David Trotter at the London Review of Books:
‘Of course he shot the fucking elephant.’ The sharpness of Sonia Orwell’s defence of the authenticity of the event on which her late husband based one of his most famous essays tells its own story. Without the experiences enjoyed or endured by Eric Blair, Etonian, colonial enforcer, schoolteacher, down-and-out, grocer, infantryman, there would have been no George Orwell, writer. But much of what we know about Blair, we know from Orwell. And it’s not just a matter of what he did when and where. It’s a matter of why he did it at all. Orwell exists because Blair was the sort of person who thought little of sticking his neck out in a good cause (when he did just that, from a trench on the Aragón front during the Spanish Civil War, someone put a bullet through it). Like it or not, ‘Orwell’ is a brand: ordinariness, common decency, speaking plain truths to power, a haggard, prophetic gaze. It is surely some or all of those qualities, rather than any particular political prescience, which have been invoked by the remarkable spike in the sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four following Kellyanne Conway’s notoriously unblushing embrace of ‘alternative facts’. Orwell didn’t foresee Trump. But if Trump were ever to find out about Orwell, he would probably tweet against him. ‘Really dumb @AnimalFarm. A total loser – no clue!’ Such a reputation takes a lot of preserving.
Orwell, in short, may have become more important as a symbol than for anything he actually wrote. Both of these books seek to reverse that suspicion, one by tethering the symbol to some distinctly fallible human flesh, the other by subjecting Orwell’s political prose to the kind of scrutiny ordinarily reserved for the novels of Henry James.