by JF

A well-researched effort which seeks to explain the motivations of one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic figures: author George Orwell; real name: Eric Blair. Sinclair obviously did his homework on Orwell’s writings, for Sinclair’s own writing is copiously studded with Orwell’s own words as well; that is to say, whenever Sinclair is making a claim about Orwell and what must have motivated him at any given time, he typically backs it up with a relevant quote from Orwell himself.

And Orwell’s motivations did evolve over time, as Sinclair shows. Unlike a lot of writers and thinkers of profound thoughts, Orwell didn’t try to hide his faults. He was a man full of contradictions, and when an ideal or a goal was shown to Orwell to have been misguided or otherwise in error, Orwell was man enough to ‘fess up to it. But he always had the improvement of his fellow humanity in mind. Sinclair shows all this.

This book is not really a biography; indeed, Sinclair admits as much at the beginning. But in some ways Sinclair does fulfill the objectives of a typical biography writer; and for stretches in this book, Sinclair does a better job of providing a biography of Orwell than other, more customary biography writers have done. However, the focus of Sinclair’s study does only explore the years that spanned Orwell’s writing career.

Sinclair is typically penetrating in his understanding of Orwell, but near the end, in seeking to understand the state of mind Orwell must have been in while he was writing 1984, Sinclair uncharacteristically adopts a rather shallow approach to explain why that novel was so legendarily dark: Sinclair doesn’t take into account the fluctuating phases that everybody goes through in life, and thus Sinclair may have underestimated the significance of Orwell’s “loss of faith” in socialism simply because that loss of faith may have been a temporary phase; moreover, Sinclair also ignores the personal tragedies that were occurring in Orwell’s life at the time, and chalks up 1984’s extremely dark tone to something like whim or artistic license. For example: Sinclair does not note at all that Orwell’s sister had just died, and Sinclair relegates the death of Orwell’s wife to just two measly sentences. This obtuse oversight was quite odd to come across at the end of a book which offers nothing but keen insights up to that point.

All in all, though, this book is quite recommendable to Orwell novitiates.

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