Coming Up for Air
George Orwell, 1939
A British insurance salesman reminisces about his childhood
in a country town and decides to go pay the place a visit.
Let me expand on that premise a bit.
Coming Up for Air is about a 45-year-old man reflecting
upon life in England from his birth in 1893 to the present day,
1938. And to him and his generation, history could be divided
into two eras: before the war and after the war. Before the war
was the Victorian era and its aftermath. Then came the cataclysm
of the age: trenches, shell shock, mustard gas, Bolsheviks, the
Lost Generation. And then you had the modern world.
What the narrator contends, and what no one else seems to realize,
is that another cataclysm is on the way — certainly no later
than 1941, and probably sooner. Yes, everyone knows there'll
probably be another war; the skies are full of bombers on practice
runs, and schools have regular air raid drills. But apart from the
narrator, no one seems to grasp that very soon, when people talk
about "before the war" they'll mean now, not 1914; when
people talk about the "modern world" they'll mean after the
war to come, not now.
The book is basically an argument by analogy. We spend a hundred
pages learning about the narrator's life as a boy in the town of
Lower Binfield. He's the son of the proprietor of a horse-feed
shop. Nothing really changes from generation to generation: the
town is dominated by a church with a big cemetery out front, and
the gravestones bear the same names as the kids he goes to school
with. For a while it looks as though he'll spend his entire life
in this town, working at the grocery store — but then comes
the war, the officer's commission on the west coast, the insurance
job, the wife and two kids. When he finally goes back twenty
years later, the town is unrecognizable, transformed by corporate
gentrification and swallowed by city sprawl. The argument: look
around you and start getting nostalgic now, because all this
is going away too.
Dread of WWII was a minor theme in Keep
the Aspidistra Flying, but even there I was struck by it;
here it's what the whole book is about, so I found it all
the more uncanny. I've plowed through many many stories about
World War III. I'm very familiar with the darkly wistful tone
that the world we've come to know is about to vanish. But those
stories, at least in their time frames, were all wrong. Orwell
was right. And as such this book is a reminder that when
people predict that
there's a new world coming, it's not always crazy talk.
All that said, I don't actually recommend it — it's kind
of a slog. I especially don't recommend that you get the Harcourt
edition; the book is 278 pages long, and the back of the Harcourt
edition gives away the plot up to the last big twist on page
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