What happens when biographers discover something loathsome
about their subject? DJ Taylor on the ugly side of a radical hero.
Looking through the current swathe of publishers' catalogues, I was fascinated
to note the long-delayed unveiling of a biography that literary London has
had raptly in its sights since at least the middle of the last decade. It
would be horribly unfair of me to name the biographee (a distinguished British
novelist, dead these last 10 years) or the equally distinguished author,
for most of this fascination stems not from the book's prospective merits,
but from the existence of a kind of guerrilla warfare conducted by X the biographer
and his subject Y almost from page to page. Basically, X, having cheerfully
accepted the publisher's commission all those years ago, discovered at an
early stage in the proceedings that he didn't much like the man he was writing
about. When he found, slightly further down the road, that the dislike had
turned to loathing, it was all he could do, apparently, to finish the work.
Curiously enough, this phenomenon is a great deal commoner than it sounds.
Obviously, there are professional anti-biographers grimly at work - Kitty
Kelley, for instance, or the late Albert Goldman, sedulous stitcher-up of
Elvis Presley and others - who simply begin by assuming the worst and go
on from there. Most biographers, though, start by adducing some mild affinity
with their subject, or at the very least extending some faint respect to
the career, the achievement or the personality.
But postwar biography is littered with the bones of supposedly absorbing
subjects whose personalities turned out to be so rebarbative or uninspiring
that teams of potential anatomists tried, laboured, and gave up.
Never mind the long years of work you have to put in, the interviews with
the deceased's surviving acquaintances, the search - if the subject has been
done before - for that striking new angle, that unknown love-child, that
choir-boy fetish: biography requires a long-term emotional commitment. Five
years in a study with someone you don't actually like? There are easier ways
of making a living.
My own particular biographer's dilemma started with the discovery, in
the files of the publisher Victor Gollancz Ltd, of a letter sent to Gollancz
himself in the spring of 1933. The writer, Mr GM Lipsey, had read a copy of
George Orwell's newly published Down and Out in
Paris and London
. He was furious, not only with Orwell but also with
his publisher. "On its merits or otherwise I have no desire to comment," he
commented. "But I am appalled that a book containing insulting and odious
remarks about Jews should be published by a firm bearing the name 'Gollancz'."
A spirited correspondence followed. There were threats of legal action, and
finally the row fizzled out. Its shadow, though, hangs over much of Orwell's
early writings, and indeed his whole attitude towards Jews, Jewishness and,
later on, the foundation of a Zionist state.
Having read and annotated Down and Out in Paris and London half a dozen
times, I was aware of the book's "Jew" references, just as one is aware
of them in, to select a random handful of Orwell's 30s contemporaries, the
work of Anthony Powell, JB Priestley, TS Eliot and Graham Greene. Reading
it again, in the light of the Lipsey remonstrance, I was struck by how oddly
gratuitous they are. Barely has the third chapter been reached, for example,
before a hard-up Orwell is unloading clothes in a Parisian secondhand shop
to "a red-haired Jew, an extraordinarily disagreeable man". Now, one can
be disagreeable and a Jew, but the faint hint that the connection has a racial
basis is somehow reinforced by the coda. "It would have been a pleasure
to have flattened the Jew's nose, if only one could have afforded it."
Back in London, Orwell wanders into a coffee shop near Tower Hill where
"in a corner by himself a Jew, muzzle down in the plate, was guiltily wolfing
bacon." How does Orwell know the bacon-wolfer is a Jew? And how does he know
that the emotion he detects in his face is guilt? There is something loaded,
too, about the reference to a "muzzle", as if the man is not quite human,
and the explanation for this sub-humanity has something to do with being
One could ignore this, just possibly, if it existed in a single book.
And yet for 10 years the abstract figure of "the Jew" makes regular appearances
in Orwell's diaries. Out tramping in the early 30s, he falls in with "a little
Liverpool Jew, a thorough guttersnipe" with a face that recalls "some low-down
carrion bird". Watching the crowds thronging the London underground in October
1940, he decides that what is "bad" about the Jews is that they are not
only conspicuous but go out of their way to make themselves so. He is particularly
annoyed by "a regular comic-paper cartoon of a Jewess" who literally fights
her way on to the train at Oxford Circus. Again, it is perfectly possible
that the woman in question resembled an extra from Fiddler On The Roof and
that the incident took place exactly as Orwell describes it. Even so, it
is a safe bet that no early 21st-century liberal will be able to read Orwell's
account without clenching their teeth.
It would be idle to classify Orwell as "anti-semitic". He had dozens of
Jewish friends and kept a vigilant eye out for evidence of anti-semitism,
both on theatre stages and in print. In fact, the complexities of what he
thought and wrote about Jews defy easy summary (although it is worth pointing
out that in an argument with Aneurin Bevan, he once referred to Zionists
as "a gang of Wardour Street Jews" with a controlling interest over the British
But having come across these attitudes, what do you do with them? Context,
inevitably, is all. The only sensible answer to anyone who suggests that,
say, Thackeray was a racist or that Trollope hated Italians is: so what?
There is a particular school of modern literary criticism which believes in
what used to be called the Shakespeare and the Second-best Bed syndrome (the
reference is to the inferior piece of furniture bequeathed to the bard's wife
in his will) - that if a writer holds to political and social views that
are morally disgusting or behaves badly as a person, therefore his work will
show similar flaws and should be similarly disregarded. Thus Tom Paulin, for
example, seems to believe that because Philip Larkin was a racist and a misogynist
his work either shouldn't be studied or, if so, taught only to be disparaged.
On the other hand, there are people who will tell you that it is possible
- in fact, desirable - to separate a writer's life from his or her art, and
to study the one in isolation from the other. Obviously it is theoretically
possible to make this separation. But sooner or later anyone who studies
the works of a particular poet or novelist is going to want to know about
the life running on beneath, however subliminally or obliquely that knowledge
will eventually influence what the reader thinks about the work.
Where does this leave Larkin? And to a slightly lesser extent, Orwell?
From the biographer's point of view - not, admittedly, the only point worth
staring from - it ought to make them more, rather than less, interesting.
Pace Paulin, we should not be writing Larkin off as a racist but pondering
the contrast between his venomous remarks about "niggers" and the extraordinary
delicacy of his lament over the dead hedgehog scythed apart by his lawnmower.
Similarly, Orwell's fixation with doling out the word "Jew" like a kind
of party badge raises fundamental questions about the social milieu he inhabited
and the upbringing that put stereotypes of this sort into his head. Above
all, perhaps - and this is a man regularly marked down by posterity as a
secular saint - it makes him seem human in a way that much of the posthumous
embalming of his reputation does not. Meanwhile, I look forward to this autumn's
outpourings from Biographer X, the humanity of whose subject will, you feel,
turn out to be rather more problematic.
More about this article: Orwell
en de weerzin by Eddy Bettens and Slagen is afstotelijk by Joost Zwagerman
(text in Dutch)