ORWELL: THE TRANSFORMATION by Peter & William Abrahams Stansky
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ORWELL: THE TRANSFORMATION

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KIRKUS REVIEW

George Orwell's will stipulated his opposition to any biography, so Stansky and Abrahams have gotten around the problem by including him in a larger project dealing with British writers and the Spanish Civil War, begun with Journey to the Frontier (on poets John Cornford and Julian Bell). This volume follows the earlier The Unknown Orwell, which chronicled the life of Eric Blair (Orwell's real name) before he published his first book. The ""transformation"" here is from Blair to Orwell, a pseudonym appended for the first time to Down and Out in Paris and London. Stansky and Abrahams show us an Orwell/Blair who is, at first, almost completely apolitical and concerned solely with his life as a writer. Forced to work as a schoolmaster and a clerk in a bookshop, Orwell/Blair fretted over reviews and struggled to establish himself, like any young would-be novelist. After the success--critically, at least--of Down and Out, Orwell/Blair published three novels which went nowhere and was on the verge of becoming a predictable chronicler of the lives of the poor. Then came the journalistic The Road to Wigan Pier, and Orwell began to separate from Blair as he found his rightful milieu in high journalism. But, Stansky and Abrahams point out, he also became sensitized to politics, not, as other Etonians might, by reading books, but by experiencing the lives and socialist hopes of the Wigan poor. Orwell's was an empirical politics, and just as Wigan began to make him famous, he followed his new political sensibility to Spain; with Orwell, the causal relation was clear--if one is a socialist, one must fight fascism. In Spain, the transformation was completed as Orwell aligned himself with the semi-anarchist POUM and experienced, as he thought, the classless society first-hand. He also experienced the suppression of the anarchists by the Spanish Communists--and thus his political education was fleshed out with the cynicism that would first find expression in Homage to Catalonia, and later in his classic Animal Farm and 1984. Abrahams and Stansky end their story in Spain, in accordance with their plan; and, unless they can find another pretext, the period of Orwell's great fame will remain unwritten. As it is, the ""transformation"" is the key to the cranky, hard-to-define political vision of Orwell, and Stansky and Abrahams have done a brilliant job of bringing it into focus. Let's hope they find an excuse to go on.

Pub Date: April 24th, 1980
Publisher: Knopf