I think I need to start this post with an apology to George Orwell because like many people, I read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager and assumed I’d read everything by Orwell that was worth reading. I was obviously wrong because Coming Up for Air is a great book, though very different from his two most famous novels. In a way, though, I’m glad I’ve waited until now to read it because I’m not sure I would have appreciated it as much when I was younger.
Coming Up for Air was published in 1939 and tells the story of George Bowling, a forty-five-year-old insurance salesman who is bored with his dreary, middle-class existence. Married with two children, George’s biggest worries are his mortgage, his weight and the risk of losing his job, but with Europe on the brink of war he knows that the monotony of his life could be about to change. On the day that he receives a new set of false teeth, George takes a trip into London where he sees a poster that triggers memories of his childhood and Lower Binfield, the small, peaceful town where he grew up. George is tempted to return to Lower Binfield for the first time in years, but if he goes back now, what will he find?
Based on the other two books I’ve read, this is not really the type of book I would have expected from George Orwell. However, there are some similarities with Nineteen Eighty-Four in Orwell’s surprisingly accurate predictions of the future. Reading this book gave me an eerie feeling, knowing that it was being written just before the beginning of the Second World War, when the author could have had no real knowledge of what was to come, yet anticipating the changes that would soon be upon the nation.
“I can feel it happening. I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food-queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think. And I’m not even exceptional in this. There are millions of others like me.”
My favourite part of the book was the long section in the middle where George looks back on his childhood in Lower Binfield at the turn of the century. This whole section is a lovely nostalgic portrait of an England that is now gone forever…that had already gone by 1939, destroyed by the First World War.
“1913! My God! 1913! The stillness, the green water, the rushing of the weir! It’ll never come again. I don’t mean that 1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you, the feeling of not being in a hurry and not being frightened, the feeling you’ve either had and don’t need to be told about, or haven’t had and won’t ever have the chance to learn.”
The novel doesn’t have a lot of plot, but that wasn’t a problem; I didn’t find it slow at all. There’s not much dialogue either, as we spend the whole book inside George’s head with his thoughts and memories. Despite this, I found the book completely engrossing. The only time I got bored was with George’s long and enthusiastic description of fishing, his favourite hobby until the age of fifteen. But even this was steeped in nostalgia:
“The very idea of sitting all day under a willow tree beside a quiet pool — and being able to find a quiet pool to sit beside — belongs to the time before the war, before the radio, before aeroplanes, before Hitler.”
George’s actions and opinions are not always very admirable and his views on the women in his life leave a lot to be desired, but despite his flaws, I couldn’t actually dislike him. He’s so ordinary; not a hero, but a real human being with good points and bad points. He has a wryly funny, self-deprecating narrative style which saves the book from becoming too depressing, though overall I found this a sad and poignant story rather than a humorous one. I don’t know much about Orwell’s own life, but I’m sure this book must have been autobiographical to some extent.
I loved Coming Up for Air and will certainly consider trying another of Orwell’s books.