The Last Man in Europe

Dennis Glover

Black Inc, £9.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

WHEN he embarked on this novel, Glover was not to know that the Trump election would spark a resurgence in the sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but The Last Man in Europe will certainly benefit from the revived interest in that 68-year-old classic. It’s a fictionalised version of how Orwell came to write the book that gave generations of readers the vocabulary and imagery around which their fears of totalitarianism could coalesce.

And it all starts, more or less, with a shag. Glover imagines a precursor to Winston and Julia’s defiant coupling taking place between Orwell and his wife-to-be Eileen on Burnham Beeches in 1935. As he embraces Eileen, Orwell notes the picturesque countryside, a million miles away from the England he hates, “with its constant background noise of radios, its tinned food, thin bubbly beer, patent medicines, electric heating and contraception”. The scene, in which a sexual act becomes political, not only prefigures Nineteen Eighty-Four but evokes the grim mood of the era, the sad lack of opportunities for the “unmoneyed” to enjoy intimacy with one another.

This Orwell is a man who hasn’t, as yet, given politics much thought, and he feels the lack, knowing it makes him a writer without a cause. All that will change. Victor Gollancz commissions him to write The Road to Wigan Pier, he hears Mosley speak at a British Union of Fascists meeting (an obvious basis for the Two Minutes Hate) and he fights in the Spanish Civil War, which first propels him from apoliticism to socialism and just as quickly to disillusionment. He becomes, to his shame, a wartime propagandist for the BBC and, in one of the book’s most interesting threads, we see him revising his position on the working class on an almost annual basis. All the while, the pieces which will eventually make up Nineteen Eighty-Four are coming together in his mind.

Inevitably, this game of “spot the influence” sometimes feels heavy-handed, although it can be fun too, such as when we notice the genesis of Newspeak in his BBC colleague Bill Empson’s proposal for a drastically reduced Basic English. But what raises this novel far above the level of the clumsily-signposted biopic is Glover’s convincing depiction of Orwell’s interior voice. He mimics the man we recognise from the essays but brings us closer to him, intensifying the experience and raising the stakes.

The care taken to cultivate a believable and resonant persona for his fictional Orwell pays off in the novel’s closing stages, once all the aspects of Nineteen Eighty-Four are in place and all that’s left to tell is the story of a dying man defying doctor’s orders to finish his novel while he still can. Writing about writing is notoriously difficult to pull off, but Glover does an exemplary job here, balancing Orwell’s creative process with his physical struggle to keep working in the cold, rat-infested conditions on Jura. The Last Man in Europe shows its readers the influences which shaped Orwell’s masterpiece, but transcends even that, giving an affecting portrait of the man himself.