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Orwell: Life and Art

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 272
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    Book Description:

    This remarkable volume collects, for the first time, essays representing more than four decades of scholarship by one of the world's leading authorities on George Orwell. In clear, energetic prose that exemplifies his indefatigable attention to Orwell's life work, Jeffrey Meyers analyzes the works and reception of one of the most widely read and admired twentieth-century authors._x000B__x000B_Orwell: Life and Art covers the novelist's painful childhood and presents accounts of his autobiographical writings from the beginning of his career through the Spanish Civil War. Meyers continues with analyses of Orwell's major works, including Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, as well as his style, distinctive satiric humor, and approach to the art of writing. Meyers ends with a scrupulous examination of six biographies of Orwell, including his own, that embodies a consummate grasp and mastery of both the art of biography and Orwell's life and legacy._x000B__x000B_Writing with an authority born of decades of focused scholarship, visits to Orwell's homes and workplaces, and interviews with his survivors, Meyers sculpts a dynamic view of Orwell's enduring influence on literature, art, culture, and politics.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09022-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)

    George Orwell, the most widely read and influential serious writer of the twentieth century, has been my lifelong interest. My dissertation and first book,Fiction and the Colonial Experience(1973), considered cultural conflicts in the novels of Kipling, Conrad, Forster, Joyce Cary and Graham Greene that developed when European nations imposed their manners and customs, religious beliefs and moral values on an indigenous way of life. My extensive travels in India and Africa, and professional interest in this subject, led me toBurmese Daysand to a passion for Orwell. I eventually wrote four books about him:A Reader’s Guide...

  4. I: THE LIFE

    • ONE Orwell’s Painful Childhood
      (pp. 3-8)

      Orwell was always extremely reticent about his personal affairs, so we know virtually nothing about how his character was formed in his earliest years. He was born in 1903 in Motihari, situated on the bank of a lake in the state of Bihar, between Patna and Katmandu. His father was a sub-deputy agent in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service, and Orwell’s family was part of that “upper-middle class, which had its heyday in the eighties and nineties, with Kipling as its poet laureate, and was a sort of mound of wreckage left behind when the tide of...

    • TWO Orwell’s Burma
      (pp. 9-21)

      It was not easy to follow George Orwell’s footsteps in Burma. Not that I was hampered by a lack of freedom to travel. While the country’s military junta was still limiting the movements of the courageous Aung San Suu Kyi—the hopeful alternative to the current repressive regime—last year it had signed treaties with rebellious hill tribes on the borders of India and China and had lifted travel restrictions. I was able to journey by plane, ship, boat, bus, car, trishaw, and foot to see the places where Orwell, the subject of my recently published biography, had lived while...

    • THREE The Ethics of Responsibility: Burmese Days
      (pp. 22-26)

      Passing through Paris on his way to fight in Spain in 1936, Orwell stopped to meet Henry Miller, whose books he had reviewed and admired. Miller cared nothing for the Spanish War, and forcibly told Orwell, who was going to combat Fascism and defend democracy “from a sense of obligation,” that he was an idiot.¹ This striking confrontation reveals the polarity of political attitudes among modern writers. If Miller, as Orwell later wrote, is undoubtedly “inside the whale”—performing “the essential Jonah act of allowing himself to be swallowed, remaining passive,accepting”—then Orwell himself is clearly “outside the whale,”...

    • FOUR Orwell: The Honorary Proletarian
      (pp. 27-46)

      These entries are remarkably similar in the fervor of their unjustified selftorment, and they suggest Orwell’s close resemblance to Johnson as well as his place as the last of the English moralists—Johnson, Blake and Lawrence—whose passionate intensity is nearly prophetic. Both Johnson and Orwell had unhappy childhoods, struggled long with severe illness and bitter poverty, spent many years as hack journalists and did not achieve fame until their mid-forties. Both men were independent, combative, harsh on themselves and others, and often wrong-headed in a fascinating way. Both had limited imaginations but great critical faculties; and their satire was...

    • FIVE Orwell and the Experience of France
      (pp. 47-61)

      George Orwell, author of the satiric fableAnimal Farmand the prophetic novelNineteen Eighty-Four, created an image of himself as a quintessentially English writer in his choice of pseudonym, in the subject-matter of his novels and essays, and in his political analysis of the English social scene. But his mother was wholly French in background, though from an expatriate family. His first published book,Down and Out in Paris and London(1933), told the story of his extended stay in Paris in the late 1920s, his menial jobs and descent into poverty. One of his best essays, “How the...

    • SIX “An Affirming Flame”: Homage to Catalonia
      (pp. 62-74)

      In his valuable essay, “Orwell in Perspective,” John Wain states that much of the criticism on Orwell is useless or misdirected because it “started out from the wrong end. It is impossible to criticize an author’s work adequately until you have understood what kind of books he was writing.”¹Homage to Catalonia(1938), which contains autobiography, military history, political analysis and propaganda, is problematical in this respect and seems a mixture of “kinds.” The structure of the book is determined by Orwell’s motivations and psychological needs as well as by the pattern of historical events. This essay attempts to place...

    • SEVEN Repeating the Old Lies
      (pp. 75-80)

      As a biographer, I’m often more puzzled than enlightened by personal interviews. Establishing the facts is tricky enough, and the truth can be elusive. The people I talk to may be old, have frail health or failing memories. They sometimes “remember” what’s been written or said instead of what actually happened, or say what they think I want to hear. They may even lie to make themselves look better. Recently, I came across a new difficulty in literary biography: ideological blindness.

      I went to England in November 1998 to do research for a life of George Orwell. I had the...

  5. II: THE ART

    • EIGHT Orwell’s Apocalypse: Coming Up for Air
      (pp. 83-93)

      Coming Up for Air(1939), Orwell’s central transitional work, is both a synthetic and seminal book, gathering the themes that had been explored in the poverty books of the thirties and anticipating the cultural essays and political satires of the next decade. The location and central symbol of the novel appear as early asDown and Outwhen Orwell describes tramping in Lower Binfield and fishing in the Seine; but the novel has much closer affinities toKeep the Aspidistra Flying,for Gordon Comstock’s belief that our civilization is dying and the whole world will soon be blown up is...

    • NINE Orwell as Film Critic
      (pp. 94-100)

      Between October 1940 and August 1941 George Orwell wrote twenty-six film review columns—which were omitted from the four volumes of hisCollected Essays, Journalism and Letters—forTime and Tide.This politically independent weekly magazine was edited by the lively Lady Rhondda, the plump and curly-haired daughter of a Welsh coal magnate. Most of the films Orwell reviewed were undistinguished escapist entertainment, which he mostly disapproved of and disliked. But they also included minor works by major directors: Rene Clair’sThe Flame of New Orleansand Fritz Lang’sWestern Union; and a few which he took more seriously: the...

    • TEN The Reluctant Propagandist
      (pp. 101-105)

      In the 1970s, when I studied the Orwell papers at the British Broadcasting Company archives in Reading, England, I was given a radically incomplete file. In the early 1980s the amateur scholar William J. West, searching for material on C. K. Ogden’sBasic English,accidentally found that radio talks by Orwell—a producer in the Indian section from August 1941 until November 1943—had been mysteriously misfiled under the name of the Indian lady who introduced the program. This eventually led to West’s astonishing discovery of many of Orwell’s weekly war commentaries (to be published in a later volume), of...

    • ELEVEN The Wind in the Willows: A New Source for Animal Farm
      (pp. 106-113)

      The lucid, witty and ironic beast fables,The Wind in the Willows(1908) andAnimal Farm(1945), are two of the most popular books of the twentieth century, but no one (including myself, in four works on George Orwell) has seen how extensively Kenneth Grahame’s work influenced Orwell’s. Both books are too subtly allusive and politically sophisticated for children to understand fully. Grahame’s riverine Toad, Rat, Mole and Badger are matched by Orwell’s barnyard pigs, horses, donkeys and goats. Both sets of characters are attacked by their own kind: Grahame’s by weasels and stoats, Orwell’s by the ferocious police dogs...

    • TWELVE Orwell’s Bestiary: The Political Allegory of Animal Farm
      (pp. 114-125)

      Orwell’s hostility to the Russian Communists was a direct result of his experiences in Spain in 1937 when the Loyalists, like the revolutionaries in China in 1927, were betrayed by the Russians, and the Trotskyists whom Orwell had joined were mercilessly persecuted by their former comrades.¹ Orwell writes in his Preface to the Ukrainian edition ofAnimal Farm(1947): “These man-hunts in Spain went on at the same time as the great purges in the USSR and were a sort of supplement to them. . . . Nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of...

    • THIRTEEN The Evolution of Nineteen Eighty-Four
      (pp. 126-134)

      The most common cliché of Orwell criticism is thatNineteen Eighty-Fouris a “nightmare vision” of future totalitarianism.¹ I believe, on the contrary, that it is a very concrete and naturalistic portrayal of the present and the past, and that its great originality results more from a realistic synthesis and rearrangement of familiar materials than from any prophetic or imaginary speculations.Nineteen Eighty-Fouris not only a paradigm of the history of Europe for the previous twenty years, but also a culmination of all the characteristic beliefs and ideas expressed in Orwell’s works from the Depression to the cold war....

    • FOURTEEN Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel of the 1930s
      (pp. 135-146)

      Nineteen Eighty-Fouris a projection of the future that is based on a concrete and naturalistic portrayal of the present and the past. Its originality is rooted in a realistic synthesis and arrangement of familiar materials rather than in prophetic and imaginary speculations. The numerical title is thought to be a reversal of the last two digits of the year in which the book was completed (1948), but it was probably influenced by Yeats’ poem “1919” and certainly inspired Alberto Moravia’s1934, Anthony Burgess’s1985and Arthur Clarke’s2001.If the novel had been completed a year later and the...

    • FIFTEEN Miseries and Splendors of Scholarship
      (pp. 147-152)

      Wyndham Lewis’s prescient political study,The Art of Being Ruled(1926), which would have been a brilliant title for Orwell’s novel, begins with similar premises but arrives at quite different conclusions. Written a few years after the Russian Revolution and the Fascist coup in Italy, Lewis’s book, like Orwell’s, combines satire, political theory and prophecy. Lewis (who lived in Canada during World War II, taught at Assumption College and wrote his greatest novel,Self Condemned,about Toronto) sees the postwar world divided between the democratic and dictatorial forms of government: “The principal conflict to-day, then, is between the democratic and...

    • SIXTEEN The Complete Works of George Orwell
      (pp. 153-157)

      Peter Davison’s magisterial edition of Orwell’sComplete Worksincludes everything listed in Fenwick’sBibliographyand a great deal of fascinating complementary material. It has a handsome format and binding, attractive paper and type, and the rough lettering on the dust wrappers and endpapers looks like crudely stenciled words on a prison wall. The first nine volumes were published in 1986–87; the last eleven—with Orwell’s essays, reviews and letters—appeared in 1998 and provide an intellectual context for the major works. The substantial indexes in the final volume total 220 pages. The text is usually definitive; the notes concise...

    • SEVENTEEN Orwell: A Voice That Naked Goes
      (pp. 158-167)

      The 20-volumeComplete Worksof George Orwell (1998), brilliantly edited by Peter Davison, reveals as much about Orwell’s life as about his books. In 1945 he noted the contrast in many writers “between the character which they display in private life and the character which seems to emanate from their published works.” But Orwell’s life, like Chekhov’s, matches the idealism of his writing, and reflects the literary and political history of the first half of the twentieth century. He had exemplary courage, compassion and honesty, and the more we examine his character, the more we like him. Even his crankiness...

    • EIGHTEEN Orwell and the Art of Writing
      (pp. 168-187)

      While our country is bitterly divided by radically opposing views on domestic and foreign policy and we are engaged in an increasingly costly and risky far-off war, we had to vote in a presidential election in which neither candidate inspired hope or confidence. In London during the Second World War, when the propaganda war at home raged in concert with the war against Hitler, Orwell felt as many of us feel now. In his “War Diary” of April 27, 1942, he recorded: “We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who...

    • NINETEEN Orwell’s Satiric Humor
      (pp. 188-198)

      Orwell called the doom-laden Thirties “a riot of appalling folly that suddenly becomes a nightmare, a scenic railway ending in a torture-chamber,” and wrote that “since about 1930 everyone describable as an ‘intellectual’ has lived in a state of chronic discontent with the existing order.” “Everywhere,” he exclaimed in 1940, “there is the sense of the approaching cataclysm.” For him, to think was to be miserable.

      Gloomy George (as friends called him) was tubercular, guilt-ridden, masochistic and self-destructive. He relished physical discomfort and was extremely pessimistic. John Carey writes that Orwell was personally “prickly, diffident, ill at ease with ordinary...


    • TWENTY Reviewing the Orwellians
      (pp. 201-217)

      A Personal Prologue:

      In the spring of 1968 I won a grant from my university to do research at the Orwell Archive in University College, London. I wrote in advance to the director of the Library asking if I could read Orwell’s unpublished letters and manuscripts, and I duly received his permission. But when I arrived that summer and certified in writing that I was not working on a biography of Orwell, I was icily informed by Ian Angus, deputy librarian, that the unpublished material was closed and that I could read only what was already in print (which I...

    • TWENTY-ONE True to Life: Writing Orwell’s Biography
      (pp. 218-228)

      The impulse to write literary biography begins in fascination with an artist’s character, mind and art. George Orwell had interested me since 1968, when I went to read his unpublished letters and manuscripts at University College in London. Unwittingly, I came up against a classic stumbling block: the obstructive literary widow. The curator had given me written permission, but Sonia Orwell had abruptly closed the Archive to scholars. Orwell had left instructions that no biography was to be written, and she was furious that Peter Stansky and William Abrahams had deceptively used the Archive for that purpose. To get even...

    (pp. 229-230)

    After writing twenty-two lives, I’ve formulated twelve principles of biography. This is how I think lives should be written and what they ought to achieve.

    1. Read everything in print and follow up every lead.

    2. Be persistent and see everyone who will talk to you.

    3. Weigh all the evidence like a lawyer. A biographer is “an artist on oath.”

    4. Get the subject born in the first five pages. Nothing is duller than genealogy.

    5. Describe the subject’s personal habits and tastes.

    6. Portray the minor characters as fully as possible.

    7. Illuminate the recurrent patterns of the...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 231-246)
    (pp. 247-250)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 251-256)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 257-260)