‘Fictionalised literary biography is a hard art to master. It demands almost the same amount of research as a biography, but also the ability to show how characters change through time and to reanimate key moments in their life.’
By Norman Bissell
Published Luath Press
The Last Man in Europe
By Dennis Glover
Published by Polygon
Nineteen Eighty-Four (Jura edition)
By George Orwell with introduction by Alex Massie
Published by Polygon
Next time you are in Hong Kong, check out the bookshops. These days, most of them are run by Beijing’s Liaison Office, which is another way of saying the Chinese Communist Party. But if you go to Kowloon, get off the Metro at Diamond Hill and walk south, you’ll find yourself in Pat Tat Street. At the Well Tech Centre, take the lift to the 27th floor, and – provided the pandemic restrictions have been lifted and he is still in business – you might come across a New York-born former civil rights lawyer called Albert Wan.
Wan is the owner of Bleak House Books (bleakhousebooks.com.hk), which might lead one to expect a haven of Dickensiana. It’s not – the name is just a nod to his past career – though if you’re looking for a good selection of both new and second-hand English language books, it looks well worth the trek out from the city centre. Those who make the journey, though, often don’t buy what he expects. ‘We want to be selling more literature, more kids’ books,’ he told the Financial Times last month, ‘but everyone wants to buy Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.’ Books by George Orwell, he says, ‘fly off the shelves’.
Hong Kong’s limits on freedom of thought and expression were becoming apparent even before the introduction of the national security law last July. As far back as 2015, when five employees of Causeway Bay Books were abducted from Hong Kong to China, booksellers realised that stocking politically sensitive books was an increasingly risky business. ‘So far, we haven’t been kidnapped,’ says the bravely cheeky Twitter bio of @bleakhousebooks.
To Hong Kongers, the dystopian vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four must seem increasingly plausible. But there’s another reason for Orwell’s appeal: it’s not just his work but his life too. As Wan says in another online interview, ‘I admire Orwell very much, for the way he lived his life as much as for the way he wrote. He belongs to the rare breed of writer who never sold his soul to make money or become famous.’
As Orwell’s books come out of copyright this month, a flurry of books are putting both his life and work in clearer focus. Polygon is the first out of the traps with a special ‘Jura edition’ of Nineteen-Eighty-Four, which comes with an introduction by Times columnist Alex Massie, who lives on the island where Orwell wrote it. Massie is honest enough to point out that there’s actually not much to connect the two: although Nineteen Eighty-Four is sometimes claimed as a Scottish novel, its topography is firmly Londoncentric, and the central London of the BBC and the wartime Ministry of Information at that. Jura’s importance, Massie suggests, was that life there gave Orwell the necessary distance from Grub Street – both in miles and mind – that allowed him to concentrate on what was to be his final novel.
But if the presses have been rolling with new editions of Orwell’s work, there have also been two new books about his life, both debut novels. Norman Bissell’s Barnhill (Luath, £8.99), named after the Jura farm where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, focuses on the writer’s last six years, with the third-person narration occasionally interrupted by first-person accounts from Orwell and Sonja Brownell, whom he married in hospital three months before his death from TB in January 1950. Though well researched and more detailed on Orwell’s life on Jura, it suffers by comparison with Australian writer and political commentator Dennis Glover’s The Last Man in Europe – Orwell’s original title for Nineteen Eighty-Four – which Polygon is also publishing this month.
It’s a question of focus. Even though Glover’s novel goes a lot further back into Orwell’s life, it is more tightly written and hardly mentions his relationships with women after his wife’s death in 1944. This isn’t too surprising, as Glover is really more concerned with understanding Orwell’s mind than his life – a tall, if not impossible order, but a bit more feasible with a writer whose Complete Works stretches to 20 volumes. It helps that he echoes his subject’s style, with sentences like ‘It was a bright warm evening in August and the barrage balloons were drifting in the sky’. In case we didn’t catch the reference, the prologue has already reminded us of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s famous opening (‘It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen’). But this isn’t just an exercise in literary mimicry: Glover is enough of an Orwell expert to also weave in the kind of facts that most of us probably don’t know – like, for example, the fact that at least two of his novels had also started with the ringing of clocks and that when Orwell actually wrote that sentence, at Barnhill, in April 1947, it was midday on the first day of Double British Summer Time, when he really did have to move the hour hand of his watch forward by an hour. More impressive still, he tells you all of that so subtly that it doesn’t look like showing off.
When those barrage balloons were drifting overhead, it was 1940. In Orwell’s diary entry for 25 July, he noted that while walking to work in London he’d started wondering where would be the best places to site machine gun nests against the German invaders. He is imagining revolution, cadres of radicalised soldiers, defeated and demoralised at Dunkirk, moving in on the Ritz, setting up a very British soviet in the Savoy. And then the clocks move round and round and war turns away from the immediate danger zone, and he realises that he was wrong to expect revolution, or even to wish it, and that the possibilities of socialism can only be realised by men freed from the kind of hate he’d seen first-hand in Spain, which revolutions seem to engender and which can only be guarded against by political mindfulness.
And that’s why Glover’s Orwell is so credible. He was wrong about the Savoy soviets, just as he’d been wrong so many other times in his life, just as we all are. Wrong to give Keep The Aspidestra Flying a happy ending in the hope of making it a commercial success. Wrong perhaps to start his new books with the sound of church clocks: too lazy – at least until he revises the sentence and comes up with clocks sticking thirteen. Wrong to try his hand at reportage in the north of England when all the committed lefties had already left for Spain. Wrong, in Spain, to be fighting in the dullest part of the war, on the Aragon front, instead of filing copy from the beating heart of the republic in Madrid. And then, in 1937, still recovering from being shot through the neck and meeting up again with his wife Eileen in Barcelona, so completely and hopelessly wrong about politics that his worldview turned inside out.
In The Last Man in Europe, Glover vividly shows how Orwell was shaken by the betrayal in Barcelona, when he arrived in the city only to find that Soviet-supporting Republicans had taken power and were hunting him down, having already arrested and killed a number of his colleagues. According to the latest historiography* Orwell was a poor interpreter of events there. Be that as it may, we wouldn’t have had Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four without it.
This is surely the moment – though only a two-sentence memory in Bissell’s novel – when Orwell starts to become the kind of unfooled, focused writer who could have produced either of his last two novels, and Glover describes it with cinematic flair. Of course, film could indeed do justice to moments like Orwell’s terror in Barcelona, but – provided it’s written skilfully enough to mask all the research – a fictionalised biography is far better way of showing the steady accretion of other influences and images.
That’s exactly what happens here. I’ll give you an example. When Orwell is working at the wartime Ministry of Information (Telex address MININFORM, run by Brendan Bracken, aka BB) one of his colleagues is literary critic William Empson, then an enthusiastic supporter of a programme of Basic English, which involve severely limiting vocabulary in order to assist its spread as a world language. How would Basic English define, say, Hamlet’s insanity, Orwell asks. ‘Wrong-thinker,’ he is told. ‘A first step to criminalising thought altogether,’ Orwell muses. At no stage is Newspeak mentioned. It doesn’t need to be.
Fictionalised literary biography is a hard art to master. It demands almost the same amount of research as a biography, but also the ability to show how characters change through time (like Orwell’s wife Eileen, from sparky young socialist to hollowed out by grief after her brother’s death at Dunkirk) and to reanimate key moments in their life. Glover’s is highly readable, massively informative, even to the extent of coming up with a plausible hypothesis that changes the meaning of the final sentence in Orwell’s final book.
If you’ve remembered the clock’s striking thirteen at the start of Nineteen Eighty-Four, you’ll also remember how, at the end, brainwashed by Big Brother, Winston Smith concurs that 2 + 2 = 5. But this was too defeatist, Glover’s Orwell realises: it didn’t allow for hope. If 2 + 2 = 5, there’s no possibility of truth and Big Brother’s victory is comprehensive and final. It’s like that poster he saw in Spain, the Communist one of the boot ‘stamping down on all who resist, forever’.
That is the way the US edition ends, but Glover suggests that he changed it for the British edition, which was altogether more open:
2 + 2 =
I don’t know which hypothesis is correct, but I know someone who cares even more than I do about the right answer. Albert Wan is, he tells me, such a great Orwell fan himself that he has himself made the pilgrimage to Barnhill. He hasn’t read either Bissell’s or Glover’s book, so I’ve sent him both, and I know that he will enjoy them.
Barnhill by Norman Bissell is published Luath Press, priced £8.99. The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover is published by Polygon, priced £8.99. Nineteen Eighty-Four (Jura edition), with introduction by Alex Massie, is also published by Polygon, priced £7.99.