Coming Up for Air
By George Orwell
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The Short of It:
An odd little book, but what a treasure.
The Rest of It:
I’m not sure why I enjoy Orwell’s writing so much. It may be his pessimistic take on what we call civilization, or it could be that I am a bit of a realist. I see things as they are…no imagined glory here. The same can be said for this book. Coming Up for Air is a novel about George Bowling. He’s a married, middle-aged man who after winning a horse race, decides to visit his hometown to re-live the years of his youth.
There’s a bit of a problem though. George is married to Hilda and lives the typical suburban lifestyle that includes a house and two kids. George doesn’t seem to want to remember this though. The day-to-day that George shares with us is anything but dreadful, but the normalcy, the lack of excitement is a constant thorn in his side. With war looming in the distance, he reminisces on how life was, and how it could be.
There’s time for everything except the things worth doing. Think of something you really care about. Then add hour to hour and calculate the fraction of your life that you’ve actually spent in doing it. And then calculate the time you’ve spent on things like shaving, riding to and fro on buses, waiting in railway junctions, swapping dirty stories and reading the newspapers. [Page 93]
But Lower Binfield is not what it used to be. As you can imagine, progress can be a wicked thing to behold and George’s quaint hometown is not so little anymore and even the things that haven’t changed, seem to be different twenty years later.
It’s a queer experience to go over a bit of country that you haven’t seen in twenty years. You remember it in great detail, and you remember it all wrong. [Page 209]
To add insult to injury, the people are not the same either as evidenced by this account where he happens to run into an old flame.
Only twenty-four years, and the girl I’d known, with her milky-white skin and red mouth and kind of dull-gold hair, had turned into this great, round-shouldered hag, shambling along on twisted heels. [Page 243]
What’s wonderful about this book is that everyone can relate to it. Things change. We change. There is a “George” in all of us and Orwell’s wry, sarcastic take on progress is at times very funny. This isn’t an account of a man falling apart. There is no mid-life crises per se, but what we view through George’s eyes is a quiet realization that one cannot recapture their youth and that time marches on whether or not we accept it.
If you enjoy “day in the life” type stories you will enjoy this one.