July 2017

Noted

‘The Last Man in Europe’ by Dennis Glover

By Frank Bongiorno
Black Inc.; $29.99

The reappearance of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in the bestseller lists says much about the times in which we live. Dennis Glover has already built a reputation as a sensitive social commentator, notably as a critic of the neoliberalism that has often unthinkingly destroyed so much of worth in the old Australia. His first novel grapples with a related but broader theme, one that was also close to the heart of his subject and hero, Orwell: the threat posed by political abstraction and dogma to everything that makes life worth living.

The Last Man in Europe is an absorbing homage to one of the most clear-sighted commentators on the “short” 20th century. Orwell’s was especially brief: he died in 1950. Yet he had seen two world wars and a depression, had served the British Empire in Burma, and had fought, and been wounded, in the Spanish Civil War. The great ideological struggles of the century between communism, fascism, imperialism and democracy dominated his life as a socialist, thinker and writer.

It is more than 30 years since I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, but when Glover writes of Orwell encountering an “army of hideously fat charwomen, one of whom must have been a yard across the hips” I know I’ve been introduced before. That kind of recognition is one of the ways this book works. In Glover’s account of both the mundane and extraordinary aspects of Orwell’s life, there are regular glimpses of the magic Orwell would weave in prose fiction. This connection between life and art is one of the novel’s central concerns. It raises closely related questions about the entanglement of political commitment and the creative process, and the relationship of the middle-class intellectual to the “proles” in whose service Orwell claimed to be writing and fighting.

As the man, already famous through the success of Animal Farm, coughs and splutters his way through several drafts of Nineteen Eighty-Four on a Scottish island, occasionally spraying his paper with blood from his failing lungs, we are never allowed to forget that Orwell’s art is also his politics. He worries to the end over whether he has made this new book too bleak, over whether it will be understood as apostasy, as an attack on English socialism and the Attlee Labour government, rather than a warning about totalitarianisms of both left and right.

Historical fiction is a challenging genre. How true should it be to the record? How does one make it true to history without producing dry-as-dust reportage? What is the right balance between the intimate life and the public career? Glover negotiates these challenges with skill. The Last Man in Europe is clearly the product of a love of Orwell’s work – Glover has written affectionately of him before – as well as some painstaking research. It is a remarkable and timely book.

Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno is Professor and Head of the School of History at the Australian National University.

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