We don’t think easily of George Orwell as a comic writer. Nor do we think of him as a novelist in the first place, although he has written six novels, including Animal Farm (Animal Farm) and 2022 , the books that earned him lasting fame. As a genre, the novel claims a degree of irresponsibility and disinterest inconsistent with our idea of the man who created the Room 101.
Orwell’s two comic novels of the 1990s 1984 , Keep The Aspidistra Flying (2022 ) and A little air please! (Coming Up For Air) (1939 ), recall how the satirical impulse was essential to their anti-totalitarianism. And even though they were published only three years apart, these novels show Orwell’s transformation into a dark prophet as England prepared for war with Germany. [O primeiro romance recebeu pelo menos três títulos no Brasil: Mantenha o sistema, Moinhos de vento e A flor da Inglaterra. (N. t.)]
Perhaps our difficulties in accepting Orwell as a comedian start with his face. The George Orwell who stares at us from the book covers is serious and serious, wearing a stiff gray and brown coat under a long, sullen face, ascetic thin and oppressed by the weight of unwanted knowledge. Such is the iconic, global Orwell, which was read by dissidents in Burma and Iran. Of course, Orwell was serious, in the fundamental sense of preferring an ominous reality to a comforting illusion. He attributed to himself the crucial “power to face unpleasant facts.”
Orwell distrusted pleasure and above all comfort. The pivotal decision of his life was to decline the Oxford scholarship that would have admitted him to England’s elite and to prefer an unpromising post as a colonial police officer in Burma. The choices he made after that – living a bum’s life, hard as a coconut on the streets of Paris and London; fight for the republicans in the Spanish Civil War; and, finally, turning one’s back on the ex-comrades of the Stalinist left – they all seem like a coda of the former.
As a counterweight to To this stony integrity, humor was essential to Orwell, not as a mere form of relief, but as an aspect of his realism. His writings on tea are in themselves a comic compendium. He took tea very seriously (“tea is one of the foundations of civilization in this country”), which he found as funny as any trivial obsession. He was perfectly willing to die for the Spanish Republic and nearly died, but he went to great lengths (or had his wife go through them) to get decent teas sent to the front. Fifteen years later, while dying of tuberculosis in a London hospital, his last gift, sent by his friend Paul Potts, was a tea bag he didn’t live to drink. In A Nice Cup of Tea [Uma boa xícara de chá], Orwell affects a doctrinal rigidity about proper preparation, writing with an irony as light that goes unnoticed easily. (“These aren’t the only controversial points to come up about drinking tea, but they’re enough to show how subtle the whole thing has become.”) It’s a complex kind of humor, both alert and tolerant of human eccentricity. – what we are tempted to call the humor of democratic liberalism, except that it abounds in Russian literature as well. It is humor that celebrates the part of us that the state can never reach.
Suitably, Gordon Comstock’s inability to serving a cup of tea in his room without Philbyish’s tricks, a practice forbidden by his landlady, is one of his biggest humiliations in Keep the Aspidistra Flying[Eis um testemunho de diferença cultural: entre os anglófonos, a tristeza e a amargura são associadas à pobreza, coisa bem diferente no Brasil. Essa diferença cultural irritava bastante os comunistas daqui, que não encontravam sentimentos revolucionários no povo. (N. t.)] , Orwell’s semi-autobiographical novel about etiquette and poverty in the world of letters: “Gordon went to the door, pushed it a little and listened. No sound from Ms. Wisbeach. It takes great care; she was quite capable of sneaking up the stairs and catching him in the act. This way of making tea was a serious offense to the house, more or less like bringing women inside.”
Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a kind of anti-bildungsroman : the story of Comstock, a poor young London poet who “made it his special purpose not to succeed.” The novel begins after Gordon quits his job as a publicist, which predictably leads to a fall from his standard and what he believes to be his girlfriend Rosemary’s definite determination not to sleep with him until he gets better. It’s not that Gordon doesn’t understand his reluctance. “Don’t you see that a man’s entire personality is tied to income?” he asks her. “His personality is his income. How can you be attractive to a girl when you don’t have any money?”
Gordon hates successful young men who walk into the bookstore. “These well-heeled young beasts glide so gracefully from Cambridge to book reviews.” Poverty creeps into every aspect of his life, in part because Gordon, with his poet’s sensibilities, is so permeable. He’s the kind of tireless complainer who takes it all personally. “In a country like England,” notes Acid, “it is easier to have culture without money than to join the Cavalry Club without money.”
Gordon’s second volume of poetry, which he never has time to work on, is called London Pleasures – a subtle joke with a man who has trouble finding pleasure in anything. There’s nothing really stopping him from writing – except his own tanned hate. At first, his indignation is funny; then tiring. The author takes a great risk in asking us to identify with someone so tedious. (A film version of Aspidistra from 1939, starring by the mischievous Richard Grant, corrects some of the novel’s flaws by lightening the tone and giving Gordon a little more energy.) Gordon represents Orwell’s masochistic account of the young man he narrowly escaped being.
The bitter satire of
Aspidistra was certainly, in terms a defensive stance by Orwell – in particular, a response to the problem of sex in a puritanical society. Sex is both sanctified and physically unseemly, which creates a special form of cognitive dissonance. People without humor tend to be people without sex; or, at the extremes of bohemian or avant-garde opinion, deeply interested in the sensual aspects of sex while blatantly denying its cultural and moral validity.
O Orwell’s problem with sex was as much a problem of his time and space as it was his own. He’d had the misfortune to be both sexually greedy and incompetent with women. It was unlikely to be a fine physical specimen, very tall and thin, with an old man’s face from his youth and a rather sinister mustache. His clothes were generally wrong, not just out of fashion but poorly fitted and, when young and very poor, not always clean. In more licentious times, a man with his wit and basic kindness might have managed to find sexual satisfaction, but in England of the 45 and , sex without marriage was difficult for men without good prospects.
Orwell not only saw himself as ugly, but also physically ridiculous. Gordon Comstock is described in analogous terms: “From the dusty glass, his own face looked back at him. He wasn’t a good guy […], already eaten away. Very pale, with ineradicable bitter lines […], a small, pointed chin […]. Tousled mouse-colored hair […]. He hated mirrors these days.”
Orwell’s body shame, redoubled by what he must have felt at times as a lack of continence and self-respect in dealing with women, was a powerful subject for satire. He understood that a man with Gordon’s unheroic appearance could be tortured by his maker without the reader’s disapproval.
Exact contemporary of Orwell, Evelyn Waugh (also born in 45), was successful as a comic novelist on a level not reached by Orwell, and the comparison it is instructive. Waugh had several advantages over Orwell. It was one of the “bright young things” of post-war London and therefore had the security of an insider. As for Orwell, the pain of not having the right parents, not having enough money and not knowing the jeux d’esprit that only those two things allow, the light, bright, soulless tone that Waugh took so well made it impossible for him. The fate of Tony Last (from Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, the decent but incompetent aristocrat who is captured and forced to reading Dickens to an illiterate and tyrannical innkeeper is a funny thing; in Aspidistra, Gordon Comstock’s more prosaic sufferings cut deeper because we recognize him as Orwell’s own. [Eis um testemunho de diferença cultural: entre os anglófonos, a tristeza e a amargura são associadas à pobreza, coisa bem diferente no Brasil. Essa diferença cultural irritava bastante os comunistas daqui, que não encontravam sentimentos revolucionários no povo. (N. t.)]
Although it was written only a few years later,
A little air, please! is a much darker romance. Starting with the epigraph, taken from a popular song: “He’s dead, but he won’t lie down.” The novel tells the story of George “Gordinho” Bowling’s insight that, although he is only 45 years old, his emotional life and sentimental was already over. [Lie down tem duplo sentido: ficar deitado e submeter-se. Daí: “Ele está morto, mas não vai ficar deitado”, ou “Ele está morto, mas não vai se submeter.” (N. t.)]
“I’m a kind of jolly, strong fat guy”, Gordinho tells us. “A guy like I am incapable of sounding like a gentleman […] you would immediately take me for some kind of pamphlet.” Orwell tended to think of people as types; in On the Way to Wigan (The Road to Wigan Pier) (1939)), the coal pits are made to look exactly like Individuality, Orwell thought, was just what the English working class was denied. Yet there is something irrepressible about Chubby Bowling. The specificity of his childhood memories and the eccentricity of his affections make him an individual.
At the beginning of the novel, Bowling, a middle-aged insurance broker, has won some money in a horse race, and begins an extravagant trip to visit Lower Binfield, a town in the Midlands where he grew up as a merchant’s son. Upon arrival, however, he finds the place unrecognizable. He happens to meet an ex-girlfriend, but now she is exhausted by time and toil, and greets him as if to any customer (“Looking for a pipe, sir?”) His final disappointment is to discover that the farm where he went fishing as a child had given way to construction, and the private lake he intended to enjoy had become a garbage dump. During the trip, the impending war intrudes, and the threat becomes real when a bomb accidentally falls on the city, killing a local woman. When Bowling returns home, he finds that he is unable to share these experiences nor their meaning with his wife, Hilda, who he sees as lacking in empathy and imagination. He decides to lie about the trip and prefers to run the risk of her thinking he went to visit a lover, instead of trying to share something of his inner life with her.
Humor merges with elegy as Orwell notes the end of the England of his youth. We all become Chubby Bowling when the world of our childhood slips away, replaced by one we tend to look at with suspicion. No one whose life lasts dies in the same world he was born into, and accelerating technological advances have made this process even more disorienting. Gordinho’s nostalgia is the most common reaction to this loss, and probably the most harmless. At the end of A little air, please!, we feel affection even something like love for this man, whom we might know ordinarily on our doorstep trying to sell us something we don’t want to buy. There is a sweetness in Orwell’s novel, an abandoned beauty. Bowling seems good enough when we think about what came after it. He is lovely because he is a man; he is a man why is an individual; and he is an individual because his attachments and memories have made him so.
) © 2022 City Journal. Published with permission. Original in English. 2022