In The Same Man: George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh in Love and War, David Lebedoff has pulled off a literary hat trick.
It isn't possible to find two 20th century literary peers who, at first glance, seem more different in ambition, temperament and subject matter than the authors of, respectively, 1984 and Brideshead Revisited (both of which have been filmed twice, including a version of Brideshead currently in theaters). The connections, though, have been there all along, slipping past previous literary scholars who couldn't see beyond appearance.
George Orwell (a.k.a. Eric Blair) and Evelyn Waugh both were born in 1903 to middle-class parents, both taught school during the lean years, and both became successful authors and bitter satirists of the British Empire.
Both were staunch anti-Communists and scornful of bureaucratic tyranny, and they were surprisingly appreciative of each other's work — surprisingly, because the two men's differences would seem to preclude mutual admiration.
As Lebedoff puts it, while Waugh's Oxford pals "were drunkenly singing The Road to Mandalay," Orwell was "hard at work patrolling it" as a member of the Imperial Police. "Each had staked out opposite ends of the social ladder . . . One resembled the embodiment of privilege, and the other its emaciated foe."
And yet, writes Lebedoff, "The devout but sybaritic country squire and the aesthetic socialist admired each other very much — each for the quality of his writing and for his moral courage."
A relentless social climber, Waugh attended Oxford for nonacademic reasons and joined clubs "indiscriminately, without regard for their purpose . . . He did everything he could at Oxford except open a book or attend class."
Orwell's early acquaintances were political activists and radicals; he looked, "and often smelled, like a tramp. . . . He, however, made the distinction that he wasn't really a tramp but only chose to be among tramps to free himself from class prejudices about poverty and dirt."
The Same Man isn't a dual biography; much of the factual material of Orwell's and Waugh's lives comes from other sources. Lebedoff offers something different, a parallel account of the two men's intellectual and spiritual development that, despite enormous odds, converged near the end of Orwell's life.
The Orwell-Waugh association was brief, amounting to no more than a handful of letters and a few visits between the two men shortly before Orwell's death in 1950. To anyone who had followed their lives up to that point, though, it seems almost impossible that they would meet at all.
Lebedoff, whose previous books include Cleaning Up, about the Exxon Valdez case, and The Uncivil War: How A New Elite Is Destroying Our Democracy, argues that what they had in common "was a hatred of moral relativism. They both believed that morality is absolute, though they defined and applied it differently. But each believed with all his heart, brain and soul that there were such things as moral right and moral wrong, and that these were not subject to changes in fashion."
To the irritation of their respective political camps, Orwell and Waugh were admirers of each other's work. In a final, unfinished essay, Orwell wrote that what Waugh was trying to do in his fiction was "to use the fever-less, culture-less modern world as a set-off for his own conception of a good and stable way of life."
As much could be said for 1984 or Animal Farm, and Waugh came close to saying it.
"I think it possible," he wrote to Orwell in 1950, "that in 1984 we shall be living in conditions rather like those you show." Of course, as Lebedoff points out, one of the reasons we're not living under such conditions is that 1984 was so powerful in helping prevent the future it described.
"Evelyn Waugh wrote against the tide," Lebedoff concludes, "as steadfastly as did George Orwell, and in their wake is our path." The peace that Orwell and Waugh found with each other at least suggests a common ground for liberals and conservatives of our own time.
Allen Barra writes about sports and culture for the Wall Street Journal. His next book, "Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee," will be published by W.W. Norton in March.