George Orwell is by some way one of my favourite writers, but his 1938 novel ‘Coming Up For Air’ is not his best book.
The novel is the tragi-comic story of George Bowling, a 45-year-old insurance broker living in the ‘inner outer suburbs’ of London, in a town called West Bletchley. He is anxious about his existence, and after winning £17 in a bet decides to return to the village of his childhood; only he finds that it is now an industrial town, and, in the words of John Wain, he ‘realises the impossibility of “retaining one’s childhood loves of things such as trees, fishes, butterflies” – because it postulates a world in which these things are simply not there anymore.’
Orwell once claimed that ‘every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.’ This novel, set in 1938, certainly features the usual cynical wit he uses to cast a grim eye over the state of the middle classes, but the problem really is that, while perhaps the themes hold well, the medium fails him.
The issue is that Orwell has put his own upper-middle class voice into the mouth of George Bowling, who is after all a lower-middle class, suburban insurance broker. The first-person narrative is then inescapably poorly judged and Bowling’s apparent intelligence is out of place among his dreary family and lifestyle.
And because Orwell is attempting to show how mindlessly accepting the lower-middle classes are of the capitalist order, he holds Bowling just short of genuinely criticising anything; instead he merely remarks cynically on it. For instance, Bowling complains early on about the Hesperides Estate he lives on, and the Cheerful Credit Building Society that have practically enslaved the population of West Bletchley through the 16-year-lease of their houses – but he never expresses any desire to change things. Of the population of West Bletchley, he jibes, ‘We’re all Tories, yes-men and bum-suckers. Daren’t kill the goose that lays the gilded eggs!’ He is discontent but daren’t challenge the order of things; angry but helpless.
Which I suppose is somewhat the point. Large parts of the novel are wasted on attempts to instil nostalgia in the reader with long and actually very boring descriptions of Bowling’s childhood in the Thames Valley. The best moments are when Orwell gets right into the helplessness and the mundanity of being chained to a marriage partner you hate, with two kids and a meaningless job. The book was certainly intended to be of its time – Bowling spends long periods meditating on the nearness of war, for example – but this message strikes deeply even today. The suggestion is that capitalism has you in its grasp; you have rent to pay and a family to feed; life is something that is happening to you, rather than something you are doing; the best you can do is sit back and hope you don’t hit bankruptcy before you die.
In this sense the book is a traditional Orwell, attempting to prise apart the present order of society. In another it isn’t at all, because most of it is spent chasing the themes of nostalgia and the heartless evolution of society in the face of industrialism. That’s fine; there’s definitely a good cause there. But I can’t help but feel Orwell got his priorities a bit wrong. Instead of using most of the book to describe Bowling’s life from birth to the present-day, he should have used it to describe him trying to break out of the system. I understand what he was trying to do, which is show how easily an already dull life can come to be so oppressively bleak, but it’s really rather boring as a result. Orwell falls into the trap of his own Realism by trying to portray the genuine dullness of an entire man’s life. Had, say, a more dramatic describer of provincial boredom like Chekhov done it, it would have been a damn sight more interesting. There would probably have been affairs, more brutal descriptions of the war and violent changes of emotion every two lines.
As it is the subject is good but the story is boring. ‘Coming Up For Air’ is one of those books that is concerned with showing a snapshot of life rather than the development of a narrative. You rather imagine Orwell emerging from a Left Book Club meeting in which a selection of Socialist writers had agreed on the importance of writing such a book, with an eye on the politics rather than the art. As a result you can read 100 pages without a sense of anything particularly happening. The characters sometimes near being travesties too: everyone is intended to be a stereotype, though this comes off particularly poorly with the women. And there’s an appallingly unexplained Oxford professor of Classics called Porteous, who appears for a section of a chapter in an absurdly unexplained way, mumbles about poetry, then is never mentioned again. This was one of the many things that made this book feel like it should have had ten more drafts made of it til it was up to its potential.
‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’ and ‘Burmese Days’, his two preceding novels, are an awful lot better. Had it not been for ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’, ‘Coming Up For Air’ would have made Orwell seem one of the minor novelists of the 20th century.