Reviewed by Clare W Brook
The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover is a novel about writing a novel, the personal history of its author and the era in which he lived. The work of fiction in question is one of the most important books written in the twentieth century, and remains vital reading for the twenty-first century – George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The famous Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ could apply to Eric Blair, known to us all now by the pen name he adopted in 1933 – George Orwell. Orwell, the son of a British Public Servant working in colonial India, received a privileged education via a scholarship to a prestigious prep school in Suffolk, England, followed by another scholarship to Eton. On leaving Eton his life changed, experiencing poor health and meager earnings until the success of Animal Farm. Lacking a university scholarship, with his family unable to pay tuition, he joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. It is here that he learns first hand the bullying ways of imperialism and soon resigns. He returned to England in 1928 to be a writer, earning a living as a schoolteacher, then in a second hand bookshop in Hampstead. This is where Glover takes up Orwell’s biography in 1935 until his death in 1950.
Glover gives an account of Orwell as he attends fascist meetings in London, and in Wigan, where he spends time with the miners inspiring them to embrace socialism. He attends meetings led by political activists such as Brockway, Fenner and Brandt who urged young men to fight in Spain against Franco’s fascist regime.
He looked at them. A good old-fashioned fight, against someone truly worthy of hate, smashing their faces in with clubs, kicking them in the genitals, breaking teeth . . . that’s what socialists really wanted, when it came down to it. In that, they were just the same as the fascists.
Yet Orwell joins the worker’s party, POUM, fighting in Huesca, only to find his life in danger at the hands of Stalinist communism in the process of systematically executing perceived enemies, after holding absurd show trials. This was a depressing eye opener for him. And he questions humanity. During World War II Orwell works for the BBC writing propaganda – abandoning object truth creates further disillusionment and he makes plans for his new life. The grinding austerity of post war London and his seriously failing health prompts him to make his get-away. The success of Animal Farm gives him enough finance to move to the Scottish island of Jura to write a novel that at all costs he feels must complete before his health deserts him. The title of this work was to be Last Man in Europe, which Orwell changed to – Nineteen Eighty-Four, completing it just before his death in 1950.
Glover takes on the original title The Last Man in Europe to present Orwell’s life in relation to his writing. Orwell’s writing was political, with the aim of shocking his readers into awareness regarding the nature of political power and those who wield it. Orwell’s prose style matches the subject matter – stark. Glover’s novel remains true to this orientation. He makes clear the strong links between Orwell’s first hand experience of imperialism, fascism, and the communist revolution with his fiction, thus highlighting the power of Orwell’s work as more metaphor than pure fiction. Glover’s prose does not animate Orwell’s life beyond the gloom that was clearly around him at the time. The action plods chronologically through Orwell’s time, only resorting to flashbacks when the past became relevant to explain the present; these sequences did not always flow seamlessly into narrative. However, learning about Orwell’s time at Eton was interesting, particularly that one thousand old Etonians died in World War I, those who survived often becoming radicalized and taking up communism as ethically preferable to imperialism. In this Orwell was a prophet of doom, realizing how any totalitarian regime is by nature dangerous.
In The Last Man in Europe Glover was successful in capturing the political urgency of Orwell’s message of warning regarding the misuse of political power. A warning that remains relevant.
By Dennis Glover