice discovers the personality and convictions of this alter ego that writes -- and, if successful, swallows up the writer's original self.