George Orwell occupies a funny place in the modern literary consciousness. The last few generations came to know him, in English class, as the author of the novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. My own peers may remember their teachers’ awkward inversion of the earlier book, forced as they were to clarify Orwell’s already direct Russian Revolution allegory by explaining that, a long time ago, there lived a man named Trotsky who was a lot like Snowball the pig, and so on. The later book, many readers’ first glimpse at a realistic dystopia, tends to hit us harder. All those tinny, piped-in patriotic anthems; the varicose veins; the sawdusty cigarettes; the defeated cups of watery tea — why on Earth, we asked ourselves, did Orwell so confidently foresee a shambolic world of such simultaneous chintziness and brutality?
Apart from his six novels and four volumes of memoir, Orwell produced an astonishing quantity of essays. These I regularly consult in my brick-like Everyman’s Library edition, and I bought that on the strength of two particular pieces: “Politics and the English Language” and “Why I Write.” Many of us encounter these here or there in the course of higher education, and none of us with an interest in reading, writing, thinking, and the feedback loop between the three forget them. Pressured to cite the most incisive passage in all of Orwell, how could I decide between the former essay’s description of how “a mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details,” and the latter essay’s contrast of the writer’s ego against that of “the great mass of human beings” who, after thirty, “almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery”?
Despite passing at only 46, Orwell left an almost imposingly large body of written work. Readers who’ve savored it and want to learn, hear, and see more come up against a certain difficulty: we have a few photographs of Orwell, but as far as sound or film, nothing exists. Yet that didn’t stop BBC Four from putting together George Orwell: A Life in Pictures, casting actor Chris Langham as Orwell, having him speak Orwell’s words, and inserting him, Zelig-like, into historical footage real and reconstructed of Orwell’s places and times. Documentary purists may balk at this, but strong choices make strong films. As a compulsive reader of Orwell myself, I’ll take any chance I can to experience more richly the mind of this child of the “lower upper-middle class” whose fascination with poverty drove him down into it; this socialist who loathed both the trappings and proponents of socialism; this worshiper of hard manual labor who understood more about the impact of words than most of us do today; this famed writer who cloaked his given name of Eric Arthur Blair to better retreat, alone, into his gray, quasi-ascetic English pleasures.