From City Journal:
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. The pivotal decision of his life was to decline the scholarship to Oxford that would have gained him admission to England’s elite in favor of an especially unpromising post as a colonial police officer in Burma. 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 the first.
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.
“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.”
Link to the rest at City Journal