Thursday, November 25, 2004

Coming Up For Air, by George Orwell

I've now read all six of Orwell's novels. Hmmmm. They fall into two even categories, as far as I can tell. There are the three political novels, and the three more autobiographical/humorous novels.

Burmese days, his first novel, was a political drama. Then he left off the subject - for the main part - and wrote three quite different novels, A Clergyman's daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up For Air. Then he went back to political subjects with Animal Farm and finally Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One wonders what would be made of his writing had he died after finishing Coming Up For Air. He'd no doubt be a very minor literary character. To read Nineteen Eighty-Four along side A Clergyman's Daughter is to read two wildly different books. One always thinks of the dark, depressing Orwell, describing his totalitarian world of Big Brother. His other books don't seem to get much of a mention.

I have to admit they're a real pet favourite with me. I can always see myself in the descriptions and attitudes he gives. His snobby attitude to popular, middle class culture I find irresistable. He's resigned to the way people live, to their cheap entertainments, to their getting merely swallowed up by the sweep of events, but also can't help but be annoyed and critical of it.

Written in the first person by over weight, middle aged insurance salesman George Bowling, Coming Up For Air is really just a thinly veiled autobiography (Orwell pretty much admits that this is what most of his novels were anyway) about Orwell's youth and where he grew up. It's quite interesting for that.

There are sections which very much point towards Nineteen Eighty-Four. For example, George Bowling goes to an anti-fascist meeting and he describes them as being in the business of hate and sloganeering. Then there is a sentence in which he describes what will come after the war - the Big Brother world.

Coming Up For Air was published in 1939. I was quite alarmed at the way George Bowling talked about the coming war with Germany, how you couldn't avoid it, no matter how much you wanted to keep on believing that life would go on as normal. See what I mean, he gets into the states of mind you enter about things, your naive optimism.

There is this great scene in the novel, with regards to the oncoming war, where a bomb is dropped in a residential suburb. At first people think it's Hitler, then a few minutes later people realise it's an accidental bombing from one of their own planes. Comically, some people who live a distance away thought it was a factory exploding. Then there are descriptions of all the havoc the accidental bombing caused, including a dismembered leg with a boot on. It's grisly-comical. He also describes the three pathetic souls - local shopkeepers, the elderly - who were killed, or rather blown to pieces, one so badly that there were no remains found at all.

Anyhoo, the novel works towards George Bowling going back to the suburb of his boyhood, and a la Proust, trying to recover the pleasures of a time now passed. It doesn't work. Anyone who has gone back to a suburb they once lived in when young will relate to Orwell's descriptions. He marvells at all the changes, how it is barely recognisable, and how most of the residents barely, if at all, remember it as he does.

At the end of all this he goes home to his nagging wife. It almost reminded me of something out of George and Mildred. She thinks he's been out having an affair. He knows that if he describes the truth of the matter, that he was off in a nostalgic search for his lost boyhood, she would think it ridiculous. In the last paragraph he wonders what he should do, try to explain, and seem ridiculous, or just let her think he was having an affair.

Coming Up For Air is not a highpoint for Orwell. Some of it I found pretty weak. Some pretty good. Some intriguing as it was very pre-Nineteen Eighty-Four. I enjoyed it though, because I just love Orwell's autobiographical persona. It's just not what you'd expect from the creator of Big Brother.

The three autobiographical novels are fascinating to ponder. Are they an aberration in his writing career? They are pretty incomplete, when compared to the other novels. He died in his late 40s. Would he have gone back to them had he lived longer? He seemed to have almost exhausted this little genre. I know it will sound strange for me to say that, seeing I like these novels so much, but I couldn't imagine him writing another one after Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Although I could imagine him doing something along the lines of A Clergyman's Daughter again, but doing it properly this time. He seemed to go that way in the 'fairy story' Animal Farm.

One last note:

Women to him were obviously a foreign planet. I get the impression that Orwell was constantly disappointed in love and sex. Feminists have apparently been quite critical of his portrayal of women. But I don't think he was a mean misogynist. Maybe I'm too forgiving. I just think he obviously did not get along with women, and was disappointed in love, and looked on them too much in a romantic way - i.e put them on a pedestal, idealised them, but probably never had a realistic relationship with a woman.

That's my guess. I haven't read any bios, so I'll be intrigued to see what the truth of the matter was.

He also wrote negative things about homosexuals. Again, this is just a minor, petty prejudice, and I hardly see it as some kind of unhealthy obsession.

Now it's onto his non-fiction books, after I plough through this pile of books that have come in from the library.

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