George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh
Fighting against the future
From The Economist print edition
THEY could hardly seem more different. Eric Blair (who took the pen name George Orwell) was an austere socialist—albeit Old Etonian—whose egalitarian convictions were etched into his soul by a miserable childhood and who despised churchy cant. Evelyn Waugh was a world-class snob and social climber, an aesthete whose rigid religious convictions were rarely matched by their practical application. “One resembled the embodiment of privilege”, writes David Lebedoff, “and the other its emaciated foe.”
Yet the sharp contrast is misleading. As this insightful, waspish book shows, the hidden similarities were greater than the visible differences. Having the fortune to be born in 1903, both men were too young to be killed in the first world war, but were a bit too old (and in Orwell’s case also too ill) to fight properly in the one that came next. Both sought moral clarity, but failed to find it.
Orwell had fought in the Spanish civil war; his disillusion with that cause is chronicled in “Homage to Catalonia”. Waugh was part of an ill-fated military mission to the cynical, wily Communist partisans in Yugoslavia. His disillusion is told in his masterpiece, the “Sword of Honour” trilogy, where his fictional hero, Guy Crouchback, starts by thinking “the enemy at last was plain in view…It was the Modern Age in arms”. But by the end Crouchback realises he has become the modern age’s henchman.
That is Mr Lebedoff’s main point. “Their seemingly opposite lives were dedicated to the same cause: fighting against the future.” They saw the evil of their own time “not as throwback but preface”. Moral relativism, cloaked in jargon, was on the march, promoted by the tedious, despicable know-alls of the supposedly educated classes. Both thought that decency (a favourite word of Orwell’s) was to be found elsewhere.
The two corresponded with appreciation and even with signs of affection. Each defended the other in public. Both were unpopular: Waugh as an effete reactionary; Orwell for his unfashionable anti-Stalinism. Orwell praised Waugh publicly for his moral courage. Privately Waugh upbraided Orwell for leaving religion out of “1984”. They even met, though only when Orwell was already on his deathbed.
Mr Lebedoff shows sureness of touch in linking the men’s writing and their lives. He understands what made them literary giants. He highlights neatly (and hilariously) Waugh’s demonic streak of prankishness: insisting to the bafflement and fury of all and sundry that Tito, the Yugoslav leader, was a woman. And he evokes with uncomfortable clarity the self-imposed poverty and discomfort of the Orwell household. He explains what made them likeable, and what made them maddening. Writing about Waugh’s frantic attempts to find a good military post in wartime London, he says: “He did, after all, know a great many influential people. The problem was that they also knew him.”