Thinking Fearlessly

George Orwell: A Life, By Bernard Crick.
473 pages. Atlantic/Little, Brown. $17.95

By Charles Kaiser
From Newsweek

One of the problems with profiling George Orwell is that he wrote so supremely well about himself; the other is that his prose style and political convictions are generally more interesting than his life. As Bernard Crick reports in his new biography, Orwell "made a virtue of being very ordinary." Whenever he recognized a moral imperative, Orwell never hesitated to act — courageously on the Republican side in Spain, less exotically in the Home Guard in Britain — but he was clearly happiest hunched over a typewriter, existing on very rare roast beef in good times and Indian tea and strong tobacco all the time.

Crick's George Orwell is important because this English political scientist is the first writer to have been given unrestricted access to Orwell's papers as well as unlimited rights of quotation. The result is the best-written and most comprehensive Orwell biography to date — which means it suffers only by comparison with Orwell's own work.

Orwell was an enormously private man whose seeming openness in print was actually one of his most effective literary devices. His simultaneous use of two names during most of his adult life was one method of cultivating the Mystery around him; another was his habit of keeping different groups of friends very much apart. Crick says even years after Orwell's death people were often astonished to discover who else he knew. This biography rejects the notion that Eric Blair (his real name) transformed himself into someone different called "George Orwell"; Crick believes instead that "Blair came to adopt the Orwell part of himself as an ideal image to be lived up to: an image of integrity, honesty, simplicity, egalitarian conviction, plain living, plain writing and plain speaking."

Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were the first books to capture the mass audience he coveted, but it was the publication of Homage to Catalonia almost a decade earlier that established Orwell as a man with "an almost reckless commitment to speaking out unwelcome truths." His blistering attack on the communists in Spain--who were purportedly fighting for the same cause as he-enraged Stalinists in the 1930s, although the same book would become one of the bibles of the "ex-left" in the 1950s.

More remarkable than Orwell's politics were his public demands "that his own side should live up to their principles." Similarly, Orwell thought it a "deadly sin" to say, "X is a political enemy: therefore he is a bad writer." Because he distinguished between an artist's talent and his personality, he could suggest that "one ought to be able to hold in one's head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being." What Crick calls "the connection between clarity . . . and truth" was probably Orwell's single most important preoccupation. Typically, he unfolded his ideas first in such brilliant essays as "The Prevention of Literature" and "Politics and the English Language," only to refine them further in his two most famous works of fiction. He also raised heterodoxy to the level of a literary commandment: "To write in plain, vigorous language, one has to think fearlessly and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox."

Orwell knew of the contradiction between the gentleness he projected in person and his harshness in print, and he sought to preserve it. He told Stephen Spender he didn't "mix much in literary circles" partly because "I know from experience that once I have met & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to."

What made Orwell so unusual as a polemicist was the fact that his "intellectual brutality" was usually matched by the strength of his argument. Occasionally, he could be very wrong — even about a serious matter, like the inevitable fascism he predicted for wartime Britain. But a careful reading of his "Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters" produces the clear impression that he was probably right more often about more important issues than any other journalist of his generation.

He was the opposite of a man like Walter Lippmann, who devoted almost as much time to the cultivation of the powerful as he did to the construction of his columns. Partly because he made a fetish of being unfashionable, Orwell produced scores of essays as powerful today as they were 40 years ago, while the most influential American journalist of this century made himself a hero to his contemporaries by writing relatively little of lasting value.

"Literature," wrote Orwell, "is an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one's contemporaries by recording experience," but he tried not to worry too much about the immediate impact of his invective. Two years before his death at 46 in 1950, Orwell asked in "In Defense of Comrade Zilliacus," "What does it matter to be laughed at? The big public, in any case, usually doesn't see the joke, and if you state your principles clearly and stick to them, it is wonderful how people come round to you in the end." History has proven him magnificently right.

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