Sunday, October 31, 2010

George Orwell: His Character and Reputation

Not a Gloomy Man. An Illuminating Conversationalist, Handicapped By a Weak Voice
Michael Meyer in his "Memories of George Orwell" gives us the following account of Orwell's temperament and character:

I remember him as, not merely the most courteous, kindly, and lovable man I have known, but as the one of all my friends with whom, if I could today, I would choose to spend an evening. I have heard people describe him as taciturn; one brilliant talker of my acquaintance once referred to him as "gloomy George". I never found him gloomy. He had a weak voice and could not raise it to make himself heard above a loud adversary or a general conversation. Once he took me to one of the weekly lunches which he, Anthony Powell, and Malcolm Muggeridge used to hold (at the Bourgogne Restaurant in Gerrard Street), and I remember him trying several times to say something and abandoning the attempt half-way because of the noise. Another time I took him to supper with a politician who was later to become a cabinet minister, a delightful man but inclined to hold forth in a powerful voice. I had much looked forward to listening to them debate; but after a few unsuccessful efforts to get a word in, George quietly and with perfect courtesy became a silent auditor like the rest of us.
He was a shy man; but if one prompted him and listened, he was a most rewarding conversationalist. Above all, he was the best-informed and most illuminating talker about politics whom I have ever met. His conversation was like his writing, unaffected, lucid, witty, and humane; and he was, even to those of us who were young and brash, the kindest and most encouraging of listeners. Apart from the odd paranoiac like H. G. Wells, I wonder if he died with a single enemy.
Views Expressed in Obituaries
Some of the obituaries written at Orwell's death throw considerable light on Orwell's character and talents. V. S. Pritchett wrote as follows:
George Orwell was the wintry conscience of a generation which in the 'thirties had heard the call to the rasher assumptions of political faith. He was a kind of saint and, in that character, more likely in politics to chasten his own side than the enemy. His instinctive choice of spiritual and physical discomfort, his habit of going his own way, looked like the crankishness which has often cropped up in the British character; if this were so, it was vagrant rather than puritan. He prided himself on seeing through the rackets, and on conveying the impression of living without the solace or even the need of a single illusion.
There can hardly have been a more belligerent and yet more pessimistic Socialist; indeed his Socialism became anarchism. In corrupt and ever worsening years, he always woke up one miserable hour earlier than anyone else and, suspecting something fishy in the site, broke camp and advanced alone to some tougher position in a bleaker place; and it had often happened that he had been the first to detect an unpleasant truth or to refuse a tempting hypocrisy. Conscience took the Anglo-Indian out of the Burma police, conscience sent the old Etonian among the down and outs in London and Paris, and the degraded victims of the Means Test or slum incompetence in Wigan; it drove him into the Spanish civil war and, inevitably, into one of its unpopular sects, and there Don Quixote saw the poker face of Communism. His was the guilty conscience of the educated and privileged man, one of that regular supply of brilliant recalcitrants which Eton has given us since the days of Fielding; and this conscience could be allayed only by taking upon itself the pain, the misery, the dinginess and the pathetic but hard vulgarities of a stale and hopeless period.
And Bertrand Russell wrote:
George Orwell was equally remarkable as a man and as a writer. His personal life was tragic, partly owing to illness, but still more owing to a love of humanity and an incapacity for comfortable illusion. In our time the kind of man who, in Victorian days, would have been a comfortable Radical, believing in the perfectibility of Man and ordered evolutionary progress, is compelled to face harsher facts than those that afforded our grandfathers golden opportunities for successful polemics. Like every young man of generous sympathies, Orwell was at first in revolt against the social system of his age and nation, and inspired with hope by the Russian Revolution. Admiration of Trotsky, and experience of the treatment meted out to Trotskyites by Stalinists in the Spanish Civil War, destroyed his hopes of Russia without giving him any other hopes to put in their place. This, combined with illness, led to the utter despair of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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