Gordon Bowker, Author . Palgrave $35 (512p) ISBN 978-0-312-23841-4

Bowker's centenary biography is the best of the many since Orwell's death at 46, of tuberculosis, in 1950. Whether in memorable essays on contemporary culture or in novels in which the bleak Orwellian landscape remains consistently familiar, George Orwell—born Eric Blair—was a moral conscience of his age. He seemed to forget nothing of his experiences, exploiting them vividly and imaginatively, and the texture of his childhood, adolescence and young manhood, as well as their impact upon his writing, has never been better or more fully told. An Etonian who slipped social caste to become a policeman in colonial Burma; a tramp in London and a dishwasher in Paris; a radical, soon-wounded volunteer in the Spanish Civil War—he never made a living until, as a medical misfit during WWII, he wrote for the BBC: his education in bureaucracy. But he needed none of that, he explained, to understand the fragility of human decency. "The brutal side of public-school life, which intellectuals always deprecate," he explained, "is not a bad training for the real world." Bowker, biographer of Malcolm Lowry and Lawrence Durrell, has a retentive eye for striking Orwellisms, and one can have no more effective model for lucid prose than the writer of "Politics and the English Language." Orwell's life also never lacked drama. Rarely a deskbound author, he always pushed himself beyond his limits. Dying by degrees, he ignored the symptoms of tuberculosis recklessly, even scratching out a living on a desolate island in the Hebrides that had nearly no amenities. Finally, he wed his long-lusted-for second wife at his hospital deathbed, having promised her a wealthy and famous widowhood. In all his complex contradictions, Orwell comes to energetic life. Illus. (For another life of the author of 1984, see Orwell by D.J. Taylor, reviewed on p. 269.) (Oct. 30)

Reviewed on: 08/11/2003
Release date: 09/01/2003
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