By Michael Shelden
Reviewed by Tim Bragg
When I read fiction I tend towards authors or their characters who are outsiders, mavericks, those who do not/did not quite “fit in” . Two of my favourite authors are Franz Kafka and George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair). Both died of tuberculosis; both had nightmare visions and both have had their names given to such visions: Kafkaesque and Orwellian. Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm as The Trial and The Castle are novels I return to regularly. And thus I came to review the five hundred plus pages of Michael Shelden’s biography: Orwell being as complicated and interesting a character as I might have hoped, a man of the Left often most championed by those of the Right, a man who in Nineteen Eighty-Four – no matter what the objections – portrayed a world closer to our own than might ever have been expected. And as I began this review I was sent Billy Bragg’s autobiography The Progressive Patriot with a quote from Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius on Patriotism and Conservatism (opposites).
Sheldon’s biography is ultimately satisfying and one immediately wishes to read or re-read as much of Orwell’s work as possible (with clearer insight perhaps) – but there were times when I felt distant from this tall, pale faced writer. In many ways this distance stems from Orwell’s character itself. A hard-working, intellectual – a practical man too (he loved carpentry and the natural world) who believed in a radical form of socialism, though a particular English socialism – a quiet, thoughtful, enigmatic man who was also a man of action. Yet it is difficult to reconcile his seemingly reserved nature with the man who would tramp and doss down with vagabonds, who would risk his health to live a life amongst the down and outs in London and Paris; who had been with the Imperial Police in Burma; a man who had the courage of his convictions and upped and went and fought in the Spanish Civil War, seeing there the bizarre and deadly in-fighting of the various leftist groups. Displaying valour (not just jottings in a writer’s pad) he was shot through the throat and then, after a spell in a filthy hospital, had to escape Spain in a great hurry. It seemed the communists were out to liquidate POUM (the organisation Orwell fought for) and its members. (There were young, idealistic men who went to fight in Spain who never returned – imprisoned and executed by forces they had so recently fought alongside.)
In many ways a troubled man, Orwell was often dissatisfied with his work and in constant expectation of rejection and failure (even the name Orwell was taken to remove the direct sting of rejection). Orwell spent much of his last remaining years on the island of Jura and – importantly – finished Ninety Eighty-Four there even typing the final draft despite the fact that he was in severe pain and dying. He was to be treated in Switzerland and shortly before his expected travel there he re-married. The ceremony uniting him with Sonia Brownell took place around his hospital bed. Life must have seemed surprisingly hopeful for he had planned a new novel and other works and expected to live at least another ten years.
Perhaps towards his end he also recognised he had become the writer he had wanted and strived to be; Animal Farm had brought him commercial success as well as acclaim (and resistance and opposition – the publisher Victor Gollanz does not come out well in this biography) but Nineteen Eighty-Four established him as a truly great writer – and whatever the criticisms of Orwell as novelist – his last two novels are classics.
Orwell never ceased being a socialist – his warning in Animal Farm is for the common man (or animal in this case!) to maintain vigilance and not to let unscrupulous power-hungry beings usurp the true ideals of the revolution. It may also be that – in Ninety Eighty-Four in particular there is much taken from the author’s own life – BUT – we ignore the essential message of these novels at our peril. I have just read a trivial (perhaps) piece of information about Tom and Jerry cartoons and the careful, methodical, erasure of all scenes depicting smoking. Banal indeed. Frightening? One immediately thinks of Nineteen Eighty-Four – this is our cultural reference.
As the world progresses one can only wonder who will be re-written out of history – Orwell himself? Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are intolerable to any totalitarian regime. Nineteen Eighty-Four was originally titled The Last Man in Europe – while there is one free thought and free-thinking man then tyranny will be held at bay. Orwell’s writing will continue to support all such free-thinking souls.
Orwell: The Authorised Biography
By Michael Shelden
2006 pb, 566pps
This review first appeared in Right Now! Issue 60, December 2006