Apart from 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell is best known for his journalism. And rightly so – his earlier novels have the feel of a writer learning his craft, not in terms of crafting a sentence, but in terms of developing a plot, story, and characters.
In this later novel (1939) George Bowling is a fat, forty something insurance salesman, trapped in a loveless marriage and yearning for the freedom of his bucolic boyhood of Edwardian England. The nostalgia is suffocating – I was reminded irresistibly of Peter Kay in some of the riffs on how boiled sweets were better before the War. The first person narrator insists he is not deliberately romanticising his past, and acknowledges there were many things wrong with pre-War England, but the overall impression is that the modern world is rotten with commercialism, population growth, and a lack of freedom. There are some vivid images to illustrate this, not least a sausage that tastes of fish. All highly clichéd – all of our boyhood summers were sunnier, all our food tasted more of itself, everything was less hurried and less threatening. As boys of course we could take pleasure from simple things that as older men we are bored with.
But Bowling’s ennui is much more deep rooted that this. He loathes his wife, barely tolerates his kids, and can find no pleasure in every day life. He is trapped, and looming over everything else is the threat of war. He is not particularly frightened of the coming war, but what he dreads even more is the post-war world, which he expects will be totalitarian. Here there are some strong echoes of 1984, with the boot stamping on the human face, forever, being foreshadowed by Bowling’s visions of post war society.
Orwell was a socialist, a member of the left wing Independent Labour Party, and had recently risked his life in the Spanish Civil War. But none of this political perspective appears in this novel. While Bowling fears the future, there is no suggestion anywhere that there is anything he or anyone else can do to control or affect it. There are some Communist and a trotyskist characters who make a very brief appearance in the novel, but they are dismissed as “People’s Front of Judea” figures. The Labour Party figure in the same scene is passed over without any suggestion that he, or what he represents ie working people getting together and trying to improve things is in any way a solution to the problems he identifies in society. There is an apolitical pessimism that sits strangely with what we know about Orwell’s politics – does this reflect some kind of personal despair with the way of the world – a giving up almost?
Orwell mines his journalism heavily in this novel, which adds to the suggestion that it was something written to generate funds rather than a work of inspiration. All through I kept getting echoes of other things he had written elsewhere (eg Bowling’s thoughts on urban myths, swans breaking your legs, etc). The novel spends about half of the narrative reminiscing on Bowling’s boyhood, and after a quick scene of domestic unhappiness he goes to try to rediscover his childhood haunts, and is inevitably disappointed.
All this is formulaic stuff. The plot device at the end of the novel, in which Bowling hears a radio SOS (do they still have them now?) and thinks it is for him, when it is not, followed swiftly by the accidental bombing of Little Binfield, a not so subtle pre-figuring of the war to come, is clumsy in the extreme. I must say however that my memories of some of the scenes, as well as the overall storyline of the novel, stayed with me strongly over 30+ years from first reading, so there must be more to it than I have given credit thus far.
If you want to be an Orwell completist, try this – it won’t divert you for long. But for coherent political analysis stick to the journalism.