My laptop was out of order for some days. For the last one year, since I bought it (my first), I was completely addicted to it. I became a laptop junkie. Then suddenly one day it was not available.
But not for long. I picked up one book and again became a reading junkie. I finished ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ (another British Man Booker Prize winner written by an Indian woman). I won’t talk about it now. Deserves more than a few lines. I also kept reading a (Linguistics) book I am going to review. Then I picked up D. J. Taylor’s biography of George Orwell.
I have not finished it, but whatever I have read has provoked me to write this post. I will complete it and if there is something significantly better than what I have read till now, I will modify my comments. Eat my words as any person proved wrong should.
So what was in the book? A wealth. Of trivial details. Of no significance. I was hoping I would at least get some new insights about what kind of a person Orwell or Eric Blair was, if not about his work. The biographer claims to be an Expert on Orwell, so much so that when someone else wrote a book about Orwell, he reviewed it with the feeling of his territory being trespassed. He says he has read and researched Orwell for over twenty years.
He doesn’t seem to have much to show for it. I didn’t find anything new of any value about Orwell or about his work, even though I haven’t read any other biography of Orwell. I have not even read his literature as extensively as this biographer has. Then how come I got nothing new? Because what the Orwell Expert presents to the reader are a deluge of bits of information which are not even well connected. And these bits tell nothing of interest or consequence which can’t be obtained from reading Orwell’s two three novels (1984, Animal Farm), one or two non-fiction books (Homage to Catalonia), some essays written by him (Shooting an Elephant, Reflections on Gandhi) and some essays written about him (Tourism among the Dogs by Edward Said).
What the bit torrent from the big expert boils down to is that Orwell was not really a ‘secular saint’ and that he was just a mortal with many shortcomings. Of course, all this comes with a lot of technical trappings, just to show how big an expert the biographer is about Orwell and how much research he has done.
I knew that much just by reading one of his books.
The fact is that Orwell was one of those authors who are quite self-conscious and self-consciously responsible. He doesn’t really hide what kind of a person he is. Of course, a small margin is due to everyone, including the saints. He shows up in his writings quite clearly. The biographer (I am not writing about Taylor because I want to make a general point: My objective is not to review his book) does try very hard to show that Orwell was in many ways different from the impressions his books give. But he fails miserably. Every ‘insight’ that he tries to derive from his extensive research of two decades is easily derivable from the books written by Orwell. From just a few of his books.
Mind you, I do believe that trivia can give illuminating insights quite often. But not always and not everywhere. The biographer seems to have forgotten that.
The fact also is that Edward Said, who wrote quite critically and disapprovingly, did a much better job at showing that Orwell was not as great a human being as some of his fans might believe. And he did this in a short essay I mentioned earlier, not in a fat book.
Tell you what: George Orwell or Eric Blair was nonetheless a great and rare human being and an even greater a writer. He was (relatively) exceptionally honest in his writings. What’s more important, he was unpretentiously honest, which many of the ‘high class’ elite writers, artists, scientists, movie makers etc. are not. Of course he was no saint. He never claimed he was. Just as Gandhi didn’t: A fact which Orwell pointed out in his essay.
Knowingly or unknowingly, the ultimate effect of the book (in cases where it has turned out to be effective) is to undermine Orwell’s writings and concentrate on showing that Orwell has two eyes, one nose, one mouth, two hands, etc. and that he ate food to keep alive, that he needed money to buy food, that he had to earn money, that he managed to earn some money from writing, that he tried to have relations with women, that he even flew into a rage once in a long while etc. Very illuminating. Should we thank the author to tell us that Orwell was a more or less normal human being but was also quite different?
There are references to Orwell’s writings, of course, but they mostly seem to be dismissive in the sense that author is more interested in proving the above mentioned fact than what Orwell’s work tells us. There are a few interesting things, but they are very infrequent.
Orwell’s name has been so much misused that it’s no less than a tragedy that a person who claims Orwell to be his territory and has read and researched on him for over twenty years seems to be so little interested in the insights that can be obtained from Orwell’s life and his work and so much more interested in the fact that Orwell studied at Eton.
I would any day prefer a ‘fictional’ biography like Lust for Life if I want to know about Van Gogh. Even if I want to read a ‘researched’ biography, I would like to read again (third time) Awaaraa Maseehaa (आवारा मसीहा) by Vishnu Prabhakar (विष्णु प्रभाकर) if I want to refresh my knowledge about Sharat Chandra (शरतचंद्र). Or Ray Monk’s Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude. Even though Ray Monk didn’t really like Russell, he still tells you much more about Russell. And he doesn’t waste pages in his two (fat) volume biography on proving that Russell had two eyes and so on.
My advice to expert-vexperts like Mr. Taylor, researching writers or artists, is to just leave them alone.
Do something useful with your life. Orwell’s work can give a lot of clues about that.
For the rest, just leave him alone. Your kind of expertise is not worth two pennies. Or two pens. Or two pencils.
P.S.: Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that this Expert of Literature understands so little of literature. You shouldn’t really expect much from a person who calls Guliver’s Travels a ‘children’s classic’.