The Last Man in Europe
Eric Blair died for want of a typist. Self-exiled to a remote Scottish island and hollowed out by tuberculosis, he quailed at the prospect of typing a clean manuscript copy of his just-completed novel. Despite an SOS to his publishers, no typist eventuated. If he were to meet his end-of-1948 deadline, he’d have to do the job himself. And so he did, propped up in bed with the typewriter on a tea tray. But three days after typing “THE END”, Blair suffered his final collapse.
In The Last Man in Europe, Dennis Glover gives us the story of how Blair (pen-name: George Orwell) created the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or, rather, Glover gives us a story, since his book is itself a novel. His background as a historian and political speechwriter accounts for his nuanced, sympathetic depiction of the man, and the times, that gave birth to “doublethink”. But if his book reads more biographical than novelistic, it’s probably not surprising.
Glover knows his stuff and writes well, but often fails to bury the bones of research and exposition deep enough to allow for the smooth passage of fiction. Eric Blair’s real-life inspirations for key elements in Nineteen Eighty-Four are rather too blatantly flagged. Room 101, BB, the rats, Victory Pie, Newspeak and the rest – Glover checks off their origins like stations of the cross.
The novel follows Blair from 1935 until his death, charting his political awakening and subsequent bitter disenchantment, his marriage and infidelities, literary aspirations, and the steady deterioration of his health. (Glover attributes the source of his TB to a handshake with a Wigan coalminer.) Throughout, Blair’s growing compulsion to sound a warning against totalitarianism of any shade is fuelled by his sense that, as Glover writes, “there was no longer any place in the world for those like him, pathetic romantics who believed in the truth and that men should be free to think as they chose”.
The novel ends with a scene depicting a deliberate alteration to the text of Nineteen Eighty-Four: at the printers, the digit “5” is excised, with a chisel, from the eighth-last page of the book. The scene dramatises a theory, fleshed out by Glover in an author’s note, that Blair, on his deathbed, had determined to soften the bleak certainty of the book’s ending. If 2 + 2 could not be made to equal 5, then hope might still exist. FL
Black Inc, 296pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 22, 2017 as "Dennis Glover, The Last Man in Europe ". Subscribe here.