George Orwell's Life In 'The Last Man In Europe'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There are just a few writers whose work is so distinctive, definitive and important, their very name describes a whole world, like Orwellian. Dennis Glover, the Australian writer, has written a novel that captures George Orwell as he began to write the book he saw as the culmination of all he'd learned in a bloody century about tyranny, fear, valor and love. Dennis Glover's novel is "The Last Man In Europe." He joins us from the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Company (ph) in Melbourne. Mr. Glover, thanks so much for being with us.
DENNIS GLOVER: My absolute pleasure. And hello to the listeners.
SIMON: And that "Last Man In Europe" - that was a working title Orwell had, wasn't it?
GLOVER: Yes, it was the original title of the novel, which he changed at the last minute, I think, at the prodding of his publisher Fred Warburg who thought that "1984" would - was a bit more commercially appropriate. And he's probably right because it gave the book a great renaissance in the actual year 1984.
SIMON: Yeah. And was it also because he was writing in the late '40s? Was it as simple as he wanted to reverse it?
GLOVER: Well, there is a thought that he did it because he simply reversed the four and the eight. I think it's a bit different. If you look at the manuscript and the early typescripts of the novel, what you'll find is it begins April 4, 1980. And then you can see Orwell takes his pen and strikes it over at some later stage and writes '82. And then he strikes it over again and writes '84. I think he was - it took him so long to write the book. He was trying to keep 40 years between the writing of it and the story.
SIMON: By the time we meet Orwell, he is sick and despondent, even though he's become so successful with "Animal Farm."
GLOVER: That's right.
SIMON: How did he get there?
GLOVER: Orwell wasn't famous, actually, until right before he died. He'd been quite a failing novelist and poet through much of the '30s and '40s. He never had any money until when "Animal Farm" came out. All of a sudden, he had money. One of the really sad things is that when "1984" was published in June 1949, it got rave reviews. It was going to be one of the - you know, people were hailing it as the novel of the century. But he knew he only had months to live.
SIMON: He had tuberculosis, we should explain.
GLOVER: That's right. Yes, he'd had tuberculosis his whole life and, of course, had ignored it in order to finish his book. He probably should've been in hospital months before but sat down to do the last draft of the book in his drafty, cold farmhouse and almost definitely shortened his life.
SIMON: Did you at all hesitate to try and put yourself in Orwell's mind?
GLOVER: No, I never hesitated, but it's surprisingly easy to do. Orwell wrote some 20 volumes of collected works. And once you read those over and over again, you begin to intuit the way he thinks and the way he writes. He was a simple prose stylist, and it's actually a good lesson - reading lots of Orwell to learn how to write clearly yourself.
SIMON: There's a scene in the book, of course, when he has a after-dinner conversation with H.G. Wells...
SIMON: ...Who was upset about a review (laughter). Orwell had wrote about...
GLOVER: (Laughter) That's right. Yes.
SIMON: ...One of his books. Did that come close to happening?
GLOVER: That's an actual event. What happened was that Orwell had invited H.G. Wells to dinner at his flat in London. And in the meantime, Wells had produced yet another book - he's very prolific at this stage of his life, a bit cranky perhaps - and Orwell gave it a savage review. Anyway, Wells came to his flat, and they had this massive argument. It's one of the great literary arguments of the 20th century. So I followed that very closely.
SIMON: I mean, without giving it away, Wells believed that science would deliver mankind. And Orwell essentially argued, no, I've - you know, I've seen what science can do in Germany. And just the opposite is true.
GLOVER: Yeah, that's right. This is part of the understanding of "1984," which is that Orwell was having an argument with the idea of utopia. Wells thought that science was in the - was always in the service of freedom and progress, whereas Orwell said that, in fact, if you look around the world today at Stalin and Hitler, if you're tripping over the bomb craters in London on the way here to dinner, you can see that science is in the service of totalitarianism.
SIMON: The mark of a truly significant writer might be that people of all different persuasions wind up citing that writer...
SIMON: ...Which seems to happen today. People on the left and right have their favorite citations of George Orwell. What do you think it's important for us to keep the Orwell alive in our hearts and minds today?
GLOVER: Well, I think really interesting thing about this is that Orwell wasn't trying to describe the future. He was describing elements of his own times and amplifying them. And that - I think that's what makes his message really scary. Because if the sort of world of 1984 could happen once, which it did in the '30s and '40s under Hitler and Stalin and so forth, well, that could happen again. And Orwell's novel, therefore, is a warning to the future.
SIMON: Dennis Glover - his novel "The Last Man In Europe." Thanks so much for being with us.
GLOVER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.