Book Reviews:
issue 22

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Orwell:  Wintry Conscience of a Generation by Jeffrey Meyers
The Law of Averages by Frederick Barthelme

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Orwell:  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. Cyprian’s 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 Priest’s guts.”  The essay - based on Orwell’s actual shooting of an elephant - astutely sums up the peculiar position of the British colonialist at odds with his country’s 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 Orwell’s 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 Orwell’s patron, David Astor, editor of the Observer.  

Biographer Meyers devotes much detail to Orwell’s style and appearance, which according to those who knew Orwell was not exactly winning:   “[Michael Meyer] noticed the deep carved furrows on Orwell’s 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 O’Shaughnessy.  The two lived in very rough housing (as was always Orwell’s 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 couldn’t 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 Lewis’s reputation as well as his own. 

Meyers repeatedly refers to guilt as one of the keys to Orwell’s character - guilt over having disappointed his family, guilt over his wife’s 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 Orwell’s 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 Nelson’s 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 imagist’s 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, we’re 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 doesn’t 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 it’s 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. He’s a bit broody and has his own quirks, but he poses no problems.  His days of high passion and drama are over, but he’s been there.  These days he may become fixated on an attractive TV anchor-woman, but that’s about it - unless he’s taken up with a younger woman or developed an attachment to his brother’s 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 doesn’t 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 he’s soon approached by a pretty resident.  They take a drive together and at the woman’s suggestion they stop to look at a room in a seedy motel because she’s never seen a room in a place like that.  The surly owner won’t show them one.  They return.   She suggests they have cocktails by the pool the next evening, but she doesn’t show . . . 

Dolores hasn’t come out. Mike Wallace interviews a California man who stuffs pet animals for their owners. Harry Reasoner reports on the Florida drug trade. It’s not clear whether Dolores intends to come out or was just playing. To be sure, and because talking to Dolores outside in the courtyard might be pleasant, you turn off the television and go down to the pagoda. All the chairs and tables are painted the color of the lighted water in the pool. For the hundredth time, water seems beautiful. The palms around the three sides of the pagoda make it feel secluded, even though it isn’t really.The apartment windows where there are lights have drawn curtains; the dark windows could hide people. Still, it’s comfortable outside, and if Dolores doesn’t show, it’s not a total loss.

The story doesn’t 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 he’s hardly talking about Bali or the coast of Florida gives it an ironic touch that heightens the poignancy of the moment.

“Violet” begins with a guy sitting at home watching the news when a young girl knocks on his door and asks to use the phone; an amusing little episode ensues.  “Export” portrays a twice-married, divorced man who is drawn back into the world of women by his pretty forty-year-old landlady.  They travel to a rundown, Texas border town, presumably with plans of a sexual fling, but it’s a sad and desolate place.”  “Pupil” is about a single professor who, against his better judgement, invites a young student to a barbecue dinner at his apartment.  She brings along her older brother, who haughtily launches into an appraisal of the professor as fit or not for his little sister.  This dismal ‘date’ becomes nothing short of something to endure until the professor is finally left alone with the girl towards whom he hardly wishes to make any further advances even though he has been given a green light. But as he gently stops her from unbuttoning her blouse, he can’t help noticing that “her braces are shining.  On one of her front teeth there’s a tiny reflection of me and of the living room behind me.  I think about touching the down on her face.”

“Cooker” gives us a family of four with a dad who complains about everything - the self-serving interests of his co-workers and the media, the lies on TV, etc.  As he’s barbecuing, he muses:  “What I’m thinking about out there on the deck, is that I’m not living the way I ought to be living, not the way I thought I would be.  It’s all obvious stuff - women, mostly.  I’m not Mr. Imagination on the deal.”  Later at night he tries to explain some of his grievances to his young son, who’s camping in the backyard in a tent.  The kid thinks his dad is drunk and gets his mom, who ends up sitting in the tent with her husband, talking.  “We’re not completely gone,” she tells her husband.  “We’re OK.  We’ve just got to take it one thing at a time.  We’ve got to go binary on the deal.”

In “War with Japan,” another unsatisfied husband plans to move into the garage apartment away from his wife.  In a very funny exchange, he tries to explain the move to his 12-year-old son using the war with Japan as an analogy; while in “Bag Boy” a man twenty years older than his wife Jen, aged 27, meets Jen’s dad, a man of about his age, as they travel to Dallas, because Jen’s dad is an assassination buff.  The historic site proves disappointing, however, and the three of them, plus a girlfriend of Jen’s and a bag boy that she picked up, form the motley crew who cruise around the city; and in the brief “Harmonic” we have the arresting opening:  “You are on-line, looking at the three-month chart of a favorite stock, when a car hits the tree in your yard.  At first you are afraid that it’s your daughter Trinity.”

In yet another, a divorced history professor meets a divorced woman in the “Red Arrow” car wash.  They hit it off and he moves in with her.  The dull prof sparks to life - too much so one night when he gets drunk at a party, flirts outrageously with an Indian exchange student, and ends up leaving with another female student at whose house he spends the night.  And in “From Mars,” a man married to a woman with a nineteen-year-old daughter ends up at a pancake house with his stepdaughter, whom he has just taken to the hospital to be treated for an injury from her abusive boyfriend. Then the boyfriend walks in all apologetic and joins them.  The stepdad doesn’t have much of an idea how to deal with the situation, but does the best he can:   he listens, he even feels some sympathy for the young kid.

Transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary is Barthelme’s forte, a feat he accomplishes in deceptively simple, minimalist prose with carefully chosen commonplace detail that allows us to see the “same old same old” in a new way; and with dialogue that is both fresh and familiar, and oh so just right.  The reader, too, is left feeling that “We’re not completely gone . . .We’re OK.”  Even if something that could have happened, doesn’t happen; even if Dolores doesn’t show at the pool.    Many thanks to Counterpoint who’ve published this delectable collection that confirms Barthelme as one of the major writing talents in the U.S.  J.A.   [See “Driver,” one of the stories from The Law of Averages, in this issue of TBR.]

© 2000 The Barcelona Review
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