Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell

While I found Coming Up for Air interesting and also rather funny, I did not enjoy it as much as Keep the Apisdistra Flying and Burmese Days.
Possibly because, unlike the other two, this book was written from a first person view point rather than third person as the other two were.

Not that first person narration can't be successful, but Orwell's strength seems to lie in describing the inner thoughts of the protagonist by a third person narrator.

Also, there is no real story line or character development.  Largely it is a man's, George Bowling's, attempts to return to the England of his youth.

It starts with Bowling's present status which is a typical middle class working man, married with children.  He should be happy with what he has, but he is not.  He doesn't mind his children, his wife is a bit of a shrew, but then what wife wouldn't be if married to him.

Bowling does not make this conclusion and I'm not altogether sure Orwell is implying it.  It is what I conclude based on the loutish character of Bowling.

Bowling isn't a lout in that he's cruel or abusive.  But he's not faithful and he is selfish.  He lies to his wife by keeping money squirreled away from her and telling her he's off on business when he's actually returning to his home town, Lower Binfield, which he hasn't been to since he left it for the war (WWI).

What he wants is a vacation all to himself and return to the town of his youth.  In order for us to fully appreciate his visit he hearkens back to his childhood and describes life with his parents, his older brother and friends and schools and everyone in the town.

He particularly remembers a place near the River Thames where gigantic carp swam in a water hole.  He never got the chance to fish there.  He is determined to do so when he arrives.

He recalls his first love, who he leaves for the war.  He describes his experience in the war which is not at all remarkable.  Or rather it is remarkable for a complete lack of action.  He did, however, get quite a bit or reading done.

The first problem when Bowling arrives is figuring out exactly where the town is.  It has developed so much that it takes him some time to find the original section where he grew up.  I'm sure today it would be called the "historic district". 

He checks into a hotel.  Considers mildly flirting with local women, perhaps enjoy a brief encounter, but nothing develops.
 Bowling buys fishing tackle but upon finding, after a lot of effort and directions by people who "think they know" he finds the site of the carp pool.  It no longer exists because a new housing development has supplanted it.

In a nutshell, Bowling finds he can't go home again. His home is now a tea shop, and his family's furniture is the antique decor, including family photos, which still fills the rooms.  What a strange feeling that must be.

 He did accidentally run into his first love.  Or rather recognized her and followed her into a store.  She is no longer the slim, attractive girl he was attracted to, but heavy and square and judging from the mundane gossip she is engaged in with the store owner, not educated.

Finally, he gives up and returns home, deflated and depressed.  But, alas, his trials are not over.  His wife checked up on him and found that he was not at the town he purported to be in because the hotel he claimed to be staying in was now defunct.

Her natural assumption is that he was having an affair (there had already been a precedent set).  This time he was not but how can he persuade her that he was just visiting his childhood home.  He can't and the story ends with an indication that poor George has quite a few weeks of scolding and sleeping on the couch in store for him.

Returning to childhood is always a failed experiment.  At least for George Bowling.

Political designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.  George Orwell


Mudpuddle said...

your post reminded me that i have indeed read this book... and i recall that i liked it, mainly because it was such a change from the average fare; more of an upton sinclair normal, unexciting life with it's small, possibly meaningless events and disappointments that most of us live with all of our lives... i didn't think GO was trying to write an epic here, but just saying what he found life to be like, which i honor... perceptive post: tx...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I think that I mentioned that like many, I have only read Nineteen - Eighty Four and Animal Farm from Orwell. I would like to read this.

The idea that the protagonist's hometown changed so much because of development seems surprising for a book written at this time. I always thought of this these as something that first surfaced in the late 1970s.

R.T. said...

Sharon, your observations interest me. I tend to appreciate 1st person narrative often more than 3rd person narratives for purely technical reasons; the author is limited in perspective within the 1st person, so many narrative observations and narrative techniques possible in 3rd person cannot be pursued, and I often enjoy studying the author's skill in managing those challenges (which can be especially interesting when the 1st person narrator is naive, unreliable, or deceptive). But the bottom line of my observation is this: reading Orwell is always a worthwhile adventure.

R.T. said...

And speaking of Orwell, you be enjoy this:

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Mudpuddle. The mundanity of the story line was a little slow, but on the other hand, the narration of the protagonists thoughts kept things bubbling along.

And like a lot of stories that I didn't enjoy so much while reading, I find myself enjoying the remembrance of them. Probably because my mind is simply recalling the highlights.

It was truly a poignant story.

You speak of unexciting life with meaningless events and disappointments. I think maybe Orwell was struggling through a deep yearning to find the meaning and purpose in life, rather as a blind man gropes through a room looking for something. At least that is what is expressed through Bowling's thoughts.

That's what I find so poignant about the story.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian.

There did seem to be a metaphor for Bowling's life. Namely, that he was seeking something that he believed he once had and was hoping to recapture but found it elusive.

Bowling's narration seems to indicate that he has no clear idea what he is looking for but that he thinks somehow he will find it where he grew up.

It is sad how quickly our old homes become developed and then unrecognizable. I've tried to visit places where I grew up and found that to be true.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi R.T. I also like first person narrative because it creates a sense of intimacy with the narrator, as though he/she is personally telling you something just for your ears.

Interestingly, though, I find Orwell's third person limited to be his best voice such as in Burmese Days and Keep the Apidistra Flying.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Do you read Peter Hitchens? I love reading him. I watched a mesmerizing debate held years ago between him and his brother Christopher.

I am saving the post because I have not yet read Homage to Catalonia, even though I own the book. I don't want to learn anything before reading it.

Thanks so much for sharing this!

Sharon Wilfong said...

I lied. I read the post. Very good! I even posted a comment.

Mudpuddle said...

you're very likely correct about that...

Sharon Wilfong said...

Mudpuddle: I just read an interesting article about Orwell written by Peter Hitchens. He admires his realism and compares him to Waugh. I thought this interesting because I just got a book that compares the two writers.

Cleo said...

Orwell is a conundrum for me. On one hand, what I've read of his I enjoy, but on the other it's a rather measured enjoyment that doesn't leave me wanting to read more of his works. I can't figure it out. Perhaps I simply don't connect with him, even though I can understand his views. In any case, I really enjoyed your review! :-)

On another note, I have to laugh at your Feedjit on the right of your blog because it has me located in different places when I visit, and none of them are that close to where I actually live. It does make me feel comfortable though that no one will know where to find me. Lol! ;-)

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Cleopatra! I like reading Orwell but don't expect any "life is lovely" pick me up from him. I used to dislike his writing but now I enjoy his style, even if he doesn't see much good in the world.

I know what you mean about Feedjit. I live in Texas but sometimes when I get on my blog it says I'm visiting from Arkansas.

You may notice the Feedjit that someone is now visiting from Paris. That is me. My husband and I are here for the next week.

Cleo said...

Oh, you lucky lady, you! I envy your travels and long for a time when I'll be able to jaunt around a little again. Both of you, please have the best time ever! :-)

Sharon Wilfong said...

Thanks, Cleopatra. We've had a fabulous week and are heading home today. I'll be posting about it soon.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, I haven't looked into Orwell in a long time, but may do so now!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Marcia! Thanks for visiting my blog. I am often encouraged to read authors I otherwise wasn't interested in based on a good review I read. Have a good week!