Jason Crimp of the Orwell Society considers Dennis Glover’s new novel, which explores the last years of the life of George Orwell.
Somebody once said to me that the big early works of Pinter were meretricious and what others called style, technique, menace and suspense, even Cockney dialogue, can be imitated easily. To prove this, she wrote a few pages of a dummy play, with character E and character O in a room together. It worked. She seemed to be right, she’d made a good job of it and scored whatever petty point we’d been bickering about. Her idea was that perhaps Pinter wasn’t quite the writer we think he is and said- that old bore of an opinion – ‘Anybody can do it.’
I now see it was my friend who was being meretricious. It’s an easy stroke to pull, what she did, and any artist can be used. I have since seen it attempted with Shakespeare. (We all have. And I have also been told that we only think Shakespeare is a great because we are told he is, at school.) Anyway, a page or two of Pinteresque dialogue is one thing. As witty as it might be, that little script was no more than a parlour game. Proper work, with ideas, plots and narrative arcs, the building of story and character, the nuance, sustained length and, you know, the talent, well that is something else entirely. A clear, simple expression of ideas is a difficult thing. Something which any reader in a hurry might take for granted but of course is crafted as much as anything else and got to with more work.
August Landmesser – another ‘last man’?
Which brings us to Dennis Glover’s debut novel. Orwell is often praised for his lucid and plain style. Quite right too, but it is well to keep in mind it is a style none the less, and it isn’t as plain as all that. Orwell, then, can be imitated as well. For a few pages anyway, like my friend with her Pinter. A novel of such whimsy simply would not be sustainable or readable. With relief I will say quickly – and this is my point – we don’t have that here.
The Last Man in Europe adopts the sound of Orwell so brilliantly that at first it seems almost passing-off. That it is a gimmick. It is unsettling when coming across terms such as ‘Beastly’ and ‘Queer’, or passages feeling entirely Orwell’s own, perhaps directly from the novels or diaries. At first I thought this simply pastiche, but I was being lazy and wasn’t paying attention. I’ll explain in a minute.
First, I ought to say what the book is about. The subject is Orwell. That is, his life is the story – or parts of the life, the bits Glover feels are interesting can move his story forward. Glover wants to explore Orwell’s thinking and political and artistic development – from the bookshop days, to Spain and on from his illness, communists, Jura, his first marriage, the gestation of Animal Farm and especially Nineteen Eighty-Four and all that came with that.
This approach he uses isn’t new. ‘Faction’ – which is a racier, perhaps American term for the ‘Non-Fiction Novel’ came into its own with Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood. This was followed by the better known (in the UK at least) Beyond Belief, Emlyn Williams’ depiction of the events around the Moors Murders. Both were published in the late ‘Sixties. Capote’s novel has since been recognized as a classic of the genre, whereas Williams’ efforts have fared less well. But both inhabit real people and real events using fictional techniques, imagined dialogues etc. to lead the reader through things in a ‘imagined reality’. When it works well, It can very effective.
In Glover’s ultimately successful book, he uses sentences familiar to readers of Orwell, or at least intimations of a line you swear you have read somewhere and you have. This is not as frivolous as I’d first assumed but – I think – an attempt to show how Orwell himself may have come to his ideas, and the novel tries to understand why. It is imagined reality, it is a character study. It’s a very moving one and it is handled with skill, without a dead note. We see him as Comstock, or Bowling and eventually Winston Smith. Quite soon we no longer see the device at all, absorbed, and are instead following him through a bombed-out Islington, a ruined Germany, an inhospitable Jura, we’re with him at the wartime BBC and seeing spies everywhere as if reading a rather fast moving drama.
But Glover is skillful too in showing us the selfishness of Orwell (the work comes first) and his contradictions. For instance, his love of matrimony but less of fidelity. Or his desire to live a long life but his almost willful negligence of his health. I have always felt that banging away at a typewriter can’t have been that much of an issue, surely, but it was and he was told why too, by a fascist doctor, Glover tells us. He ignores the advice. A vivid picture is built up, an entertaining story of how an artist’s experiences and evolving ideas make it into the work we read. Conjecture, certainly, but it is a novel, after all.
It is a novel and we all know how it ends. I felt after finishing, I’d seen Orwell from another angle. It is touching and sad but those things hold their own enjoyment in literature.
And that nonsense with Pinter doesn’t apply. This is not pastiche, this is a very well put together work and anyone with an interest in Orwell will certainly enjoy it.
The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover is due for publication in the UK and USA on September
7th 21st 2017. It is already available in Australia.