...for all his fame and stature, Orwell remains elusive. For one thing, he is impossible to categorize. He was a great something -- but a great what? Scarcely a great novelist: the prewar novels are good but not very good, and even "Animal Farm" and "1984" aren't great in the sense of "Madame Bovary." To call him a great journalist, as many have done, means overlooking plenty of mundane (and inaccurate) political commentary. It's when he turns to such unlikely matters as boys' comics and vulgar postcards, as well as to his central subject of politics and language, that he enters the realm of deathless literature.

His politics were likewise sui generis. Although he called himself a democratic socialist, and served with a revolutionary-Marxist militia in Spain, he was in many ways an emotional and cultural conservative. The least doctrinaire of political writers, he had the gift of being able to transmute the Tory virtues of skepticism and pragmatism into a distinctive kind of radicalism.

Even his personality is elusive. It's most striking that although he worked for BBC Radio and lived in the heyday of newsreels, we don't have a single recording of his voice or moving image of him, or indeed any photograph at all of Orwell smiling. That too somehow seems appropriate. There were dark sides to his personality, and it's not hard to understand what his friend Malcolm Muggeridge meant when he said that Orwell was an easier man to love than to like.

-- Geoffrey Wheatcroft