JEFFREY MEYERS, Sunday (October 22), 2 pm, Premiere Dance Theatre.Orwell: Wintry Conscience Of A Generation, by Jeffrey Meyers (Norton), 380 pages, $42 cloth. Rating: NNNN
You'd think that having written three books on George Orwell, biographer Jeffrey Meyers would be sick of him by now. But Meyers, who's written bios of D.H. Lawrence and Edmund Wilson, among others, knows there's no point in grinding out a biography without unearthing something new.
In the case of his new book, Orwell, the big find was the letters from the novelist and essayist's first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, who lived with the wildly paradoxical Orwell under brutal conditions -- in part due to the social upheavals that tore up the 30s and 40s, but mainly because of his personal demands.
Getting his hands on the letters deepened Meyers's understanding of Orwell as a man tormented by guilt and masochism. Orwell tried to hide his upper-class background and Eton education. He plunged himself into poverty for the sake of his writing. And he actively chose to live in the bleakest, dampest possible places, even though he was tubercular.
In all of this, says Meyers, he appears to have had no idea of what his choices meant for Eileen's life.
"He was as egotistical and self-absorbed as every writer is," says Meyers on the phone from Stratford, California. "He obviously didn't understand what Eileen was going through. The war was terribly hard on her."
Still, the literary chronicler is an admirer, and who can blame him? Orwell was a guy, to steal a phrase, who walked the talk. Although he's famous for Animal Farm and 1984, Meyers sets him apart from the political pundits by stressing the ways Orwell put his body on the line.
"He was the only English-language writer in the world to give a full account, on location, of the Spanish Civil War," Meyers says. "Fighting the fascists had a deep effect on him, especially being inside a civil war within the left -- communists versus anarchists -- as well as between the left and right."
That experience, says Meyers, is what shaped Orwell's complex politics. "His kind of ideas were rare in the 30s, when it was the custom, even among intellectuals, to take a position and just dig in."
Although he found fame and fortune -- after Eileen's death -- Orwell never really appreciated either, making him a slightly sad case.
"He never cared about material things. He wanted nothing in his life," allows Meyers. "But the truth is that the few things he ever wanted, he never got."