Staff Review by Chris Saliba
George Orwell’s 1939 novel, Coming Up For Air, nostalgically celebrates an idyllic English life set at the turn of the 20th century, while also anticipating the horrors of the Second World War yet to come.
Coming Up For Air was first published in 1939 and is one of George Orwell’s lesser known novels. Two great triumphs were to follow: Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). If we didn’t have those two classics, but just his first four novels, then it’s interesting to speculate on how well remembered (or even read) Orwell would be today. There’s much to recommend in Coming Up For Air, although the book does have its failings. My preferred early Orwell is his comic Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936), about a failed poet who rails at middle class dullness and respectability.
The story mixes nostalgia with a grim expectation of total war. George Bowling is a 45-year-old insurance salesman. He’s overweight with two noisy kids and a wife who’s always obsessing over saving money. He’s your average Englishman. The novel is written in the first person, and George Bowling gives a short personal history before being taken away on a wave of reminisces. Part two of the novel, which is the longest of the four parts, has George looking back at his rather idyllic childhood. He talks about rural English life “in the good old days”. The great love of his youth was fishing. Here Orwell does a great job of conveying all the pleasures and adventures of youth, when we are exploring the world and enjoying a life of uninhibited creativity. George Bowling’s other great love during his youth was reading.
In this section of the novel George Bowling very much re-creates the England of around the turn of the century, up to the First World War. Having reminisced about his home town of Lower Binfield, he decides to take a sentimental trip back. Of course when he returns nothing is as he remembered it. Everything has changed and no one remembers who he is, even an old girlfriend.
There’s a few problems with Coming Up For Air. The main one being is that the narrator, George Bowling, supposedly an average middle class Englishman, is too intelligent and perceptive. It’s clearly George Orwell in a fatty suit which makes you think, why not just jettison this literary disguise and make the story more straightforwardly autobiographical, like he did in Keep The Aspidistra Flying. The novel also has really outdated and misogynistic views on women. You cringe as you read. It’s not really Orwell trying to convey the general attitudes of the time through George Bowling, his average Englishman, but more Orwell’s own attitudes.
On the plus side there are the beautiful descriptions of unspoiled English life. One thing readers may not be aware of is Orwell’s appreciation of nature. One scene has George Bowling picking flowers, then ditching them because he doesn’t think it appropriate behaviour for a 45-year-old. This is one of the main themes of the novel: why don’t we continue to do the things we enjoyed as children, rather than opting into the rat race of schedules, debt payments and jobs we loathe. Coming Up For Air argues that the simple pleasures in life are the best. This is contrasted against an atmosphere of looming war, with its death, destruction, propaganda, dishonest politics and jingoism.
Coming Up For Air comes nowhere close to the brilliance of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s an interesting and enjoyable curio nonetheless.
Coming Up For Air, by George Orwell. Published by Penguin Classics. ISBN: 9780141185699 RRP: $22.95
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