SEX, GLOOM AND GENIUS; He Was the Eeyore of English Letters. but George Orwell Never Stopped Looking for Adventure - and Love; BOOK OF THE WEEK

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Lewis

ORWELL: A LIFE IN LETTERS Edited by PETER DAVISON(Harvill Secker [pounds sterling]20)

THERE are no photographs of George Orwell laughing. I once asked a number of friends of his what his laugh was like. Most of them couldn't remember one. Arthur Koestler recalled a sharp bark -- a sort of 'hah!' The sound of his worst expectations being fulfilled? In this collection of letters there are many that exude gloom, pessimism, disillusion or resignation. Yet they are surprisingly enjoyable reading. That is the paradox of Orwell -- the Eeyore of English letters simultaneously raises your morale.

Of course there was a lot to be gloomy about in Orwell's life, above all his illhealth, the recurrent haemorrhages of the lung that were going to get him in the end. The enemy within. His reaction was to be quite ruthless towards himself, to give himself no quarter. He always worked tremendously hard.

Most of his career attempts failed. After schooldays at Eton he served as a police officer in Burma. He hated being an instrument of the Raj and resigned. His early attempts at writing novels in Paris left him penniless, washing dishes in a hotel kitchen. His attempt to live the life of a down-and-out in Britain was unique but the reading public did not share his curiosity. His attempt to run a village store didn't pay.

In the Spanish Civil War he fought not only on the losing side but with the losing faction on the losing side. He fled Spain with Stalinist police on his heels. Nobody bought the excellent book he wrote exposing this betrayal of the Left-wing cause. His pre-war novels didn't sell. He himself disliked most of them, calling one 'that dreadful book'. As a novelist he said he experienced 'failure, failure, failure'. He admitted: 'I'm not really a novelist.' This was true. His two great books are fables rather than novels. And it was as an essayist that he is supreme. Give him an elephant to shoot, a saucy seaside postcard or a common toad to reflect on and there is no one to touch him.

When he did come up with the most penetrable parable since Gulliver's Travels, Animal Farm, it was refused over and over again by publishers as 'inopportune'.

In 1944, Britain was in the midst of its admiration for Russian victories against Hitler under good old 'Uncle Joe'.

At Faber, no less a person than the poet T.S. Eliot refused the book, missing its point by saying that since the pigs were more intelligent than the other animals, 'what was needed was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs'. Eliot the elitist strongly believed that some are more equal than others.

ORWELL was planning to publish Animal Farm himself, as a twoshilling pamphlet, when Fredric Warburg took the risk. But the shortage of paper reduced the print to only 4,500 copies.

By the time he was at last due for royalties from a bestseller, he was seriously ill again, in fact dying. Writing Nineteen Eighty-Four was, he knew, a race against time.

Typically he retired to Jura, one of the least accessible islands in the Hebrides, to wrestle with it for two years. When it was done he asked for a typist. No one could be found who would make the journey so, in bed, he set about the heavy work of typing more than 100,000 words on an old typewriter with two carbon copies. It was heroic self-sacrifice.

Immediately afterwards he was hospitalised and never left hospital again. TB was out to finish him. He died 60 years ago this year, aged only 46, with who knows what further books inside him.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is possibly the most chilling warning ever written about what the future could have in store. 'It wouldn't have been so gloomy if I hadn't been so ill,' he was once quoted as saying.

But ever since, we have been on the watch for Big Brother or his minions' attempts to sneak our liberties little by little. Thanks to Orwell. …