5. Coming up for Air 

Coming up for Air by George Orwell 

It seems the last two books on this reading challenge have taken me a while to finish. Jules Verne’s Around the world in Eighty Days, and George Orwell’s Coming up for Air have both proved difficult reads for their own reasons. Partly I have been distracted from Coming up for Air, partly I have struggled with it. This is my third Orwell novel, previously I’ve read 1984 and Animal FarmI particularly enjoyed 1984.

But I’ve also got something else inside me, chiefly a hangover from the past.Coming up for Air, p23

Coming up for Air is about George Bowling, a middle aged, fat man with false teeth and butter coloured hair, who is suffering an existential crisis. He details his nostalgic childhood and what seems to be relative unhappiness with his mediocre life. Orwell’s writing within the novel is similar to 1984, however the tone isn’t as vibrant which seems to encourages the mediocrity of Bowling’s existence. There were some lovely images however, such as machine gun bullets being squirted out of windows, but generally the novel seems to take on a tone that it stays on.

The novel is split into three parts, the second part is mostly devoted to the detailed recollection of Bowling’s childhood, including painstaking effort to place Bowling’s personal value on the natural environment. The third part of the novel is perhaps the most interesting, in which an accidental bomb falling nearly kills the protagonist, however the third part of the novel also moves greatly emotionally.

In visiting his hometown, Bowling explores the nostalgia that he possess and in an attempt to recover from it and find some comfort from his life. Bitterly disappointed when he finds factories and industry has moved in and the landscape changed by suburban sprawl, he drinks for the majority of his holiday. Anyone he recognises does not recognise him through twenty years has changed him greatly. He assesses everything that comes into his path and generally it adds to his disapointment. He finds little relief in holidaying from his life, his attempt to ‘come up for air’ fails and he continues to suffocate. His holiday results in him getting trouble with his wife and disillusioned from his hometown. 

Bowling also questions what the future will bring, an Anti-Facism lecture shows its face briefly and there is a shadowing of Hitler’s coming. The coming war also shows it’s face in Bowling’s hometown in the form of an accidental bomb dropping, aircraft passing regularly and a factory in the town making bombs as well as stockings. Overall Bowling’s world is bleak.

No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun. But how about five years from from now? Or two years? Or one year?Coming up for Air, pg 24

How bleak the novel is may be an indicator as to why I found it quite difficult to read. There is very little optimism and the novel ends on a low note mid argument between Bowling and his wife. Which perhaps highlights how unsatisfying life can be and how little closure is actually readily available for it’s participants. Overall this novel was unsatisfying and bleak and a little difficult to persevere with. It’s doubtful that I would read this novel again, I enjoyed 1984 a great deal more.

Although I’m feeling a little disenchanted with my Reading Challenge as the material I have come across in the last two novels has been a little challenging. But I’m not giving up on it just yet. I’ve decided to start on A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini in the wake of Coming up for Air. 


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