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Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation by Jeffrey Meyers
The Law of Averages by Frederick Barthelme
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Wintry Conscience of a Generation by Jeffrey Meyers: W.W. Norton & Co., U.S., 2000
This latest biography of George Orwell reveals a darker - yet more fully realized and complex - portrait of the man dubbed by V.S. Pritchett as the wintry conscience of a generation. . . a kind of saint. Born in India in 1903, son to a stiff-laced civil servant in the British Empire and a fun-loving mother - who soon took her children to England and lived separately from her husband - Orwell grew to reject the repressive class system of his birth. First came five miserable years at St. Cyprians prep school (recollected in the classic essay Such, Such Were the Joys) followed by four years at Eton and then a position with the Imperial Police in Burma where, over the years, his anti-colonialist views developed while at the same time he held no great love for the natives. As he says in Shooting an Elephant: With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny . . . upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist Priests guts. The essay - based on Orwells actual shooting of an elephant - astutely sums up the peculiar position of the British colonialist at odds with his countrys imperialist views while having to live (and police) the rather unlikeable natives.
To his family's dismay, Orwell eventually walked out of this lucrative position and thus began the down-and-out years of bumming around Paris and London, a path he consciously chose in order to mix with ordinary, even homeless, people. It was an effort in part to compensate, as he once stated, for the tragic failure of theoretical socialism to make any contact with the normal working class. Thus, too, began the years of Orwells chastising the pansy left-wing intellectuals who, he felt, maintained a totally ineffectual (as in non-existent) relationship with the working class. This stance alienated Orwell from would-be peers, and for the most part he was to remain a rather solitary figure - a firm anti-imperialist yet at loggerheads with the Left and by dint of his education never quite one of his beloved working class, although he claimed to feel most at ease with them. Notable exceptions included boyhood classmate Cyril Connolly and later friendships with Arthur Koestler, Antony Powell (the only Tory I ever liked) and Orwells patron, David Astor, editor of the Observer.
Biographer Meyers devotes much detail to Orwells style and appearance, which according to those who knew Orwell was not exactly winning: [Michael Meyer] noticed the deep carved furrows on Orwells cheeks, the languid drawl, the ostentatiously rough dress, the plebeian haircut, the weak high-pitched voice . . . and the strained breathing after a brisk walk. Respiratory problems were to plague Orwell throughout his life, certainly not helped by tramping around the countryside picking hops and living in seedy, freezing boarding-rooms in winter.
Next came marriage to the bright and attractive Eileen OShaughnessy. The two lived in very rough housing (as was always Orwells wont) in a remote area of the English countryside and tried to grow vegetables (fairly successfully) and run a village general store (not very successfully). After a stint at schoolteaching, Orwell enlisted in the P.O.U.M. (Unified Marxist Workers Party) in a desire to fight the Fascists in Spain. In the famous account of his experience, Homage to Catalonia, he describes the desolate (and often comic) trench warfare on the Aragón front, the Barcelona uprising in May 1937, his near-fatal wound (a shot through the neck) and soon afterwards the Communists fierce suppression of the Trotskyist P.O.U.M., which successfully sabotaged the workers revolution, causing Orwell to flee for his life. Back in England his views on the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union went unheeded by the Left who were making excuses in the name of expediency for the Stalin purges.
During World War II Orwell - not fit for action - was a member of the Home Guard and a writer for the BBC. After his wife died at the young age of thirty-nine, he went on to publish his two most famous novels, Animal Farm (rejected by all major publishers, including T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber, before finding a home with up-and-coming Secker and Warburg) and Nineteen Eighty-Four. He finished the latter while living on the remote island of Jura in the Scottish Hebrides, a move that was considered suicidal by many considering his ill-health. He then spent much time in various sanatoriums before succumbing to tuberculosis in a London Hospital in 1950 at age forty-seven, shortly after a bizarre and surprising death-bed marriage to the lovely Sonia Brownell, whom many considered a literary star-gatherer.
Meyers account is lucid and engaging, giving us a thorough literary and personal history and including many telling anecdotes: There is the time Orwell and his wife spent in Morocco where the normally sexually sedate Orwell felt compelled to have an Arab girl - and did so, which put some strain on the marriage. Indeed, Orwell comes across as not always being so considerate of his wife - insisting on a severely austere lifestyle, which deprived Eileen from pursuing intellectual work of her own - or of his contemporaries. His friend Arthur Koestler once asked Orwell why he had criticized a play of his so severely, wondering why he couldnt have softened his criticism somewhat. Orwell, placing the blame squarely on Koestler, said it had never occurred to him, although he later conceded he might have been too severe.
Orwell could be dead wrong, too. A case in point was his attack on Wyndham Lewis when Orwell wrote a wholly ungrounded and inaccurate article in the Partisan Review claiming that Lewis had become a communist sympathizer and was writing a book in praise of Stalin to balance his previous book in praise of Hitler - an attack that damaged Lewiss reputation as well as his own.
Meyers repeatedly refers to guilt as one of the keys to Orwells character - guilt over having disappointed his family, guilt over his wifes death (at which he was not present), and guilt over his own shortcomings, for he was his own harshest critic. In the words of Noel Annan, Orwell remained a biting, bleak, self-critical, self-denying man of the idealist left . . . [He] spoke with the voice of ethical socialism . . . He was the first saint of Our Age, quirky, fierce, independent and beholden to none. Meyers diffuses the saintly image, but in doing so he gives us an intriguing and nuanced portrait of the political and literary visionary who single-handedly fought for clarity in thought, words and action (Politics and the English Language remains standard classroom reading today, opening eyes to the double-speak of modern language) and whose prophetic novels have had a huge impact on twentieth-century thinking. From a purely political point of view, he was, as we now know, right about it all. That took clear thinking and brutal honesty and an extraordinary compassion for the common man - even if he remained somewhat aloof and broody. Meyers sums him up thus: Orwell never could - perhaps never wanted to - resolve the contradictions in his elusive character: Etonian prole, anti-colonial policeman, bourgeois bum, Tory Anarchist, Leftist critic of the Left, puritanical lecher, kindly autocrat. This revealing new biography, drawing on interviews with Orwells family and friends, and research into unpublished material in the Orwell Archive in London, goes a long way toward illuminating the elusive, legendary figure. J.A.
|The Law of
Averages by Frederick Barthelme: Counterpoint, U.S., 2000
This collection of twenty-nine new and selected stories is presented chronologically from the early 1980s to the present day. I read the collection from back to front, which proved a delightful way to weave slowly back in time, beginning with references to Boogie Nights, baseball hats worn backwards, AOL and Amazon, and ending with matching Cheryl Tiegs jeans and T-shirts, Willie Nelsons Stardust, rooster-cut hairdos and Miami Vice. The details, which make this twenty-year retrospective so much fun, are important. The ordinary, everyday details - as deftly chosen as the imagists red wheelbarrow - give form and meaning to the lives of the ordinary people who fill the pages. They can define a generation, as in Grapette, where a precocious young girl, who had had a fling with the thirty-three-year-old narrator when she was only thirteen (her permissive parents being aware of the fact, so yes, were back in the early 80s), now briefly reenters his life on her seventeenth birthday. The two end up at his apartment - no sexual sparks now - and when he is unable to find any kind of soft drink that she requests, he says You might as well go ahead and ask for a Grapette. She doesnt know what that is, of course, and he replies Grapette kind of went away, I guess. I hate that. To which she replies, Are you sure? Maybe we ought to go find some, maybe its still out there.
A typical protagonist in the stories would be a male of around forty years old, middle-class, perhaps a teacher, living in the suburbs, perhaps in an apartment complex. He is probably divorced or into his second marriage. There is nothing much to distinguish him. Perhaps he has grown apart from his wife. Perhaps he is seeing a student. Barbecues on the deck are a typical activity. He does his job, he comes home, he sits in his La-Z-Boy chair, he watches TV. He may not be brilliant, but he is keen and observant. He despises the media manipulation that assaults him from all fronts. Hes a bit broody and has his own quirks, but he poses no problems. His days of high passion and drama are over, but hes been there. These days he may become fixated on an attractive TV anchor-woman, but thats about it - unless hes taken up with a younger woman or developed an attachment to his brothers wife. He is, in short, an ordinary American - whatever that is supposed to mean. Barthelme would have us know that it is the commonplace props of popular culture - the details - that are average, and although one must define oneself against the homogeneity of the cultural milieu, his characters do the best they can to do just that. If the only normal people are the people one doesnt know very well, then Barthelme gives us that extra glimpse, showing us the little oddities of character that give them a personal identity and make our hearts warm to them.
In Pool Nights, an early story told in the second person, a handsome swimming teacher has recently moved into an apartment complex, which surrounds a pool where the tenants hang out. The guy likes to be alone, preferring to look at everyone around the pool from inside his apartment, but hes soon approached by a pretty resident. They take a drive together and at the womans suggestion they stop to look at a room in a seedy motel because shes never seen a room in a place like that. The surly owner wont show them one. They return. She suggests they have cocktails by the pool the next evening, but she doesnt show . . .
The story doesnt end here; it ends on a perfectly pitched low-key note, but this
passage tells us much about our man. He can
appreciate the water, the palms. And of
course the fact hes hardly talking about Bali or the coast of Florida gives it an
ironic touch that heightens the poignancy of the moment.