July 2017

Noted
by Frank Bongiorno

‘The Last Man in Europe’ by Dennis Glover
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 of History at the Australian National University and chair of the social sciences editorial board of ANU Press. He has published books with Melbourne University Press, Black Inc., Monash University Publishing and University of New South Wales Press.

July 2017

In This Issue

Illustration

To walk in two worlds

The Uluru Statement is a clear and urgent call for reform

Her eloquent heart

Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ was worth the 20-year wait

Illustration

The handshake

Could Donald Trump finally force Australia to critically examine its feudal obligations to the US?

Politics gets personal

Laura Poitras’ ‘Risk’ sidesteps the biggest question about Julian Assange


Read on

Photograph of Harold Bloom

Canon salute

Remembering Harold Bloom (July 11, 1930 – October 14, 2019)

Image from ‘Judy’

Clang, clang, clang: ‘Judy’

The Judy Garland biopic confuses humiliation for homage

Image of Joel Fitzgibbon and Anthony Albanese

Climate of blame

Labor runs the risk of putting expediency over principle

Afterwards, nothing is the same: Shirley Hazzard

On the splendour of the acclaimed author’s distinctly antipodean seeing


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