Authors out of context
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.