Kirkus Reviews QR Code
ORWELL by D.J. Taylor

ORWELL

The Life

By D.J. Taylor

Pub Date: Sept. 3rd, 2003
ISBN: 0-8050-7473-2
Publisher: Henry Holt

Carping portrait of the English patron saint of left-wing anti-communism, by a biographer who displayed a lot more enthusiasm for Thackeray (2001).

Although Taylor writes that George Orwell (1903–50) “has obsessed me for the best part of a quarter of a century,” the principal sign of his obsession here is endless quibbling with other Orwell observers’ comments, which may or may not be familiar to readers of this work. Moreover, most of these comments are critical—Orwell was self-pitying, he was paranoid, he condescended to the working classes he professed to admire—and are refuted perfunctorily. (A particularly nasty diatribe from a Marxist guide to English literature is reprinted over three pages without any comment at all.) Certainly, in recent years much has come to light about the less attractive features of the author revered for his painfully honest scrutiny of socialism in The Road to Wigan Pier, his superb reporting from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War in Homage to Catalonia, and most of all for his scathing fictional depictions of totalitarianism, Animal Farm and 1984. But a biography ought to at least convey the qualities that made Orwell an increasingly important, controversial figure in English literary and political circles of the 1930s and ’40s. The account of his early years as the son of a British colonial official, a scholarship boy at Eton, and a policeman in Burma is similarly shaped by the desire to cut Orwell down to size; his later reminiscences of those days, Taylor informs us, were highly selective and crafted with an eye to political symbolism—not exactly unusual strategies in autobiographical writing. Impressionistic chapters on “Orwell’s face,” “Orwell’s voice” (horrors: he retained his upper-class accent), “Orwell’s things,” and on and on, do not further illuminate the personality of an admittedly reserved man who entirely fails to come to life in these pages.

Like many volumes on the groaning shelf of Orwelliana, this reads more like a conversation with fellow monomaniacs than something for the general public. (16 pp. b&w illustrations, not seen)