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The New Life

by d. j. taylor
pegasus books, 608 pages, $39.95 

Novelist, biographer, literary historian, wide-ranging and unfailingly entertaining reviewer blessedly resistant to fashionable cant, D. J. Taylor is the Orwell supremo for our time. His 2003 Orwell: The Life, unsurpassed in the twenty years since it appeared, now gives way to his fresh take on the subject—Orwell: The New Life, to be released on May 23. Acquire a copy at the first opportunity and install it next to your bed or your favorite reading chair, even if you can’t go quite as far as the author does early in his first chapter:

Ultimately, though, the lure of Orwell—Orwell’s books, Orwell’s temperament, Orwell’s politics, Orwell’s centrality to the mid-twentieth century literary world—is personal. . . . He is my park, my pleasaunce, as Gerard Manley Hopkins once said of Oxford, a writer to whom no other twentieth-century titan comes close, and to read him and write about him is one of the greatest satisfactions I know.

Readers of First Things and kindred spirits, serious but not solemn Christians of all persuasions, will be particularly struck by the way Taylor frames his project: “At the heart of Orwell’s worldview, it might be said, lies modern man’s struggle to come to terms with the absence of God and the need for a secular morality that would somehow replace a value system built on the belief in an afterlife.” It is a mistake, of course, to suggest that Christianity is built on the belief in an afterlife (though such a belief is indeed vital to the faith), but it is a mistake that many Christians have made as well. In any case, Taylor differs sharply from fashionable contemporaries who are quite sure that the “struggle” he refers to has long since become passé. That is one of the reasons his book is indispensable.

Sixty years ago, I was about to complete ninth grade and graduate from John Marshall Junior High School in Pomona, California, a bit east of Los Angeles. St. Paul’s, the Missouri Synod Lutheran school my younger brother and I had been attending for some years (though we were Baptists, not Lutherans), only ran through eighth grade. So that time at John Marshall (just as the schoolyear ended I turned fifteen, a memorable age) was very strange for me. 

I am struck now by the extent to which Orwell—whom I first read then—remains as pertinent to a soon-to-be seventy-five-year-old as he was to a teenager. At that age, the real world of 2023 was unimaginable (“2023” was science-fictional territory back then). By the same token, what we might call “Orwell’s world,” as meticulously re-created by Taylor, appears even more exotic, more strange, from the vantage-point of today. And yet, thanks to the biographer’s art, we can share for the moment what Taylor calls “Orwell’s gaze,” and we can glimpse him in turn through the eyes of his contemporaries.

There is, understandably, a great deal of handwringing going on among people I know, people I read regularly sans any personal acquaintance (quite “diverse,” as we say), and so on regarding the State of the Nation and the State of the World and the near future. I don’t intend any sweeping dismissal of such concerns. But while reading Taylor’s book I was struck again and again by the everyday misery and uncertainty and sheer muddle that Orwell and many of his contemporaries endured, along with their quotidian joys and satisfactions. We know how World War II ended; the people who were living through it didn’t. I don’t think I will be the only reader of this biography to have finished it with a renewed sense of gratitude for much that we typically take for granted. And that in turn is another reason I am grateful to Taylor for his prodigious labor.

One last note. In contrast to many recently published books, Orwell: The New Life features a very good index. Under “Christianity” there are many tasty bits. “GO’s prolonged bout of churchgoing,” not sustained, alas; “GO’s suspicion of Catholic Church,” often violent, again alas; “GO’s contempt for nonconformity”; and so on. There’s also a generous section for “Notes and Further Reading.” And in “A Note on Sources,” along with much more, there are acknowledgments of some interesting material from papers “held at Wheaton College, Illinois,” where I have spent many happy hours; the college is, after all, in walking distance of the house where Wendy and I have lived for almost thirty years. I couldn’t help wondering what Orwell himself would have made of the place had he visited it back in the day. Such are the virtues of a first-rate biography: a life is uncontainable in the pages of a book, of course, even one that runs close to 600 pages, but a telling like this gives us the next best thing. 

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.

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Image by Cassowary Colorizations licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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