30 August 2005

Review Desk

Dug up and reanimated: Woodhouse and Orwell.


Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames
The great British comic writer P. G. Wodehouse's enduring creation, Jeeves is a gentleman's gentleman, ever reliable, whose locomotion seems to reside on a plane somewhere above or behind our own - he trickles through doors, wafts in, materializes. When he appears at the side of a digressive alcoholic writer named Alan Blair in Jonathan Ames' new and very funny Wake Up, Sir! we may be forgiven the sneaking suspicion that Jeeves is - maybe always has been - imaginary. He is - assuming he exists - nominally in the employ of the orphaned 30-year-old Blair, a neurotic who wears a necktie every day working on a follow-up to his first novel, "I Pity I," independently wealthy for the moment thanks to the insurance settlement from a nasty spill on a patch of ice. Blair's tortuous attempts to render life into art, or at least artistic theory, lean pleasingly against Jeeves' cool, professional reassurances. The plot is largely superfluous. The journey, though, is a delight.

Finding George Orwell In Burma, by Emma Larkin
Before he became George Orwell, the young Eric Blair spent five years fresh out of Eton in Burma as an imperial policeman. His first novel, Burmese Days was set there, as was an unfinished novella, 'A Smoking Room Story,' left behind when he died. Emma Larkin, in revisiting the places where Orwell lived and worked, writes too under a pseudonym - this to ensure that the generals who rule Burma today under the ironically Orwellian aegis of the State Peace and Development Council will not bar her from the country. The book is not just a look at Orwell's life, but a window into a shuttered police state, a travelogue through crumbling old British buildings and abject poverty and quietly desperate human encounters, from a fading Anglo-Burmese woman admiring her old porcelain; to a teacher who was fired by the government and now lives playing Scrabble with private students, surrounded by world maps and mountains of books; to a man who comes up to our author on her first visit to Mandalay twirling a black umbrella, smiles, says, "Spread our need of democracy to the rest of the world - the people are so tired." - turns and walks away. In Burma they joke that Orwell wrote not one book set in Burma, but three - a trilogy composed of Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Larkin's book is like a message stuffed into a bottle, sent floating from that closed-off world.

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