by Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service, 25 June 2003
LONDON - "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent," George Orwell wrote in 1949. He was referring to the recently assassinated Mohandas Gandhi, but these days the same test might well apply to himself, for in the 53 years since his death Orwell has become a secular saint, acclaimed by the political left and right and many in between, revered as a seer and truth-teller, honored for his moral courage, his razor-sharp intellect and his diamond-hard prose.
"The first saint of our age," as social historian Noel Annan once described him, "quirky, fierce, independent and beholden to none."
Somewhere along the way, however, amid all of the hero worship, the real man -- the idiosyncratic, squeaky-voiced, tubercular Englishman who dressed like a pauper, rolled his own cigarettes, chased after women and practiced a wobbly but sincere brand of socialism -- seems to have gotten lost, and perhaps the real writer has as well. Orwell has suffered the famous author's ultimate fate: He is revered and invoked more than he is read.
It's his 100th birthday today and a new round of sanctification has already commenced both in the United States and in this city, which cherishes Orwell as a native son (even though he was born in India). Last month 300 scholars gathered at Wellesley for a three-day centenary retrospective dubbed "An Exploration of His Work and Legacy." The Royal Society of Chemistry plans to mark the day by publishing the ideal technique for brewing tea, one of Orwell's obsessions and the subject of an essay he wrote in 1946. Two new biographies have just been published here, and Thomas Pynchon has broken cover to pen an introduction to a new edition of "Nineteen Eighty-Four," Orwell's best-known classic.
But even while the orgy of praise and hagiography gathers steam, let's pause for a moment to remember the man himself, starting with all of the flaws that made him human. Based upon his self-critical writings and the accounts of those who knew him, Orwell was a strange and difficult person who had few friends, mistrusted foreigners and harbored a streak of self-righteousness. The characters in his novels are stiff and unconvincing, his portraits of women are one-dimensional and bear the distinct odor of unrepentant misogyny, and his occasional references to Jews are uncomfortable at best. And, oh yes, let's not forget this: As a prophet he was almost always wrong; 1984, as we now know, looked nothing like Nineteen Eighty-Four.
And yet the book still resonates in our nightmares and our lexicon. Big Brother, the infamous Ministries of Love and Truth, the memory hole, the Thought Police and Hate Week all remain part of our vocabulary. And Orwell's own name has become the gold standard adjective to apply when measuring the gulf between political language and moral reality.
"In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties," he once wrote. "As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer." And, indeed, it was the age that helped forge Orwell. He wrote his most compelling work during a 10-year span between 1938 and 1949 -- one of humankind's most perilous decades, when the world experienced Hitler and Stalin and a cataclysm of warfare and slaughter. Orwell's writings vividly help explain who these men were, what their hold was on other men and how much they had in common.
He viewed his own life as an endless struggle to escape humiliation, and his single-minded dedication to writing as a sort of sustained psychotic episode. "All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery," he wrote in 1947. "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."
He was born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, Bengal Province, India, where his father was a civil servant overseeing what was left of the official opium trade, and spent much of childhood attending St. Cyprian's and Eton, two of England's finest schools. He returned to the East to work as a colonial policeman in Burma, then embarked on a literary career. Somewhere along the way, he picked up an inferiority complex that both haunted him and, as a writer, served him well.
"From the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued," he would recall.
After three unsuccessful novels, he broke through in the mid-1930s with two books that captured Europe's under-life during the Depression: Down and Out in Paris and London (for which he adopted the pseudonym George Orwell) and The Road to Wigan Pier. Then he underwent a sort of conversion experience when he journeyed to Spain to fight against fascism, and he returned with Homage to Catalonia, a fiercely anti-Stalinist work of reportage that was virtually ignored when it was published in 1938 but has since become a classic. The book firmly established Orwell's central duality: He considered himself a socialist and a man of the left, yet his most powerful writing skewered left-wingers who either practiced or turned a blind eye to totalitarianism.
Novelist Frederic Mullally, now 85, met Orwell a few years later at the Tribune, the left-wing Labor Party weekly that Mullally co-edited. Orwell served as literary editor and wrote a short weekly column, "As I Please," on politics, popular culture and anything else that struck his fancy, all for the princely sum of 10 pounds a week -- less than a junior reporter made on a mediocre British daily in those days.
"George was a very complex person," Mullally recalls. "He was ramrod-straight, never a smile. He wasn't scowling, just solemn. He had a high-pitched voice, and an upper-class British accent with just a little cockney overtones that he introduced into it.
"He dressed working-class, an old sweater and shirts that had seen better days and a too-tight jacket. He rolled his own cigarettes. There was no emotion in his face at all. Nobody who I know -- and this applied to me as well -- ever got close to George. But the mind was working all the time."
When World War II broke out, Orwell joined the Home Guard, but his lungs already were riddled with the pulmonary disease that would kill him a decade later and he was consigned to civilian life. He churned out 100 or more essays and small pieces a year, living with his wife, Eileen, in a series of shabby apartments across north London. Mullally recalls being invited around for a meal at 27B Canonbury Square in Islington -- then a quasi-slum, now a model of urban gentrification. Orwell walked down four floors to the basement to get a load of coal and four floors up again. "I said, 'George, surely you can afford to a pay a boy to do that?' He couldn't see it. It'd be exploiting the proletariat. He didn't know what socialism was about. He was totally naive politically. He took himself out of the middle class, but he couldn't take the middle class out of himself."
He couldn't quite remove the anti-Semitism as well. Mullally recalls complaining one day, when they were having pints at the pub near the Tribune offices, about the difficulties he was having turning German Jewish writer Ricky Loewenthal's tortuous prose into readable English. "What do you expect," Orwell replied, "with all these Middle European Jews practically running the paper's politics?"
Mullally says he waited for the grin that would signal Orwell was joking. It never came.
As a writer Orwell developed slowly over time, his good friend, author Julian Symons, would recall. The early novels lacked what Orwell himself lacked: the human element. "The truth is that he did not have the interest in character, or in the intricacies of human relationships, that mark a true novelist," Symons wrote in an introduction to the 1993 edition of Animal Farm. He simply wasn't all that interested: he could be generous, helpful and even sympathetic to those he considered "lame ducks." But not truly engaged.
He was also a writer who refused to be edited. "I'd been told by everyone: Never ever muck about with George's copy, and I never did," recalls Mullally. "I didn't need to; it always came in perfectly. Even the commas."
Aside from the essays, his most memorable works were his last two. "Animal Farm," published in 1944, was a savage Swiftian satire in which a Berkshire boar and an English barnyard stand in for Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. It was rejected by four publishers -- most famously by T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber. Some thought it was too strange, and others deemed it unpatriotic to attack Stalin at a time when Uncle Joe was Britain's and America's loyal ally in the war against Hitler. But "Animal Farm" sold well, giving Orwell for the first time a steady income, which he spent on renting a farmhouse in the Hebrides and a child-nurse for his young son after Eileen died unexpectedly while in surgery.
It was there he wrote most of "Nineteen Eighty-Four," his final and most enduring book. Orwell called it a satire, but it holds up best as a portrait of the power and psychology of totalitarianism, which he depicts this way: "To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them."
The novel is set in a London in the grip of murderous, cynical, one-party rule. It is a world where anything old, cherished or beautiful is suspect, where sex is a subversive act and where everything means the opposite of what it says. The Ministry of Peace is in charge of war, while the Ministry of Truth, where the hapless Winston Smith works, is in charge of lies. The Ministry of Love engages in torture, and the Ministry of Plenty oversees starvation.
"The party seeks power entirely for its own sake," O'Brien, the apparatchik, explains to Smith after nabbing him for subversive thoughts. "We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power."
"Nineteen Eighty-Four" brought Orwell huge profits and huge fame, especially in the United States, where readers saw it as an undisguised attack on the Soviet Union and on the left in general by a reformed prophet they presumed had once been a socialist but had come to see the error of his ways. When the facts didn't fit this interpretation, his American publishers simply engaged in some Orwellian deletions. Symons points out that the 1956 Signet paperback contains Orwell's famous claim that "every line I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism," but deletes the remainder of the sentence: "and for democratic socialism as I understand it."
"The comparison is with John Milton," says British historian Ben Pimlott. "Was he attacking Christianity [in 'Paradise Lost']? No, he was attacking certain Christians. It's the same with Orwell -- he was attacking specific socialists, not socialism. There was a deeply questioning, restless but socialist mind at work. All those right-wingers who worship him should be reminded who he really was."
Orwell was less than faithful to Eileen during the last years of her life, according to biographer Bernard Crick, and after her death he desperately sought a new wife. He proposed to at least four women in the first year, all of them considerably younger than he and some of whom he barely knew. One of them, Sonia Brownell, eventually said yes, and became executor of his estate.
He did not live to see much of either the success or the distortion. The struggle to finish "Nineteen Eighty-Four" in the drafty, unheated Hebrides cottage brought on a new round of the lung disease that had stalked him since birth. He was packed off to a Gloucestershire sanitarium, where he fought for eight months, then was transferred to a hospital in London and died of a hemorrhage in January 1950 at the age of 46.
"A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying," he once wrote, "since any life when viewed from inside is simply a series of defeats." Nonetheless, for those of us celebrating the legend and his books from the distance of half a century, it seems more like a triumph.
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