Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation
No other writer in the English language has been more often likened to a saint than George Orwell. His contemporaries and subsequent hagiographers have lauded his self-denial, integrity, courage, and decency, and these personal qualities -- so the thinking goes -- are inseparable from his writerly ones: only such a man could write such clean, clear prose, "like a windowpane." But Orwell himself averred that "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent." In this biography Jeffrey Meyers draws an admiring portrait of Orwell, but he doesn't omit the writer's unsaintlike qualities. Orwell was often gentle, but had a violent, even sadistic, streak. He was endearing in his eccentricities, but obliviously selfish in his married life. In his dalliances with married women and Berber girls, and in his string of clumsy incompleted passes, Orwell, the cadaverous ascetic, was also, as Meyers writes, a bit of a "puritanical lecher." Orwell's two earlier biographers saw this side of their subject, but Meyers, the first able to avail himself of the materials in Orwell's recently published complete papers, is more specific, and hence his portrait is somewhat darker. Meyers, however, too easily dismisses the complicated issues involved in what has recently emerged as one of the most controversial incidents in Orwell's life: in 1949 Orwell gave an object of his attentions, who worked at the Foreign Office, the names of Communist sympathizers who couldn't be relied on to write pro-British propaganda. (This list was revealed only a few years ago.) Although Meyers is right that Orwell's move was hardly McCarthyite, it did, at the very least, display his inclination toward stupidity about women with whom he was besotted. Meyers's discussion of Orwell's writing and ideas is surprisingly wooden and superficial, but his is now the authoritative biography, and it amply confirms Malcolm Muggeridge's judgment that Orwell was "more lovable than likeable."
A Place of Execution
A is a novel about a murder in which the police find the culprit but not the body -- a circumstance rich in the stuff of which page-turners, even slow-plotted ones like this, are made. The setting, an isolated village in the craggy limestone dales of Derbyshire, harbors fogs of mystery. Scardale, with its inbred marital webs, is just a case of incest or two removed from civic idiocy, so when, in December of 1963, Alison Carter, thirteen, disappears while out walking her dog in the woods, the village reveals itself as a stricken family. George Bennett, a young university-trained detective-inspector on his first big case, and his seen-it-all partner, Tommy Clough, must find her murderer among its members. Val McDermid, the author of a shelf's worth of detective novels, generates not suspense, exactly, but curiosity and, finally, whiplash surprise. Her focus is on the inner lives of her policemen as they come to terms with bottom-of-hell horror and grave error. The gradations of class, accent, intelligence, and rusticity separating the uniformed policemen from the un-uniformed do not escape her notice -- this is England, after all. And, amid the grief and guilt, there are relieving dabs of buddy humor. After nearly pummeling a sensation-mongering journalist, George puts it to Tommy: "How long do you think I'd get if I beat that smile off his face with a truncheon?" ... "Depends if the jury know him or not. Cup of tea?"
These precise, epigrammatic poems, which come with hook-and-eye rhymes that click sweetly into place, move deftly and economically to cope with subjects as elusive and specific as "survival skills," "great thoughts," and "help." Though they dispose of their subjects wittily and ingeniously, they cannot always suppress a smile of self-satisfaction at having mastered their material; and, like macaroons, they should be taken a few at a time. They are cleverly made, shifting back and forth and up and down. Like cat's cradles, they may be taken in or let out, but at their best they alter the fit of the mind.
Three Generations That Built an Empire
"The Donald is fantastic in the golf and very good in the tennis," Ivana Trump once observed, imperishably, of that "national symbol of luxury and sybaritic excess" Donald Trump, whom Gwenda Blair depicts as a Gatsby of self-infatuation transfixed by the green light at the end of his own dock. Donald Trump's grandfather, an immigrant from Bismarck's Germany, ran prostitutes in the hotels he opened in Seattle and the Klondike, supplying scales so that miners could weigh their pleasures in gold dust. His son, Fred Trump, made a fortune building low-cost housing in Queens and Brooklyn under elastic government contracts. Gwenda Blair tells the elder Trumps' stories in historically resonant detail and with marked business and financial lucidity. Grandson Donald's entry challenges her biographical skills -- she can't hide from the reader that the builder of Trump Tower, Trump Palace, Trump Plaza, and Trump City, and the erstwhile owner of the Trump Shuttle, sponsor of the Tour de Trump, and skipper of the Trump Princess, has all the depth of a stack of hundred-dollar bills -- and eventually overtaxes her charity. "At his own father's funeral," she writes indicatively, "[Donald] did not stop patting himself on the back.... The first-person singular pronouns, the I and the me, eclipsed the he and his.... There was to be no sorrow; there was only success." Hell is a cross-country bus ride trapped in the company of a tumescent bore like this.