‘The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War’ by David Lebedoff
IN “The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War,” David Lebedoff has pulled off a literary feat. It isn’t possible to find two 20th century literary peers who, at first glance, seem more different in ambition, temperament and subject matter than the authors of, respectively, “1984" and " Brideshead Revisited” (both of which have been filmed, with a version of “Brideshead” currently in theaters). The connections, though, have been there all along, slipping past previous literary scholars who couldn’t see beyond appearance.
George Orwell (a.k.a. Eric Blair) and Evelyn Waugh were born in 1903 to middle-class parents, both taught school during the lean years, and both became successful authors and bitter satirists of the British Empire. Both were scornful of bureaucratic tyranny and staunch anti-Communists, and they were surprisingly appreciative of each other’s work -- surprisingly because the two men’s differences would seem to preclude mutual admiration. Waugh, in the words of Lebedoff, “was hard and funny and elegant, while Blair seemed soft and quiet and shabby. Each had staked out opposite ends of the social ladder. . . . One resembled the embodiment of privilege, and the other its emaciated foe.” As Lebedoff writes, John le Carré, who taught at Eton, found it amusing that Orwell, who had attended the school, “took great pains to disown the place, while Evelyn Waugh, who hadn’t been to Eton, took similar pains to pretend he had.”
Waugh wrote articles in the early 1930s favorable to Mussolini and Franco, though he was later staunchly anti-Nazi; Orwell fought for the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, though he was far from a Communist. And while Waugh’s Oxford pals “were drunkenly singing ‘The Road to Mandalay,’ ” Orwell was “hard at work patrolling it” as a member of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. And yet, as Lebedoff puts it, "[t]he devout but sybaritic country squire and the aesthetic socialist admired each other very much -- each for the quality of his writing and for his moral courage.”
A relentless social climber, Waugh attended Oxford but not for the academics; his diary, filled with phrases like “Lunched at the Ritz. Met Noel Coward,” wasn’t as much “a record as a scorecard. It was a list of each goal made.” He joined clubs “indiscriminately, without regard for their purpose. . . . He did everything he could at Oxford except open a book or attend class.” Orwell’s early acquaintances were political activists and radicals; he looked “and often smelled, like a tramp, because he was one. He, however, made the distinction that he wasn’t really a tramp but only chose to be among tramps to free himself from class prejudices about poverty and dirt.”
A refreshingly lean text, “The Same Man” isn’t a dual biography (much of the factual material of Orwell’s and Waugh’s lives come from other sources). Instead, Lebedoff offers something different, a parallel account of the two men’s intellectual and spiritual development that, despite enormous odds, converged near the end of Orwell’s life.
The Orwell-Waugh association was brief, amounting to no more than a handful of letters and a few visits shortly before Orwell’s death in 1950 (their meetings merited scarcely a line in Bernard Crick’s definitive 1980 biography, “George Orwell: A Life”). Even though Orwell and Waugh were admirers of each other’s work, to anyone who had followed their lives to that point, it seemed almost improbable that they would meet at all.
Lebedoff writes that what they had in common “was a hatred of moral relativism. They both believed that morality is absolute, though they defined and applied it differently. But each believed with all his heart, brain and soul that there were such things as moral right and moral wrong, and that these were not subject to changes in fashion.”
Lebedoff, whose previous books include “Cleaning Up,” about the Exxon Valdez case, and “The Uncivil War: How a New Elite Is Destroying Our Democracy,” is a lawyer, and, regretfully, he can argue like one. He goes out on a daring and slender limb in pairing these two writers and, for the most part, maintains his balance, but when he reaches for reasons why he thinks his subjects would hate the modern world, he goes tumbling right off. For instance, “He [Orwell] would have equated our Age of Aquarius with Fascism.” Even an empathetic reader’s jaw might drop. It’s a pretty safe bet that Waugh wouldn’t have dug, say, Jimi Hendrix, but does Lebedoff really think that Orwell would have seen them as heralds for Big Brother?
Orwell defended “Brides- head Revisited” from a left-wing attack in the Times Literary Supplement by arguing that the reviewer missed the essential theme of the book, “the collision between ordinary decent behavior and the Catholic concept of good and evil.” Or as Orwell put it in a final, unfinished essay, what Waugh was trying to do in his fiction was “to use the feverish, culture-less modern world as a set-off for his own conception of a good and stable way of life.”
As much could be said for “1984" or “Animal Farm,” and Waugh came close to saying it.
“I think it possible,” he wrote to Orwell in 1950, “that in 1984 we shall be living in conditions rather like those you show.” Of course, as Lebedoff points out, one of the reasons we’re not living under such conditions is that “1984" was so powerful in helping prevent the future it described.
“Evelyn Waugh wrote against the tide,” Lebedoff concludes, “as steadfastly as did George Orwell, and in their wake is our path.” This may be overstating the case, but the peace that Orwell and Waugh found with each other suggests a common ground for liberals and conservatives of today.
Allen Barra writes about sports and culture for the Wall Street Journal. His next book is " Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee,” due out in March.
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