This week I’ll be discussing the novel Coming Up for Air by George Orwell
My Rating: 4.5 stars
Summary: George Bowling, the hero of this comic novel, is a middle-aged insurance salesman who lives in an average English suburban row house with a wife and two children. One day, after winning some money from a bet, he goes back to the village where he grew up, to fish for carp in a pool he remembers from thirty years before. The pool, alas, is gone, the village has changed beyond recognition, and the principal event of his holiday is an accidental bombing by the RAF.
Whenever I encounter George Orwell, my immediate reaction is almost always a groan. He doesn’t write happy stories and, whenever I am assigned his work, I can’t shake the dread as I open to the first page. Every time, though, I’m blown away at how my assumptions are completely wrong. No, Orwell isn’t a happy writer, but DANG. That man can write!
This was my second time through Coming Up For Air. We first crossed paths in one of my literature classes while studying abroad. It’s one of Orwell’s lesser known novels–paling in the popularity of 1984 and Animal Farm. I, however, have come to the conclusion that it’s my favorite.
The book, as you can see in the summary, centers around George Bowling–a mediocre man with a mediocre life. The plot is simple: he’s deeply unhappy, reminisces about his childhood, and eventually decides to go back and revisit his home town. To his shock, his hometown is unrecognizable. He returns home and life continues. End of story.
What get’s me about the narrative, however, is that Orwell perfectly captures the essence of nostalgia. I’ve been told that we as humans are the most nostalgic during periods of incredible change–personal or social. Orwell sets his story at the cusp of World War II–just before Great Britain enters the fighting. Everything in society, in this moment, is changing. George, a veteran of World War I, is painfully aware of this. He knows exactly what is coming and what it will do to the world. Nothing will ever be the same.
Orwell puts words to the deep longings we all have for something that never existed. Every time he begins reminiscing of his childhood, George makes a statement assuring that what he remembers isn’t the whole of it. He tells us that, in his memory, it’s always summer. He knows this isn’t the case, but he remembers it anyway.
The most heartbreaking part of the novel is that even though he is painfully aware that he over-idealizes his childhood, George still convinces himself that he can go back. And go back he does. Or, at least, he tries. He visits all his old haunts–his father’s shop, the old church, his favorite fishing holes. And none of it is the same. All has been altered and no one recognizes him.
It’s a bleak novel, but a wonderful one. My timing on re-reading was perfect. I’m in an enormous transition stage at the moment and while looking at everything that is changing, it’s important to remember not to idealize the past or long for things I never actually had.
“The past is a curious thing. It’s with you all the time. I suppose an hour never passes without your thinking of things that happened ten or twenty years ago, and yet most of the time it’s got no reality, it’s just a set of facts that you’ve learned, like a lot of stuff in a history book. Then some chance sight or sound or smell, especially smell, sets you going, and the past doesn’t merely come back to you, you’re actually IN the past. It was like that at this moment.”
More book-related news…
Every summer, I listen to the Lord of the Rings trilogy on audiobook. When you do manual labor all day, it really helps pass the time. I started Fellowship of the Ring yesterday and, believe it or not, am already halfway through the book! (This is what happens when you work all the time.)
I’m breaking ground in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I have yet to breach the fifty page mark, so may not get to discussing it by next week. I’ll get to it eventually!
Come back next Tuesday for another book discussion! Before that, though, I’d LOVE to get some feedback for this feature. Yes, it’s the first week, but I want to find a format that works best for the enjoyment of all. What aspects do you like? What would you change? Any other suggestions?
Thanks for reading!