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Coming Up for Air

Coming Up for Air is a novel by George Orwell, published before World War II and predicting that conflict. It is written in the first person, with George Bowling, the forty-five-year-old protagonist, telling the reader his life story.

The social and material changes experienced by Bowling since childhood make his past seem as distant as the biblical character Og, King of Bashan, whom he remembers from Sundays at church. A news-poster about the contemporary King Zog of Albania, along with 'some sound in the traffic or the smell of horse dung or something' triggers the connection in Bowling's mind and his subsequent 'trip down memory lane'. Orwell's writing tends to show a real relish for pessimism and squalor; nevertheless, Bowling expresses a nostalgic melancholy of some tenderness. The novel presents an absorbingly realistic evocation of what is now called 'a mid-life crisis'.

What is most notable is not so much that Orwell predicted the start of World War II, which was becoming expected, but that he foresaw the transformation of society which would succeed it. Indeed, just a few years after the publication of this book, pre-war England was almost as different as George Bowling's Edwardian childhood.

The themes of the book are nostalgia, the folly of trying to go back and recapture past glories and the easy way the dreams and aspirations of one's youth can be smothered by the humdrum routine of work, marriage and getting old. George Bowling is not a very sympathetic character — he is a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman who dislikes his wife and children and who would betray what few principles he has for a couple of pints or a good night out with a prostitute.

However, like many Orwell protagonists, his saving virtues are perceptiveness and candour, especially regarding himself.

Orwell wrote the novel while spending six months in Morocco.

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