- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

By David Lebedoff
Random House, $26, 262 pages, illus.

In the world of publishing, as in so many other spheres, the force of shock and surprise is irresistible. Sometimes, it seems to be enough all on its own for a book to be written and published. For in a dualistic world, reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable must surely be something worth doing. Take Evelyn Waugh, the arch-reactionary Catholic moralist, and George Orwell, the demigod of principled humanism fiercely claimed by liberals, democratic socialists and neocons alike. Who could be more different, you’d think. And here along comes some writer saying that they’re actually the same!

Just how does David Lebedoff, a lawyer and author, come to this startling conclusion? He lays it out with admirable clarity near the book’s beginning:

“Both of them hated, really hated … the twentieth century, from the First through the Second World War - and what they knew was sure to follow it.

“They saw in modern life a terrible enemy. It was not only totalitarianism that they loathed but virtually everything that would come even if totalitarianism was defeated. They saw an end to common sense and common purpose. They saw the futility of life without roots or faith. They saw the emptiness of an existence whose only point was material consumption. And in the great work of their lives, which was to warn us of what was to come, they came to be, improbably enough, in many ways the same man.”

An arresting bit of prose, strong and punchy: If Mr. Lebedoff’s aim is to get the reader’s attention, then he has been successful. And what he says about them is all true - until the last clause. Simply because two people share a critique of the predominant society does not mean that they are the same. To take a current example, it is a fact that Pope Benedict and Osama bin Laden both strongly deplore the materialism of Western society. Does this mean that they are the same man? Hardly.

So beyond this startling equation between Orwell and Waugh, what is there to this book? Perhaps it should have been simply a magazine article, but as it is, what follows is simply a rather pedestrian and not always accurate parallel biography drawn from the copious secondary sources available about both men. Mr. Lebedoff”s attempts at comparison and contrast of these two men born in the same year (1903) range from the obvious to the risible and he strains too hard to make his point. It doesn’t help that he makes howlers: the Maria Teresa for whom Waugh named his eldest daughter was not just, as he says, “archduchess of Austria and wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis Ist,” but Empress of Austria in her own right and as such one of the most famous and consequential European rulers of the 18th century. England was not at war in 1946 when James, Evelyn Waugh’s penultimate son, was born. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists was not “in effect the British Nazi Party”; as its name indicates, it was avowedly Fascist but Mosley, unlike his wife Diana Mitford, was not a Nazi, a distinction sufficiently important to be crucial to a real understanding of the politics of those times. And it’s not just in matters historical that this author shows himself out of his depth. Waugh’s mother-in-law was not”daughter of the tenthDuke of Wemyss” (there is no such dukedom in the British peerage) and when he does mention this lady’s actual mother’s name he misspells it Lady Vesey instead of Lady de Vesci. If you are going to take on the valid topic of Waugh’s obsession with the aristocracy and the part it played in his marriages, then you need to show that you have mastered the subject and all necessary historical background.

A more serious defect of this book is its failure to make some of its own points and provide original insights into these two fascinating and complex men and their writings. An interesting point could have been made about anti-Semitism and the two men. Waugh’s political and social attitudes and the milieu in which he so determinedly insinuated himself would make him an obvious candidate to be an anti-Semite, yet he is notable in both his fiction and in his personal life to be free of this taint. Indeed, in the climactic scene of “Sword of Honour,” he goes out of his way to make a central characterwho stands for all that is good and humane in European society Jewish and not as you might expect - and he could so easily have done given the theater of the war underdiscussion- Roman Catholic. On the other hand, Orwell was guilty of casual anti-Semitic remarks in his nonfiction, not an indication of his fundamental beliefs certainly but rather of his failure, unlike Waugh, to rise above his class and his milieu.

In the end, beyond its premise this book has little to offer readers, who would be better off turning to the many excellent biographies that have been written about both these important writers. Doing so will enable them to come to their own conclusions as to whether Orwell and Waugh were really the same man.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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