Sunday, May 15, 2005

George Orwell, by D J Thomas

Near the end of D J Thomas’ biography he says that it is the unfortunate fate of most biographers that they fall ‘devastatingly out of love with their subjects’. He then goes on to happily state that that has not been the case with him, and that his affection for Orwell is still fully intact. Well, you could have fooled me!

Before starting this bio – a gracious gift from a work colleague – I did a quick check at Amazon.com, to read a few reviews. They were pretty mixed. Some loved it. Some really bitched that the author seemed to have it in for Orwell. They especially took D J Thomas to task for disbelieving Orwell’s account of his school days, provided in his famous, posthumously published long essay ‘Such, Such Were The Joys’. (If you’ve ever had a lousy time at school, you should read this essay. You’ll eat it up.)

I didn’t mind so much D J Thomas’ suggestion that Orwell created his own myth. Lots of authors do that, and it doesn’t seem out of line to argue that Orwell liked to exaggerate the truth himself. Yet I found in D J Thomas a tough minded, almost mean, intellectual. He’s smarter than I’ll ever be; certainly knows heaps more than me. Yet I found myself questioning some of his surmises.

For example, in Tosco Fyvell’s biography of Orwell, he quotes Orwell on his sickbed asking the question, ‘Is it possible to die with another book inside you?’ To me, this seemed a sad, whimsical sort of question. But Thomas claims that Orwell really believed this, almost intimating that he was a bit silly or far fetched.

Then there was a sentence that Thomas quotes from one of Orwell’s essays, where Orwell, in a mood of self pity, says that all his novel writing has been a failure, and that indeed, all books are failures. Thomas then gets on his high horse all of a sudden, all out of proportion to the quote I felt, and thunders something along the lines of, How can all novels be failures, how can he dare to say this about other writers? But the way I interpreted that line I felt Orwell was trying to say that, as a novelist and writer, he senses that all writers have this sense of failure, that their literary dreams never live up to what they had hoped.

Then there is a very short chapter – 3 pages long – titled, ‘The Case Against’, where he argues against Orwell, listing his failures. Well, the absolute vigour with which he plunges into this theme! I was quite shocked. You get the feeling that D J Thomas feels a little superior to his subject, or that maybe he has ‘fallen out of love’ with his subject.

Having said that, I did very much enjoy this book. It confirmed a lot of what I suspected about Orwell, the basic conflicts in his life, like between military action and pacifism, aggressive politics and the common people who muddle through life.

On his death bed Orwell requested that no biography be written about him. Making sure that no one could possible do such a thing, it seems, there is scant information available about him. He seemed very private – Thomas calls him ‘secretive’. In the afterward, Thomas says that most of the biographical detail about him comes from Professor Peter Davison’s 20 volume complete works, or which I have read one volume. So there you go, if you want to put together your own bio, you know where to start. And if you want to find your own version of the truth with regards to George Orwell, I’d pursue some of the letters and diary fragments, which I think give you the truest sense of Orwell as a living human being, rather than a literary artefact. Also read the self-deprecatory lines in his essays, which I think quite revealing. They pop up out of nowhere in his essays from time to time, almost tripping you up by their frankness.

My final verdict: a smart, perhaps too smart biography. I don’t totally trust all of what the biographer has to say. He doesn’t seem too sympathetic to Orwell.

This is quite a long read, and I can’t imagine it being picked up and read just for amusement. I dare say this in only for Orwell fans.

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