We often pick up a book for the strangest reasons!
by Charlie Leck
I was traveling to Denver a couple of weeks ago, to spend two nights and a day. At the airport, on the day of my departure, I got through security much more quickly than I expected and had time to slaughter. Sitting in the airline’s VIP lounge seemed boring and so I strolled through the maze of shops in the terminal’s big concourse. In the bookstore my eyes were browsing over the titles. I picked up Garrison Keillor’s latest and decided it would be a good read while I sat waiting for the flight and during the two hours to Denver. I paid for it and headed from the shop, passing by tables of books, and saw the name of an acquaintance among the authors on a table of new releases – David Lebedoff.
“Why I know him,” I said to no one in particular; however, several people heard me and shuffled casually further away from where I stood.
Actually, I know his brother, Jonathan, much better. I admire both of them. They’re thinking men and accomplished in their fields. I was embarrassed to find out, when I flipped a few pages into the book, that David has authored a number of books – none of which I’ve read.
“David Lebedoff is the award winning author of five books, including Cleaning Up, about the Exxon Valdez case, and The Uncivil War: How a New Elite is Destroying Our Democracy. Lebedoff is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and Harvard Law School. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three children.” [page 265]
Wow! If that isn’t enough to get your blood bubbling! In a million years I wouldn’t have picked it up had I not known the author.
I read the inside, front flap. Waugh was an intriguing writer who I had not read until I was in my fifties. Don’t ask me why? There was a lapse in my education somewhere. Orwell, of course, had been high school reading – 1984 seeming like an impossibly long time yet in the future back then. When I finally ploughed excitedly through Brideshead Revisited, Vile Bodies and Decline & Fall, I realized I had missed some fine writing during my college and grad-school days.
When the plane landed in Denver, I was half way through Lebedoff’s fine book. I grew intensely interested in it quite early. The author writes quite smoothly and seems to have sympathy for the reader. In other words, there’s no squirming over sentences and paragraphs. The mind’s tongue does not get twisted and both the words and concepts flow gently across the pages. It’s fine to be a good writer writing about great writers; perhaps, it’s even essential.
The other half of the book was consumed on the way home. Then, over the next two weeks, I read it again. Now, of course, I’ve begun to pull down some of the volumes by Orwell and Waugh and stacked them for a rereading, which I’ll appreciate much more now that I’ve learned so much about the intensity of the two men during their lives.
At the heart of Lebedoff’s story is the idea that the men were so terribly different and yet so complexly the same. Intriguing! They were born in the same year (1903) and within the same British social system of strict class observance. Waugh moved toward the top of that structure and Orwell seemed more comfortable toward its bottom. What makes them so very much the same is the thrust of their writing, which strikes out against the privileged few who ran the world in which they lived and wrote. And, they both had a strikingly similar perception of what the future would hold, or bring, and their writing was dedicated to warning us about that future.
Lebedoff’s book, in subtle ways, becomes a commentary upon our own society and raises questions about the stability of the social structure that we have constructed.
“Artists foresee what statesmen do not!” [page 90]
Waugh and Orwell indeed foresaw the coming of the Great War.
“The future must be catastrophic!”
And, when that awful war came (1 September 1939), they were both attracted to it even though both were at an age that would have excused them from it. Orwell had fought in the Spanish Civil War as a liberal, against Franco and for democracy. In this respect, I’m sure that Waugh and Orwell were quite different. Waugh likely viewed the rebel fighters as commoners and fascists and not democratic heroes. Both would work their way, against significant odds, into uniform during the war against Germany. Orwell would fight in the field. Waugh would serve as an officer (with every intention of encountering danger and possible death).
Go on, pick up this book (or ask me to lend you my copy) and read to your absolute delight the story of these two gargantuan writers. Read about their commonality and their unfathomable differences – differences that made them quite similar at the same time. Such paradoxes David Lebedoff deals with quite well.
It’s an eloquent and elegant book. Those who’ve appreciated reading Waugh and Orwell will enjoy it most. Wrestle with the questions the author raises about our own society and the values its ruling classes seem to hold. There’s no better time to grapple with these matters than just before such an important election.
Lebedoff, David: The Same Man (George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh) in Love and War [Random House, NY, 2008]
“Orwell and Waugh both feared the future because they correctly saw the evil of their own time not as throwback but preface.” [page 184]
‘To the two greatest English writers of the last century, each of whom saw tradition as the banister and not the barrier to ascension, nothing would rival the delete button as the scariest feature of our own time.” [page 210]
“Evelyn Waugh rowed against the tide as steadfastly as did George Orwell, and in their wake is our path.” [page 218 – concluding sentence of the Epilogue]