Books

Subversion and genius

Biographies of two great writers show they had much in common

John Bemrose November 20 2000
Books

Subversion and genius

Biographies of two great writers show they had much in common

John Bemrose November 20 2000

Subversion and genius

Books

Biographies of two great writers show they had much in common

John Bemrose

On the face of it, the two writers are as unalike as chalk and cheese. George Orwell, who died in 1950 of tuberculosis, was a committed socialist and intellectual who chronicled the decline of the British Empire. His masterpiece, 1984, is a biting and gloomy novel about a world crushed by totalitarianism. By contrast, the career of American author Saul Bellow—still very much alive at 85—has reflected his country’s spectacular rise to dominance in the second half of the 20th century. In novels from The Adventures of Augie March to Herzog, Bellow has caught the expansive energies and manic individualism of a society in which anything seems possible.

Yet as two new biographies show, these two authors have much in common. Both laboured long before finding fame and fortune. Both pursued many unstable relationships with women. And both rejected given notions of success. Whether writing about Winston Smith resisting the blandishments of Big Brother or Moses Herzog compulsively pulling his comfortable middle-class life apart, Orwell and Bellow celebrate a rebelliousness whose inspiration was none other than their own lives.

Several biographies have been written about Orwell, yet none catches his thorny, inspiring presence quite so freshly as Jeffrey Meyers’s Orwell, Wintry Conscience of a Generation (Penguin, 380 pages, $42). Born Eric Blair in 1903 in India (he didn’t adopt his famous pen name until the publication of his first book in 1933), Orwell grew up with every prospect of becoming just another member of the British middle class with its sunny, Empire-inflating patriotism. After his family moved back to England, Orwell endured the usual private-school education with its canings and force-feedings of Greek grammar, winning a scholarship to Eton in 1917. Upon graduation, he signed up as a colonial policeman in Burma.

But he was appalled by the brutal workings of Empire and his own part in them—he later admitted beating his own native servants, standard practice at the time. Shocking his family, he resigned and returned to England. Between 1927 and 1932, he lived frequently like a tramp, trudging about with the unemployed and sleeping rough—experiences he reported in his groundbreaking first book, Down and Out in Paris and London. Later in that decade, Orwell fought as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republicans, emerging disillusioned with communism but recommitted to a humanistic socialism.

All this is well known. What Meyers adds to the Orwell story (besides some new photographs and some relatively minor facts) is a powerful sense of the restlessness and unhappiness that drove the man. For Meyers, a respected literary biographer and scholar, the mainspring was guilt— guilt at his privileged upbringing, guilt for the sins of Empire, guilt at being human and thus fallible.

This guilt, Meyers writes, formed “a kind of disfiguring hump that he always carried around with him.”

But Meyers also seems right in insisting that Orwell enjoyed this guilt and the ascetic extremes it drove him to, from refusing to wear an overcoat in winter (which undoubtedly inflamed his TB) to recklessly exposing himself to Fascist bullets in Spain. There was a caustic, perverse joy in the writer that grew more intense the tougher the situation became, and it is this that makes him so attractive. With his thin moustache, tall, tubercular frame, rusty voice and piercing eyes, Orwell all but walks off Meyers’s pages.

Orwell, the child of privilege, wanted to share the privations of the poor. But the subject of James Adas’s fascinating Bellow (Random House, 686 pages, $53), the first major biography of the writer, was born poor in 1915 to Russian Jewish immigrants in Lachine, Que. Bellow would remember his nine years in Canada as an idyllic time, while viewing his family’s move to Chicago in 1924 as a fall into a more abrasive reality. As he later wrote: “Everything was louder, rawer, cruder, noisier, hotter, bigger than anything I had seen in Canada.”

Bellow had to fight to become a writer: his family despised the occupation and wanted him to go into business. Their disapproval, along with the death of his mother when he was 17, helped shape the chronic, embattled loneliness that informs Bellows novels. As Adas points out, all Bellows heroes are versions of himself—isolated, sensi-

tive, misunderstood men with wellstocked, far-ranging minds. The novelist has never been particularly good at plot or at getting into the heads of characters unlike himself. These are huge limitations in a writer, but Bellow has made a virtue of his egotism. In most of his novels, the hero’s presence saturates every sentence until—in the sparking, supercharged dynamo of the writer’s prose-—his every foible and thought fuse in a unique world.

Bellow has enjoyed a kind of worldly success that came too late to be much good to the sickly Orwell. In 1976, Bellow won the Nobel Prize, and he has long been lionized as the most outstanding contemporary American writer. An armchair socialist when young, Bellow has grown more conservative. In the late 1980s, he provoked an outcry from supporters of multiculturalism by rhetorically demanding of a reporter: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” Orwell might not have agreed with his premises, but Bellows tilt at political correctness would surely have drawn a chuckle from the subversive Englishman. ES]