Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Deaths of a Salesman

"Coming Up for Air,” George Orwell, 1939

This book, one of Orwell’s least known, shows that obscurity can’t fade Orwell’s writing and ideas.  Even in a ‘lesser’ work, the man shines through.  George, also the name of the lead character, is an ordinary ‘everyman’ that perhaps thinks a bit too much.  He’s an overweight salesman that used to be young, and then work and marriage happened.  Oh, and that first big war, which he mostly and thankfully spent in Cornwall.  He’s all for little boys killing frogs and fishing and all that, yet afraid to holiday without his wife.  He’ll talk anyone into anything, as he’s in traveling sales.  But sometimes he thinks another war is coming.  And he’s right.  Machine guns in the windows.  And cruel men. 

Written in the period between “Homage to Catalonia” and ‘Animal Farm,’ this book captures the period in Britain between the two wars, when the small, rural England of Tolkein and Orwell was dozed over into suburban clots of housing and hurry.  War, industry and the Depression changed all that.  The formally quiet banks of the Thames now throng with ice cream salesman, garbage and screaming children.  The fish pools are filled with rusted cans.  The old house is unrecognizable.  Nothing to do but drink in fake drawing rooms.

George lectures on the real estate scams run by the building societies that put everyone in deep debt.  Yes, he’s got his 5 square meters of green surrounded by wall.  He cringes while nasty bosses yell at shop girls.  He recalls how his father’s small business was destroyed by a large chain store.  He makes fun of the Marxists who harangue over Hitler, but then perhaps thinks them right.  Though he’s no smarty-pants and proud of it.  Yet George even got into a period of reading – and covered all the good tales.  Orwell fills the books with boyish stereotypes, which either reflect Orwell or George.  Of course George is also a bit Orwell.  The man hates his wife, but can’t think of leaving her, as she’s become part of the woodwork.  So he takes her verbal punishments.  George is also probably the first person in literature that I can remember to discuss how red-faced fat people are abused. 

‘Coming up for air’ is the phrase that George thinks of when he decides to play hooky from his job and wife, and revisit the old hometown that he hasn’t seen in 20 years.  Lower Binfield, somewhere near the upper Thames.  He talks to his old pastor, but doesn’t identify himself.  He talks to his first girlfriend in the guise of buying a pipe, and she doesn’t recognize him.  She is so ugly he is astonished. He enters his dad’s old seed shop, which is now a tea & cake parlor.  He tries to fish – the only thing he ever really enjoyed – and finally scoffs at himself for such childish pursuits.

Thomas Wolf said of Asheville, North Carolina that ‘you can’t go home.’  And indeed you can’t.  George discovers the same. A quiet, human book, with a strong touch of nostalgia for a lost world.  He’s the ‘new’ man of Britain, a white collar bloke with a broken-down car.  And inside him, a quiet critique of British capitalism.  

(Review of "All Art is Propaganda" also by Orwell, below.)

And I bought it in Mayday Books excellent used/marked down section
Red Frog
March 25, 2014

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