We don’t easily think of George Orwell as a comic writer. We also don’t think of him principally as a writer of novels, though he wrote six, including Animal Farm and 1984, the books that earned him enduring fame. The novel as a form claims a degree of irresponsibility or disinterestedness inconsistent with our idea of the man who created Room 101.
Orwell’s two comic novels of the 1930s, Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up For Air (1939), remind us of how essential the satiric impulse was to his anti-totalitarianism. And though they were published only three years apart, they show his progression, as England prepared for war with Germany, toward the dire seer of 1984.
Maybe our trouble accepting Orwell as a humorist begins with his face. The George Orwell that looks back at us from book jackets is dour and serious, wearing sturdy gray and brown wools under a face long and grave, ascetically thin, and burdened by unwelcome knowledge. This is the iconic, global Orwell, the one read by dissidents in Burma and Iran. Of course, Orwell was serious, in the ultimate sense of preferring grim reality to comforting illusion. He credited himself with a crucial “power of facing unpleasant facts.”
Orwell was suspicious of pleasure and especially of ease. Through rebellious indolence, he failed to win the place at Oxford to which, as an Eton scholarship boy, his adolescent life had been pointed, thereby missing (or refusing) his chance to join England’s elite. Instead, he joined the colonial police in Burma, an especially unpromising post that isolated him in his suffering but provided the material for his acid first novel, Burmese Days. The choices he made after that—to live a tramp’s life, “down and out” on the streets of Paris and London; to fight for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War; and, ultimately, to turn against his former comrades on the Stalinist left—all seem like a coda to this initial abstention from privilege.
As a counterweight to this flinty integrity, humor was essential to Orwell, not merely as a form of relief but as an aspect of his realism. His writings on tea are a comic compendium in themselves. He was terribly serious about tea (“tea is one of the mainstays of civilization in this country”), which he understood was funny, in the manner of any trivial obsession. He was perfectly willing to die for the Spanish Republic and nearly did, but he took great pains (or caused his wife to take them) to see that he got decent tea sent to the front. Fifteen years later, as he lay dying of tuberculosis in a London hospital, his final gift from his friend, Paul Potts, was a single packet that Orwell didn’t live to consume. In “A Nice Cup of Tea,” he affects a schoolmasterly rigidity about its proper preparation, writing with an irony so light that it is easily missed. (“These are not the only controversial points to arise in connection with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become.”) It’s a complex kind of humor, both alert to and tolerant of human eccentricity—what one is tempted to call the humor of democratic liberalism, except that it is abundant in Russian literature, too. It is the humor that celebrates the part of us the state can never reach.
Fittingly, Gordon Comstock’s inability, without Philbyish deceptions, to serve himself a cup of tea in his room, a practice forbidden by his landlady, is the most striking of his humiliations in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell’s semi-autobiographical novel of genteel literary poverty:
Gordon went to the door, pushed it ajar, and listened. No sound of Mrs. Wisbeach. You had to be very careful; she was quite capable of sneaking upstairs and catching you in the act. This tea-making was the major household offense, next to bringing a woman in.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a kind of anti-bildungsroman, the story of Comstock, an impoverished young London poet, who has “made it his especial purpose not to succeed.” The novel opens with Gordon having given up his advertising copywriter job, which predictably leads to a decline in his circumstances, and to what he believes is the definite determination of his girlfriend, Rosemary, not to sleep with him until they improve. It’s not that Gordon doesn’t understand her reluctance. “Don’t you see that a man’s whole personality is bound up with his income?” he asks her. “His personality is his income. How can you be attractive to a girl when you’ve got no money?”
Gordon hates the well-turned-out young men who come into the bookshop, “Those moneyed young beasts who glide so gracefully from Cambridge to the literary reviews.” Poverty insinuates itself into every aspect of his life, partly because Gordon, with his poet’s sensitivity, is so permeable. He is that type of tireless complainer who takes everything personally. “In a country like England,” he acidly observes, “you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.”
Gordon’s second volume of poetry, which he can never find time to work on, is called London Pleasures—a sly joke on a man who has trouble taking pleasure in anything. There’s nothing actually stopping him from writing—except his own densely coiled self-hatred. His indignation is funny at first, then wearying; a writer takes a big risk in asking us to identify with someone so ultimately tedious. (A 1997 movie version of Aspidistra, starring the puckish Richard Grant, corrects some of the flaws of the novel by lightening the tone and giving Gordon a little more punch.) Gordon represents Orwell’s masochistic account of the young man he narrowly escaped becoming.
The bitter satire of Aspidistra was surely, in psychological terms, a defensive posture for Orwell—in particular, a response to the problem of sex in a Puritan society. Sex is both sanctified and, in its physical aspect, quite indecorous, which creates a special form of cognitive dissonance. Humorless people tend also to be sexless or, at the extremes of bohemian or avant-garde opinion, deeply interested in the sensual aspects of sex while strenuously denying their cultural and moral valence.
Orwell’s trouble with sex was both a problem of his time and place and a problem to which he contributed his own share. He had the misfortune of being both sexually avid and incompetent with women. He was an unlikely physical specimen, exceptionally tall and thin, with a young-old face and a vaguely sinister mustache. His clothes were usually wrong, not merely in being unfashionable but in being often ill-fitting and, when he was young and very poor, sometimes not clean. In more licentious times, a man of his wit and basic kindness might have found a way to sexual satisfaction, but in the England of the 1920s and 1930s, sex without marriage was hard to come by for young men without good prospects.
Orwell thought himself not just ugly but physically ridiculous. Gordon Comstock is described in analogous terms:
From the dust-dulled pane the reflection of his own face looked back at him. Not a good face . . . moth-eaten already. Very pale, with bitter, ineradicable lines . . . a small, pointed chin . . . . Hair mouse-colored and unkempt . . . . He hated mirrors nowadays.
Orwell’s bodily shame, redoubled by what he must sometimes have felt was a lack of continence and self-respect in dealing with women, was a powerful motive for his satire. He understood that a man of Gordon’s unheroic appearance could be tortured by his creator without readerly disapproval.
Orwell’s exact contemporary, Evelyn Waugh (also born in 1903), succeeded as a comic novelist to an extent that Orwell did not, and the comparison is instructive. Waugh had several advantages over Orwell. He had been one of the “Bright Young Things” of postwar London and therefore had the social confidence of an insider. For Orwell, the pain of not having the right parents, of not having enough money, and of not performing the jeux d’esprit that only these two things permit, made impossible the light, bright, heartless tone that Waugh did so well. Waugh was also quite comfortable with his own sadism and turned it outward, while Orwell’s was mostly internalized as self-loathing. The fate of Tony Last in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, the decent but feckless aristocrat captured and forced to read Dickens to an illiterate bush tyrant, is somehow funny; in Aspidistra, Gordon Comstock’s more prosaic suffering cuts deeper because we recognize it as Orwell’s own.
Though it was written only a few years later, Coming Up For Air is a much darker novel. Start with its epigraph, a snatch of a popular song lyric: “He’s dead, but he won’t lie down.” The novel is the story of George “Fatty” Bowling’s realization that, though he is only 45, his emotional and sentimental life have ended.
“I am that type of hearty, bouncing fat man,” Fatty tells us. “A chap like me is incapable of looking like a gentleman. . . . you would immediately make me for some type of tout.” Orwell tended to think of people as types; in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), the coal miners are made to seem exactly alike. Individuality, Orwell thought, was precisely what was denied the English working class. Even so, there is something irrepressible in Fatty Bowling. The specificity of his childhood memories and the eccentricity of his affections make him an individual.
At the novel’s beginning, Bowling, a middle-aged insurance salesman, has won some money on a horse race, and he takes a larkish trip to visit Lower Binfield, the Midlands town where he grew up as the son of a shopkeeper. When he arrives, however, he finds the place unrecognizable. His former home has become a tea shop, and his family name evokes no recognition. By chance, he meets a former girlfriend, but she is now wearied by time and toil, and she greets him as any other shopper (“Looking for a pipe, sir?”). His final disappointment is to find that the estate where he went fishing as a boy has been built over, and the particular pond he hoped to enjoy has become a trash dump. Throughout his journey, the impending war intrudes, and the threat becomes real when a bomb lands accidentally on the town, killing a local woman. When Bowling returns home, he finds that he cannot share these experiences or what they mean to him with his wife, Hilda, whom he sees as unsympathetic and without imagination. He resolves to lie to her about the trip, and risk her thinking that he has been visiting a mistress, rather than attempt to share something of his inner life with her.
Humor merges with elegy, as Orwell marks the passing of the England of his own youth. We all become Fatty Bowling, as the world of our childhood recedes, replaced by one we are likely to regard with suspicion. No one who lives a full lifespan dies in the same world he was born into, and accelerating technological advances have made this process even more disorienting. Fatty’s nostalgia is the most common and probably the most harmless reaction to this loss. By the end of Coming Up For Air, we feel affection and even something like love for this man, whom we might ordinarily meet on our doorstep, trying to sell us something we don’t want. There is a sweetness to Orwell’s novel, a forlorn beauty. Bowling seems quite good enough, when you think of what came after him. He is lovable because he is a man; he is a man because he is an individual; and he is an individual because his attachments and his memories make him so.
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