Simon During in Public Books:
No political event in memory has been as shocking and bewildering as Donald Trump’s election. It doesn’t seem to belong to our history, the history we had and thought we would go on having. How to figure out what’s happened? Where to turn?
Strange as it may seem, many of us turned to George Orwell. In the wake of Trump’s victory, Orwell’s famous, post-World War II dystopian novel, 1984, shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list.
But I doubt whether many of those who read, or reread, Orwell found quite what they were looking for. His messages are too ambiguous, too bleak, to help us face Trumpism.
There are, let’s say, two Orwells.
First, the author of Animal Farm and 1984: prophet of totalitarianization, the thought police, and doublespeak; probably the most famous 20th-century writer of them all.
Second, the less well-known Orwell: participant witness of depression-era poverty; the down-to-earth, truth-telling, socialist journalist; the sometime revolutionary and caustic critic of Left pieties.
Let’s make that three Orwells. For there is also the bohemian (but an upright bohemian) seeker of satisfactions in a capitalist society, which—as he sees it—is losing religion, tradition, beauty, and communal spirit, a society administered by posers, liars, and thieves. A critical celebrant of ordinary English culture, not just in his writing but in his life. It is this third figure that the one-time imperial policeman Eric Blair began to inhabit when he published his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) as “George Orwell.”
Is it easy to connect these various Orwells? Less than you might expect. But we can try by telling the story of Blair’s career, in which, as it turns out, they appear in reverse order.