Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

George Orwell wrote six novels and three non-fiction books. Of the non-fiction, I have now read Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and Homage to Catalonia (1938). “Down and Out” is – as it sounds – a portrait of poverty; and “Homage” the story of a man who sees a hopeful revolution collapse in the middle of a brutal civil war. Of the six novels, I have now managed (unsurprisingly) Animal Farm (1945), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Listing these novels and books is only to say the following: I have read a bit of Orwell now, and amid the cleverness and the humanity and the bleakness of view, “Aspidistra” deserves a special mention (or perhaps, a vase) for being particularly depressing.

The story is of a young man, twenty-nine as the story who has declared war against money (surely better than war against terror). In doing so, Gordon Comstock resists generations of middle class Comstock’s, who have done their duty and lived staid, stale lives as a result. Gordon is determined to be different, throwing away a good job with prospects in that very twentieth century occupation of advertising, for a position in a book store that allows him to be so unfulfilled that he has material to write an extended poem about being unfulfilled (ironically called London Pleasures). The alternative, as he sees it, is to ‘drift along in an atmosphere of semi-genteel failure … so common among the middle-middle classes, in which nothing ever happens’ (p.41).

What Gordon discovers, of course, is that even being miserable costs money, and there is always somewhere to fall further from where he is just-about-safely ensconced. To say too much more would be to give away the plot. His good sister Julia suffers while he lets his (worker) talents lie; his girlfriend Rosemary, long suffering, suffers more. And as the failed sex scene outdoors in a natural alcove turns ‘squalid and ugly’ (p.157), he doesn’t even have the illusion of freedom in nature that Winston and Julia so briefly enjoyed in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nor is that the only similarity in the two novels; perhaps the only thing worse than torture for a cause is the deliberate forgetting about it in the interest of survival. Others will read the ending of “Aspidistra” in more hopeful terms, but I think the rising up of the man is the falling down of the poet. It’s a little like The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but with all of Hyde’s flaws spelled out. Plus some good women. Rosemary and Julia do make a difference to the falling man in a way that Jekyll’s lawyer and doctor mates cannot.

I would thoroughly recommend this novel to anyone who has an interest in a less Romantic view of the artist, one who suffers genuine poverty for his ideals, and is none-the-better a human being for it. An essay question: 'Keep the _______ flying: Redemption, or Surrender?' Support in 2000 words. Or just reach out for the aspidistra.


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