"All of us owe the comparative decency of our lives to the poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel." "There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for." "If it were possible for a book to give a physical stink off its pages, this one would. He is as antisocial as a flea."
No writer of the 20th century is as immediate and physical a presence as Orwell. The sentences hit you in the chest with a jolt, and as the shock spreads, your brain tingles with conviction. What you have just read is true, and if it isn't, you will have to fight in words of the same force and directness to prove it so. His is an absolutely serious style, and in the hands of a master. It brings together, let us say, the ethics and manners of the Daily Mirror and News Chronicle at their antique best, and nobody can command it any longer.
This is partly, of course, a matter of Orwell's genius. But it is also a consequence of his knowing at his peak so exactly whom he was addressing. When he goes wrong - in the early novels, or in the year of phoney war - it is because he cannot find his audience in the dark. And at his supreme best, in Homage to Catalonia, "Down the Mine", "The Lion and the Unicorn", "As I Please" and the last two amazing novels, he speaks to an entire people: maybe a better people then than now, certainly a more unified one.
Dead at 47 in 1950 after a lifetime of infected bronchi, pneumonia, and finally mortal tuberculosis, all exacerbated by rolling and smoking his dung-heavy cigarettes, pungent as his prose, this year he attains his centenary. It has already been announced by Christopher Hitchens's re-evaluation. Now we have two extremely meaty 500-pagers to tell what is already quite a well-known story, and a telebiography to come.
Clive James recently asked in the TLS whether biography was inimical to art, and answered "yes". Looking at the creaking shelves in the bookshops, one sees his point. And yet how do we understand anybody, let alone a great artist and thinker (which Orwell, with all his crotchets and dottiness, unmistakably was), except by discovering what somebody meant to say in the contexts in which he or she said it?
This geniality leaves plenty of room for plenty of triers, but if I had to plump for one of the two to hand, I'd probably go for Gordon Bowker's, strongly influenced by the splendid dustjacket, a daunting close-up of Orwell, searingly blue eyes not quite looking at the camera, his deeply marked, grave, distant and kindly face with its awful army haircut and absurd strip of moustache being indeed "the face he deserved".
Bowker trusts to a simple, rather schoolmasterish notation for the analysis of character, which suits Orwell. He aims to bring out his "contradictoriness", the pleasure he took in playing a social role, his conservatism, patriotism, domestic ineptitude (with his adopted baby), domestic competence (in the garden), his taste for solitude, his gregariousness. It's a bit of a surprise to hear Orwell's clumsy, sometimes oafish, always comical pursuit of women condemned as "lustful" (even "waywardly" so), but for the other attributes there's plenty to give the catch-all headings any amount of local life.
It is an exhilaratingly crowded book. Bowker has doughtily arranged his full and detailed sources in a pacey, colourful, not-quite-intelligible narrative, packed with plenty of characters to tickle one's fancy: Victor Gollancz, evasive, sanctimonious, cowardly; Eileen O'Shaughnessy, Orwell's first wife, spirited, selfless, merry, unbelievably brave when dying of cancer; Anthony Powell, intelligent, generous, judicious, funny. Bowker doesn't really try to add Orwell up; instead, he piles everything in - it's all thick with colour, its only form given by the chronology of the books.
D J Taylor, one guesses, simply came to like Orwell less, and indeed it isn't hard to dislike the man at times. As Taylor's two dozen witnesses testify, he could be such a misery, and was - as well he might be - often borne down by incessant illness. But, as both biographers bring out, he was much admired, even loved by his comrades in the Spanish Civil War; he brought out a strong protectiveness in the women he pursued with such awkwardness; he was long-lasting friends with a surprising mixture of old Etonians, Hebridean fishermen, international revolutionaries, and BBC bureaucrats, one of whom, his boss in the India section, Rushbrook Williams, wrote with strong feeling and openness of Orwell's "rare moral dignity and unerring taste".
Taylor's emphasis is largely literary-critical. He takes the books to pieces, ticks and crosses them. He adds a number of piquant excursions into Orwell's face and voice, clears him of anti-Semitism, explains his paranoia (telling us that at one point Orwell thought Gollancz might have him bumped off). His book is also crammed with detail and throngs of the characters from literary London, many of whom appear in Taylor's excellent book on postwar novelists, After the War.
Neither writer offers to know better than Orwell what he was up to, in the supercilious manner of today's higher theoreticians, whom Orwell would have cut to shreds. And if neither biography attains to art itself, they are far from inimical to it. Taylor one can imagine being at his most useful to the scholar or the student: he is close, crisp, judicious. Bowker's is the best read. But both find the art in the life, expound the life as it turned its own living into two of the most astonishing artworks of the century: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have sold 40 million copies in 60 languages.
To ask, "What kind of book can do that?" is to pursue the story of a life which so enlarged its imagination that it encompassed the ultimate terrors of a whole historical epoch, enclosed them in the form of a complete world, and left the result as weapon and warning for the use and abuse of posterity.
Fred Inglis is the author of 'People's Witness: the journalist in modern politics' (Yale)