Few writers have looked so intently at the nightmare of totalitarian dominance as George Orwell. His last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, warned: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face.” It was published in 1949, when Stalin was imposing his own kind of truth as surely as Orwell’s Big Brother. One year later, Orwell was dead of tuberculosis; he was 46.
Tuberculosis is a crafty passenger – a stowaway – that can incubate for years undetected. Orwell (real name Eric Blair) may have harboured the tubercle bacillus from the day he was born in Bengal in 1903, the son of an Indian Civil Service official. Or perhaps he contracted the disease when, at the age of 24, he resolved to cross the divide between Disraeli’s “two nations” and doss among vagrants and other marginals in London and Paris. The book that resulted, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), revels too much in squalor to succeed as balanced reportage, but there was no doubting the risks Orwell took. Tuberculosis, the great respiratory scourge of the age, was reckoned in the early 1930s to be a “socially shaming” disease associated with poverty and alcoholism.
Scotland was a European tuberculosis blackspot but Orwell chose to live there on the Isle of Jura, smoking and braving the Hebridean cold in scant clothing in order to complete the novel he provisionally called “The Last Man in Europe”, later Nineteen Eighty-Four. To friends it seemed he was courting the illness that killed him. His second wife, Sonia Brownell, tried in vain to nurse him back to health.
Dennis Glover, an Australian political speechwriter and Orwell expert, has written a fictional homage to the moral crusader. It explores the creation of Orwell’s last novel, written against the odds as his expectorations turned steadily more dark and the Jura days closed in. To some extent, Orwell was a ludicrous character, Glover suggests.
He scorned feminists, vegetarians and birth-controllers. He was unfaithful to his first wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy (who died in hospital under anaesthetic in 1945, at the age of 39), and attacked the left from the right and the right from the left. His hollow, phthisical features have encouraged the legend of an ascetic Saint George.
Some half a dozen biographers have gone over Orwell already and Glover often sounds like one of them (“When he had arrived in Spain, he had assumed naively that …”). The Last Man in Europe is rivetingly told, nonetheless, the narrative scissoring back and forth in time. The Spanish civil war, which takes up a chapter, confirmed Orwell’s loathing of dictator worship and blind adherence to ideology.
Orwell fought against Franco and was almost killed by a Falangist bullet. A KGB agent (a Mr Crook, according to Orwell’s biographer Gordon Bowker) was sent to spy on him in Spain. The Soviet betrayal of the Catalan Workers’ Party was key to Orwell’s political development, Glover evidently believes. Hundreds of Trotskyists were eliminated in Catalonia by Soviet agents during Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-38. Orwell’s unforgettable account of his involvement in the civil war, Homage to Catalonia, offers few consolations. To his undying credit, Orwell never ceased to criticise the left intelligentsia for its “stupid cult of Russia”.
After the Spanish debacle, Orwell turned increasingly to journalism. His spat with HG Wells, convincingly recreated by Glover, showed a satirist’s talent for abuse. In 1941, Orwell had dismissed Wells as an “irrelevant thinker”. Wells’s bright scientific optimism had been dealt a blow by Hitler’s lethal military industry, Orwell argued, and it was a nonsense to suppose that science could bring anything but mass destruction. (Wells sent Orwell a postcard: “Read my early works, you shit.”)
Orwell conceived Nineteen Eighty-Four in his flat in Canonbury Square, where he lived between 1944 and 1947; the shabby-genteel atmosphere of postwar London, with “To Let’’ cards in the curtained bay windows, hangs over Glover’s novel like a pall. In hospital towards the end of his life, Orwell was allowed to smoke his pipe as the doctor thought it might help him to “cough the phlegm out of his airways”.
The nurses in their facemasks and barrier gowns are nightmare creatures that could have come from Orwell’s novel. Occasionally, Glover deploys a too-modern sounding word (“unfazed”) or a cliché (rain “thrums”; sunlight “dapples”). But, on balance, this is a terrifically assured hybrid of fiction and life-writing.
The Last Man in Europe: A Novel
Black Inc, 292pp, £10.99
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special