Unlikely (big) brothers in arms

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Lebedoff, David. The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War. Scribe, August 2008. RRP $29.95

The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War, but David LebedoffA devout Roman Catholic and an atheist; a relentless social climber and a perpetual outsider; a sparkling social satirist and a literary polemicist. Outwardly, no two individuals could have less in common than George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh.

Yet the legendarily callous Waugh not only requested but was permitted to visit the reclusive and dying Orwell in hospital — his expression of a lengthy mutual admiration that, for Orwell, culminated in an (unfinished) essay in praise of Waugh's writings.

In The Same Man David Lebedoff attempts a conceptual high-wire act, arguing that these two men actually had far more in common than they had in conflict. Occupying the aesthetic, philosophical and political poles of their generation, the two authors gave very distinct voice to the dreams and dreads of a nation in flux — a nation whose present was in the process of becoming past, without any notion of where its future lay.

Inextricably linked to the concerns of a material age that both frightened and digusted them, Orwell turned to parable and Waugh to satire. It is in the brutal honesty of their cautionary visions, and their shared disgust for moral relativism that Lebedoff sees Orwell and Waugh united, arriving at a point of moral — if not spiritual — agreement from fundamentally opposing directions.

If Lebedoff's book is not a standard biography, it is no mere gimmick either. The provocative — some might say counter-intuitive — thesis that he puts forward serves to focus the bulky social and personal histories that fall within his remit, and yields an original angle of approach to two such canonical figures and a particularly ubiquitous period of world history.

If the result is occasionally guilty of an over-exuberant slanting of the evidence, it nevertheless makes for a compelling and provocative introduction to its subject matter.

At a mere 200 pages, The Same Man bucks the prevailing trend for comprehensive and exhaustive biography, opting instead for a more elegantly selective approach.

Structured around a series of touchstones — education, war, family life — the book allows its central figures to emerge gradually in parallel: Waugh's beloved country home at Piers Court set against Orwell's retreat in Jura, and his military service in Croatia juxtaposed with Orwell's experiences in the Spanish Civil War, with direct comparisons largely reserved for the extended concluding chapter.

Lebedoff proves himself master of his material, employing apt anecdote, detail and quotation to particularly evocative ends, crafting a fluid and readable narrative out of the convoluted history of this period. Waugh's Oxford and Orwell's Spain emerge in colourful detail alongside less familiar episodes such as Orwell's time as a policeman in Burma, and Waugh's abortive suicide attempt.

Least satisfying is the chapter detailing the single meeting of the two men in 1949 shortly before Orwell's death. Despite, or perhaps precisely because of, Lebedoff's skilled build-up, the fleeting and frustratingly undocumented episode can scarcely be other than an anticlimax.

Lebedoff's account as to why Waugh — compulsive social diarist that he was — failed to relate the meeting does not ring true: 'The visit appears to have been purely personal. For Waugh saw Orwell not as another point on the scoreboard by as his equal.' It also raises more questions than it answers as to the true nature of the regard between the two men.

Evocative and conceptually agile, The Same Man makes up in elegance for what it lacks in sheer weight. Lebedoff pulls off what might so easily have degenerated into a bravura exercise in academic self-indulgence with understated ease, supported by his evident passion for his subject matter.

While his thesis is not entirely convincing, it could be suggested — in keeping with the provocative arguments of Lebedoff himself — that it is not intended to be. The book plays an extended game of devil's advocate with its characters and ideas, using its unconventional approach as a means of jolting his reader into viewing these fossilised and figures afresh.

If we put down the book unable to resolve the philosophical differences between Orwell and Waugh, we nevertheless cannot help but put it down with renewed interest and engagement with its figures.


Alexandra CoghlanAlexandra Coghlan graduated from Oxford University in 2006 with BAs in English Literature and Music, and completed an MPhil in Criticism and Culture at Trinity College, Cambridge. She returns to Oxford for a DPhil in October 2008.

 

 

Topic tags: Alexandra Coghlan, The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War, David Lebedoff

 

 

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Existing comments

I wrote a kind of poem concerning Waugh, Orwell. I hope the editors don't mind me pasting it in here. It's relevant to the article. Thanks.

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