It is often difficult to imagine the existence of an author before the publication of his or her masterpiece. Leo Tolstoy exists in our imagination as the creator of the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina just as Charlotte Brontë exists as the great author who brought Jane Eyre into our imaginations. This trend in the literary world of associating great authors with their most famous works is so entrenched that we are often surprised when we come across a novel which we have never encountered before, by an author we thought we knew well. This was exactly my experience when I discovered George Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming up for Air.
Orwell is of course well known for his two most famous works, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the former a powerful allegory criticising emerging communist states such as the USSR, the latter a dystopian tale of the futility of love under an oppressive and totalitarian regime.
Coming up for Air, by contrast, is at first glance a more mundane affair. George Bowling is an average inter-war, middle class, middle aged, slightly overweight, suburban Englishman with a wife and two children living out his days worrying about money, his boss and his ever more troubling false teeth. What emerges through Orwell’s portrayal of this seemingly average character, however, is a snapshot of the English psyche at a time when massive changes were taking place. Affected by the looming threat of war, and disgusted at the apparent meaninglessness of life, in which urbanisation and the ‘rat-race’ culture are eating away at quotidian pleasures, Bowling attempts to rediscover his rural upbringing and returns to his family home in the small town of ‘Lower Binfield’.
The novel captures brilliantly the feeling of loss experienced by Bowling when he discovers that the place where he grew up has changed beyond recognition. Factories, shops, parks, even the people who inhabit the town, are unrecognisable to Bowling. The results of the First World War were still being felt in England even as Europe prepared for a second, something which is embodied by Orwell’s protagonist. Fighting in the Great War was the catalyst for Bowling leaving his family home, and his return to lower Binfield causes buried feelings and unresolved family issues to re-emerge.
Orwell creates a motif for change and wider alienation in the novel through the activity of fishing. For Bowling, fishing symbolises a long-gone era of freedom and innocence. It is through scenes of reminiscence, such as when Bowling remembers with pride his first catch, that Orwell captures the essence of what it is to be nostalgic, and what it is to be human:
“But the thought of fishing sent me wild with excitement. Many a time I’d been past the pool at the Mill Farm and watched the small carp basking on the surface, and sometimes under the willow tree at the corner a great diamond- shaped carp that to my eyes looked enormous — six inches long, I suppose — would suddenly rise to the surface, gulp down a grub, and sink again.”
Throughout the novel we are given honest accounts and reflections on a plethora of memories which are at once ordinary and marvellous and which make up the frame of reference of a particular and very individual human being. Orwell asks us to take his protagonist, with all of his faults, and to understand him and accept him for what he is.
Coming up for Air is certainly a gripping and poignant novel in its own right, written in a wonderfully accessible and surprisingly humorous way. Yet its greatest value for readers of today is that it provides a glimpse into the development of a novelist whose ideas and political views changed drastically throughout his life and whose writing style changed with them. Coming up for Air sows the seeds for Orwell’s later literary masterpieces. It is in reading this novel, and indeed the early novels and writings of any celebrated author, that we come to appreciate and understand more fully the real value and masterpiece of the classic works which we celebrate.