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Coming Up for Air ()


Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels

It's often said that every author has at least one good book in him.  The unfortunate corollary to this rule is that remarkably few have more than one.  Even more rare are those blessed few who have several, or, rarer still, many.  This phenomenon combines with another, which we'll call the "Acknowledged Classic Syndrome"--wherein a single one of an author's books achieves Great Book status, frequently through being assigned reading for grade schoolers--to create a tendency on most of our part to only read one or two works by any given author.  Thus, every kid in America is forced to read Hamlet and A Tale of Two Cities, but few of us ever feel compelled to seek out the rest of even these great author's oeuvres.  We're even less likely to look past Lord of the Flies for William Golding's other books or past Catcher in the Rye for the rest, what there is of it, of Salinger.

George Orwell is "lucky" enough to have two books on the mandatory reading list--Animal Farm and 1984--but, with the possible exception of Homage to Catalonia, resurgent since the end of the Cold War, much of his other work goes unread.   As it happens, these three most famous books showed up on various end-of-Century book lists, as did his Collected Essays, and with every one I read I become more and more convinced that he was the greatest writer of the 20th Century.  So at this point I'm consciously seeking out his other books, most recently Coming Up for Air, and my appreciation continues to grow.

Coming Up for Air begins with one of the most disarming and quintessentially English sentences in all of literature :

    The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.

The speaker is George "Fatty" Bowling, an insurance salesman, with a wife he does not love and two children he finds annoying.  The idea is to take the seventeen pounds he almost accidentally won on a horse race and to go visit Lower Binfield, the village in which he grew up and which holds so many happy memories of youth and of a simpler England.  The story is set in 1938, the War approaching, and George's thoughts continually drift back to the time before WWI :

     1913! My God! 1913! The stillness, the green water, the rushing of the weir! It'll never come
    again. I don't mean that 1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you, the feeling of
    not being in a hurry and not being frightened, the feeling you've either had and don't need to be
    told about, or haven't had and won't ever have the chance to learn.

And so he decides to try and recapture that scene of his youth  :

    [I]t wasn't that I wanted to watch my navel.  I only wanted to get my nerve back before the bad
    times begin.  Because does anyone who isn't dead from the neck up doubt that there's a bad time
    coming ?  We don't even know what it'll be, and yet we know it's coming.  Perhaps a war, perhaps
    a slump--no knowing, except that it'll be something bad.  Wherever we're going, we're going
    downwards.  Into the grave, into the cesspool--no knowing.  And you can't face that kind of thing
    unless you've got the right feeling inside you.  There's something that's gone out of us in these
    twenty years since the war.  It's a kind of vital juice that we've squirted away until there's nothing
    left.  All this rushing to and fro!  Everlasting scramble for a bit of cash.  Everlasting din of buses,
    bombs, radios, telephone bells.  Nerves worn all to bits, empty places in our bones where the
    marrow out to be.

    I shoved my foot down on the accelerator.  The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had
    done me good already.  You know the feeling I had.  Coming up for air!

But of course the village and the life he recalls are long since gone.

Orwell writes beautifully about the world that Lower Binfield represented and with great disdain of the England that George currently occupies.  But his most devastating intuitions concern the world to come.  In the book's signal moment, George has gone to a Left Book Club meeting with his wife to hear an anti-Fascist speaker.  As the speaker drones on :

    I'd stopped listening to the actual lecture.  But there are more ways than one of listening.  I shut my
    eyes for a moment.  The effect was curious.  I seemed to see the fellow much better when I could
    only hear his voice.

    It was a voice that sounded as if it could go on for a fortnight without stopping.  It's a ghastly thing,
    really, to have a sort of human barrel-organ shooting propaganda at you by the hour.  The same
    thing over and over again.  Hate, hate, hate.  Let's all get together and have a good hate.  Over and
    over.  It gives you the feeling that something has got inside your skull and is hammering down on
    your brain.  But for a moment, with my eyes shut, I managed to turn the tables on him.  I got inside
    his skull.  It was a peculiar sensation.  For about a second I was inside him, you might almost say I
    was him.  At any rate, I felt what he was feeling.

    I saw the vision that he was seeing.  And it wasn't at all the kind of vision that can be talked about.
    What he's saying is merely that Hitler's after us and we must all get together and have a good hate.
    Doesn't go into details.  Leaves it all respectable.  But what he's seeing is something quite
    different.  It's a picture of himself smashing people's faces in with a spanner.  Fascist faces, of
    course.  I know that's what he was seeing.  It was what I saw myself for the second or two that I
    was inside him.  Smash! Right in the middle!  The bones cave in like an eggshell and what was a
    face a minute ago is just a great big blob of strawberry jam.  Smash!  There goes another!  That's
    what's in his mind, waking and sleeping, and the more he thinks of it the more he likes it.  And it's
    all O.K. because the smashed faces belong to Fascists.  You could hear all that in the tone of his
    voice.

There's much here that foreshadows 1984, from the idea of an organized event called a "hate" to the image of the future consisting of smashing peoples' faces--recall the chilling line : "If you want a picture of the future imagine a boot stomping on a human face--forever."

The term "Orwellian" is thrown about fairly freely, to the point where it may have no fixed meaning.  If anything, folks probably consider it to refer to the concept of "Big Brother" or some authoritarian force spying on us or oppressing us.  But the truly Orwellian moments occur not so much when these external forces are brought to bear, but when we become their accomplices : when Winston Smith denounces Julia, when the other animals help enforce the pigs rules at Animal Farm, and here, when the theoretically benign anti-Fascist becomes a figure of terror himself.  This is Orwell's great insight, hard earned in the crucible of the Spanish Civil War, that in the modern political world, where mere political differences yield to hatred of the other, even those with the best intentions become monstrous, their hatreds warping them until they are capable of horrific acts.

Without taking anything away from Animal Farm or 1984, Coming Up for Air is perhaps an even more impressive novel.  First of all, it is a realist fiction--with all the restrictions which that entails--not a fantasy. Second, where the other two books have the advantage of hindsight, Coming Up for Air is predictive.  It correctly forecasts a world where even the Allies, the putative "good guys," would find themselves shipping citizens to concentration camps, fire bombing cities and finally resorting to nuclear weapons.  Smash! Smash! Smash!  It is a great book.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

George Orwell Links:
    -George Orwell (1903-1950) - pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair (kirjasto)
    -NET GUIDE: GEORGE ORWELL (1903-1950) (The Guardian)
    -George Orwell Essays and Reviews (Gaslight)
    -ETEXT: 1984
    -ETEXT: Animal Farm
    -EXCERPT: Barcelona, 1938 from Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell.
    -ETEXT: Articles by Orwell (Charles)
    -ETEXT: Shooting an Elephant
    -REVIEW: of Drums under the Windows by Sean O'Casey (George Orwell, 28 October 1945, The Observer)
    -ETEXT: Reflections on Gandhi (1949)
    -ETEXT: 'A Nice Cup of Tea' by George Orwell
    -ETEXT: Politics and the English Language BY George Orwell
    -ETEXT: The Prevention of Literature (1946)
    -ETEXT: You and the Atomic Bomb    by George Orwell
    -ETEXT:   Notes on Nationalism (May 1945)
    -ETEXT: Why I Write (1947)     -LINKS: Charles' George Orwell Links
    -ARCHIVES : "orwell" (NY Review of Books)
    -George Orwell Links (K-1)
    -George Orwell (Essays, Biblio, etc.)
    -George Orwell (Chestnut Tree Cafe)
    -George Orwell (Spartacus Educational Home Page)
    -The Orwell Reader
    -the Internet Public Library:  Online Literary Criticism Collection:  George Orwell (1903 - 1950)
    -ARTICLE :  ORWELL RADIO SCRIPTS AND LETTERS FOUND (JUSTINE DE LACY, June 12, 1984, NY Times)
    -ETEXT: George Orwell: A Life by Bernard Crick
    -TRIBUTE: A Seer's Blind Spots: On George Orwell's 100th, a Look at a Flawed and Fascinating Writer (Glenn Frankel, June 25, 2003, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: Orwell Up Close: On the 100th anniversary of his birth, a clutch of new biographies explores the wintry genius of George Orwell - a hero claimed by left and right (DONALD MORRISON, June 30, 2003, TIME Europe)
    -ESSAY: Blacklisted writer says illness clouded Orwell's judgement: Survivor tells Guardian that author was 'losing his grip' (Fiachra Gibbons, June 24, 2003, The Guardian)     -ESSAY: The Road to Oceania (WILLIAM GIBSON, June 25, 2003, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Introduction to 1984: The road to 1984: George Orwell's final novel was seen as an anticommunist tract and many have claimed its grim vision of state control proved prophetic. But, argues Thomas Pynchon, Orwell - whose centenary is marked this year - had other targets in his sights and drew an unexpectedly optimistic conclusion (Thomas Pynchon)
    Why Orwell Matters: The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four may have ended in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, but George Orwell's writing remains as relevant today as ever. (Timothy Garton Ash, Fall 2001, Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY: The Man Who Saved Orwell: Harry Milton served with George Orwell in the Spanish Civil War. His papers recall the trauma of opposing Franco's forces on the battlefield-and of fleeing Stalin's forces in revolutionary Barcelona. (David Jacobs, Fall 2001, Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY: Mencken and Orwell, Social Critics With Little (and Much) in Common (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, October 26, 2002, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: George Orwell: A Study in Trans-Political Truth-Speaking (Michael R. Stevens, Religion & Liberty)
    -ARTICLE: In Latin America, the Cult of Revolution Wanes (LARRY ROHTER, May 18, 2003, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: George Orwell, devoted family man 50 years after death, his son remembers (The Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY: Words and Things  On the 50th anniversary of George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language, Andrew Marr assesses the state of political English and finds it in robust good health. (Prospect)
    -ESSAY : On Shooting at Elephants (John Leonard, The Nation)
    -ESSAY: A Comparison of Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984
    -ESSAY: Orwell & Marx: Animalism vs. Marxism
    -ESSAY: Orwell and me (Margaret Atwood, June 16, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The big O: the reputation of George Orwell (Joseph Epstein, New Criterion)
    -DISCUSSION: the Journalism of George Orwell (radion national)
    -Senior  Seminar: Professor Osborne  War & Remembrance
    -ESSAY: WRITERS IN UNIFORM (Stephen Spender, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : George Orwell, Socialist, Anarchist or what...? On George Orwell's Political Development (Claus B. Storgaard)
    -ESSAY: Homage to Catalonia and The Spanish Civil War (Andrew Weiss)
    -ESSAY : THE MACHO MAKER OF NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (Virginia Held, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : PUBLISHING: ORWELL'S SIMPLE SECRET (EDWIN McDOWELL, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : PUBLISHING: FROM BBC'S ORWELL FILE (EDWIN McDOWELL, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : THE VISION OF BOTH ORWELL AND KAFKA IS AS SHARP AS EVER (WALTER GOODMAN, December 30, 1983, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Is Bad Writing Necessary?: Adorno and Orwell's competing legacies (James Miller, Lingua Franca, December 1999/January 2000)
    -ESSAY : IN SEARCH OF '1984' (LINDA McK. STEWART, NY Times)
    -Orwellian & Animal Farm Studies Resources  From the Chico High School Library
    -READERS GUIDE: Animal Farm (Novel Guide.com)
    -ONLINE STUDYGUIDE: 1984 by George Orwell.  (SparkNote by Brian Phillips)
    -SUMMARY: Nineteen Eighty-Four (Maros Kollar)
    -ONLINE STUDYGUIDE: Animal Farm by George Orwell (Rebecca Gaines, Spark Notes)
    -SUMMARY: Animal Farm  (Maros Kollar)
    -DISCUSSION : orwell's "coming up for air" (George Orwell Campfire)
    -SUMMARY: The Road to Wigan Pier (Maros Kollar)
    -LINKS: George Orwell in Our Age
    -LINKS: George Orwell Resources
    -LINKS: Charles'  George Orwell Links
    -ARCHIVES: "george orwell" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES: "george orwell" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW: of Homage:  George Orwell's Prelude in Spain (Granville Hicks, NY Times)
    -REVIEWS : of Coming Up for Air (Epinions)
    -REVIEW : of ORWELL The Lost Writings. By George Orwell (Will Watson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of ORWELL The Lost Writings. By George Orwell (Walter Goodman, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of GEORGE ORWELL The Authorized Biography. By Michael Shelden (Samuel Hynes, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of ORWELL: The Road to Airstrip One. By Ian Slater (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of GEORGE ORWELL A Life. By Bernard Crick (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of GEORGE ORWELL A Life. By Bernard Crick (Steven Marcus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation By JEFFREY MEYERS (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of ORWELL: Wintry Conscience of a Generation by Jeffrey Meyers ( JOHN CAREY, Sunday Times of London)
    -REVIEW : of Orwell by Jeffrey Myers (Paul Foot, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of Wintry Conscience of a Generation, by  Jeffrey Meyers (Enda O'Doherty, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW : of "Orwell" The new biography glosses over the defiant, troubled life of the eerily prescient author of "Animal Farm" and "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (Benjamin Anastas, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of THE POLITICS OF LITERARY REPUTATION The Making and Claiming of 'St. George' Orwell. By John Rodden (Julian Symons, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of '1984' REVISTED Totalitarianism in Our Century Edited by Irving Howe (Arthur Schlesinger Jr, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of George Orwell By Gordon Bowker (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of Orwell's Victory By Christopher Hitchens (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of ORWELL: WINTRY CONSCIENCE OF A GENERATION By Jeffrey Meyers (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of George Orwell by Gordon Bowker (Philip Hensher, The Spectator)

FILMS :
    -FILMOGRAPHY : "george orwell" (Internet Movie Database)
    -ESSAY : DID THE HEART OF ORWELL'S '1984' GET LOST IN THE MOVIE? (Richard Grenier, NY Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: Animal Farm a TV movie review  (Rick Norwood, SF Site)
 

GENERAL :
    -ESSAY : The left's ace of clubs : It sold books, held dances, supported causes and promoted socialism. Paul Laity on the radical venture that engaged the political passions of the British middle classes in the 1930s (The Guardian, July 7, 2001)
   -REVIEW : of THE BLOODY CROSSROADS Where Literature and Politics Meet. By Norman Podhoretz (Cynthia Ozick, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of England, Their England Commentaries on English Language and Literature By Denis Donoghue (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Such, Such Was Eric Blair: a review of Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays by George Orwell, compiled and with an introduction by George Packer; All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays by George Orwell, compiled by George Packer, with an introduction by Keith Gessen; and Why I Write by George Orwell (Julian Barnes, 3/12/09, NY Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:

Comments:

Coming Up for Air is, in my view, Orwell's finest book and sadly overlooked. It's especially pertinent at the moment, with everyone getting paranoid about the forthcoming 'terror' threat. One strange after effect of reading it, was that I - for the first time in my life - took an interest in angling - which Orwell makes sound very appealing - on a warm summers day, with a sandwich and not a worry in the world, except the buzzing of the insects

- Steve Yabsley

- Apr-24-2004, 05:11

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"Coming Up for Air" was required reading in a freshman college English course I took in 1973, thirty four years after its original publication. The ensuing years have done nothing to lessen the timeliness of this often overlooked gem. I agree whole heartedly with your review and rating.

- Patrick Scanlon

- Jan-12-2003, 20:56

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