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Customer Review

8 July 2008
After reading this biography I feel that I really do know Orwell now. This book is an extremely detailed portrait of a highly intelligent and principled man. A maverick not afraid to do what he thought was right rather than what was expected of him. A good biography should be jam packed with details that enable us to get inside the mind and times of the subject and for me this book is only rivalled in this regard by Ian Kershaw's two volume biography of Hitler.

Yet unlike some of the biographies that I have most enjoyed only the character of Orwell really seems to come to life here. For me the joy of biography is not just finding out about the man or woman in the title but also all the people they were connected with during their life. Orwell was closely linked not just to the literary giants of his time such as Anthony Powell but also people who must have been fascinating such as anyone he fought with in the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately none of these people are portrayed very vividly. They are all foils for Orwell's story. These people are merely masks that enter the stage to give us some comment or other about Orwell and then move on.

In addition to the lack of detail given to others involved in the story is the overwhelming and at times trivial detail given to Orwell himself. At one point in the book Taylor takes time out to describe a stapler that he bought which was supposed to have belonged to Orwell himself. As if this were not tedious enough later on in the afterward the author tells us how mortified he was to learn that somebody else also claims to own Orwell's stapler. I suppose it never occurred to him that Orwell may have owned more than one during his life.

Observations such as this come mainly in the short essays which punctuate the main chapters of narrative. Some of these are very interesting such as Orwell and the Rats while others such as Orwell in View are very much less so. Who really cares that there is no film footage of Orwell?

Having said this the book does have its merits. You do learn a lot about Orwell. I never realised before how productive he was. Although I knew he was very ill when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-four I never comprehended how much the effort shattered his health and forced him into the final decline. He was obviously a man of principle who would even subordinate his own health for the welfare of his art.

Taylor does an extremely good job of describing what was going on in Orwell's life and mind when he was writing his novels. We get a good portrait of a growing artist going through trials and experiments before he finds his own distinctive voice.

Like many biographies I like, this one builds up to a climax at the end. We can feel Orwell racing against time to finish Nineteen Eighty-four and also the growing realisation of the people around him that the world was about to lose a writer in his prime.

This is the tragedy of Orwell that he shares with other artists as varied in stature and genre as Mozart, Jimi Hendrix and Heath Ledger. He died when he had so much more he could have given us.

Overall then this is a good book for the serious Orwell fan but for most people it probably contains too much detail that many would see as superfluous.
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