Au­thors out of con­text

Alan Saun­ders

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

YOU prob­a­bly have to be Amer­i­can to write a book such as this. If you were Ja­panese, say, your grasp of Bri­tish so­cial and lit­er­ary cul­ture in the first half of the 20th cen­tury might be ev­ery bit as un­sure as David Lebed­off’s, but at least you’d know you were ig­no­rant: you’d know that you were go­ing to have to put in a lot of hard work be­fore you could be­gin to write any­thing il­lu­mi­nat­ing on the sub­ject.

Lebed­off, how­ever, de­ceived by the fact that he and his sub­jects speak the same lan­guage, keeps miss­ing the point. He can read mu­sic but he’s tone deaf.

Per­haps il­lu­mi­na­tion is not his ob­ject. Lebed­off wants to con­vince us that two of the great­est English writ­ers of the 20th cen­tury, Ge­orge Orwell and Eve­lyn Waugh, the man of the peo­ple and the friend of glit­ter­ing aris­toc­racy, two ap­par­ently very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, were ac­tu­ally so sim­i­lar as to be in ef­fect the same man. But he has an ul­te­rior mo­tive.

Lebed­off is writ­ing about Orwell and Waugh be­cause he wants to re­cruit them to his cam­paign against the mod­ern world.

They prob­a­bly would be will­ing con­scripts ( or at least vol­un­teers: nei­ther was a man to be press- ganged) and they hated all the things that Lebed­off hates — moral rel­a­tivism, fraud­u­lent prose and what he in­sists on call­ing po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness — but this is not the main point of sim­i­lar­ity. In fact, it is quite easy to see what they had in com­mon.

The sim­i­lar­ity be­tween them was first ob­served ( as Lebed­off does not tell us) by Malcolm Mug­geridge, now largely for­got­ten but once very big in the up­per reaches of Bri­tish jour­nal­ism. Mug­geridge got the point right away: they were both play­ing a role. Orwell needed his pro­le­tar­ian cloth cap ev­ery bit as much as Waugh needed the tweeds of the coun­try squire. Nei­ther was born to the gar­ment he af­fected: they both got them from the wardrobe depart­ment.

The odd thing is that Lebed­off has an inkling of this. ‘‘ He was per­form­ing a role all his life,’’ he says of Waugh, ‘‘ a con­sum­mate and ir­re­press­ible ac­tor.’’ What he does not seem to re­alise is that this was not some per­sonal ec­cen­tric­ity of Waugh’s: it was en­demic to the cul­ture in which he and Orwell lived and, as ev­ery reader of Dick­ens knows, it has long been a fea­ture of English life. ( Mat­ters may be a lit­tle dif­fer­ent now: no­body could say that Tony Blair was any­thing other than an ac­tor, but he was

The Same Man: Ge­orge Orwell and Eve­lyn Waugh in Love and War By David Lebed­off Scribe Pub­li­ca­tions, 264pp, $ 29.95

never a grease­paint- stained trouper, rather a sort of method ac­tor, des­per­ate to feel your pain and con­vince you of his sin­cer­ity.)

For the most part, Lebed­off’s book is a brisk, brief pair of par­al­lel lives, con­structed en­tirely out of secondary sources such as bi­ogra­phies and pub­lished let­ters that, in Waugh’s case es­pe­cially, are plen­ti­fully avail­able.

It’s a good story, marred in the telling only by the fact Lebed­off is a man for whom English so­ci­ety in the early years of the 20th cen­tury is a strange, lux­u­ri­ant jun­gle, its tracks prowled by ex­otic beasts whose be­hav­iour, if it can be un­der­stood at all, must be ex­plained in la­bo­ri­ous, plod­ding prose.

Orwell and Waugh met only once. It was a mov­ing en­counter: Orwell was dy­ing and Waugh came to the bed­side of the au­thor of An­i­mal Farm, which he had greatly ad­mired, and found him very close to God. Does this mean that he found him near death or that he saw in Orwell a very good man? It could eas­ily have been the lat­ter be­cause both of them had re­marked pub­licly be­fore on the other’s virtue.

Be­fore he died, Orwell had been work­ing on an es­say about Brideshead Re­vis­ited. He liked it, which is fair enough, but Lebed­off likes it im­mod­er­ately. He refers to it as Waugh’s mag­num opus, praises its ‘‘ silken and el­e­gant’’ prose and talks of ‘‘ the tri­umph of its style’’. Yet surely it is pre­cisely in its style that Brideshead, one of the weak­est of Waugh’s books, does not tri­umph. A prose that had once been hard, dry and clear has here be­come moist and dewy. By the role- play­ing of its style, we can tell this is a book with de­signs on the reader.

Lebed­off so will­ingly yields to th­ese de­signs, per­haps be­cause his own grasp on lit­er­ary style is so in­ad­e­quate. This is a writer who does not know the dif­fer­ence be­tween cre­dence and cred­i­bil­ity, for whom books are ‘‘ sturdy tomes’’ and who is ca­pa­ble of phrases such as ‘‘ The tight bud of his lav­ish na­ture flow­ered might­ily’’. It’s sad to see a dis­ci­ple of Waugh and Orwell write like this, though it’s a telling il­lus­tra­tion of Lebed­off’s claim that things have gone down­hill big time since their day.

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