Thursday, 4 February 2010

Review: Keep the Aspidistra Flying - George Orwell

This review first appeared on Vulpes Libris.

Read: on a train back from Edinburgh - August 2009

Keep the Aspidistra Flying in one tweet-sized chunk:
Bitingly satirical, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is packed with ideas but let down by its infuriating narrator.

“Before, he had fought against the money code, and yet he had clung to his wretched remnant of decency. But now it was precisely from decency that he wanted to escape. He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself—to sink, as Rosemary had said. It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being under ground. He liked to think of the lost people, the under-ground people: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes… He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost kingdom, below ambition. It comforted him somehow to think of the smoke-dim slums of South London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness where you could lose yourself for ever.”

George Orwell wrote Keep the Aspidistra Flying in 1934/35 while working at a bookshop in Hampstead and it was published in April 1936, just a few months before he left to fight in the Spanish Civil War. It is a novel of its time, capturing something of the ideological conflict, sociological concern, and economic distrust which so characterised the 1930s.

The story is of Gordon Comstock, a copywriter with an advertising agency who walks out of his ‘good job’ – “the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket” as he terms it – to embark on a long, deliberate and painful slide into penury. Disgusted with the money obsession he sees all around him, and frustrated by the social constraints which are interlinked with this, Gordon takes a position as a poorly paid bookseller and eagerly begins his new life as a poet.

Already the author of one “sneaky little foolscap octavo” which can now be found lining the remainder shelves of bookshops all across London, he is unbowed and feels his magnum opus, London Pleasures, swelling inside him. Lines rise unbidden, he scribbles furiously, determined to stick it to all those that have ever stood in his way. This will be his revenge on all those pathetic ancestors who whittled away the family fortune leaving him to work for a living rather than pursue his muse.

“Outside, all was bleak and wintry. A tram, like a raucous swan of steel, glided groaning over the cobbles, and in its wake the wind swept a debris of trampled leaves. The twigs of the elm tree were swirling, straining eastward. The poster that advertised Q.T. Sauce was torn at the edge; a ribbon of paper fluttered fitfully like a tiny pennant. In the side street too, to the right, the naked poplars that lined the pavement bowed sharply as the wind caught them. A nasty raw wind. There was a threatening note in it as it swept over; the first growl of winter’s anger. Two lines of a poem struggled for birth in Gordon’s mind.”

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a book of conflict between the internal and external, between who Gordon wants to be, and what the world makes him into. What he finds in his painful descent through London is that no matter how miserable life is being a slave to money, it is infinitely worse without any at all. Poverty does not free him from expectation and responsibility; it does not give him the ability to do whatever he wants. It chains him to doing nothing.

This is a biting piece of realist satire targeted against those who put literary pretension above economic reality, those who romanticise poverty, and those Raskolnikovian protagonists who expect the world to fall at their feet yet never do anything for themselves. It is a bleak, uncomfortable novel, whose satire is inherent rather than demonstrative and which rarely elicits so much as a chuckle from the reader. Gordon is frustrating in a pull-your-hair-out-just-to-feel-something sort of way. As events progress he grows ever more listless and depressed. His obstinate determination to follow his renunciation of the money game through to its conclusion, whatever that may be, makes for painful reading. He is incredibly fortunate – a good education, talent, friends willing to go out of their way to help him, a sister who puts his wellbeing before her own, and a former colleague named Rosemary whom he loves and who, inexplicably, seems to feel the same about him – yet can only see his own petty misfortune. He is too proud to ask for help, to do so would be to embrace failure.

One of the reasons Orwell has become so universally popular is that his style is at once readable and poetic, to the point yet visually stimulating. He has an exceptional eye for descriptive prose, both in regard to his characters and the settings they inhabit. Just as Dickens often reflected the nature of his characters through their names, so Orwell does through their bodies. Gordon is a typical small and frail man with a chip on his shoulders. He worries that no-one is really paying attention to him, that life would be different were he taller, wealthier, more gregarious. He wants to be seen, celebrated, respected. Elsewhere, those interested in money above all else are fat and gluttonous, and those of the upper class tall and thin and elegant. Orwell treats all those characters who pass under his microscope with a sort of loving yet laconic disdain, like that of an especially critical parent. There is a great phrase where he describes a fat man as “[filling] his trousers as though he [has] been melted and then poured into them”, and there are plenty more of these witty physical descriptions.

Yet for all the fluid prose it is the society itself which provides most fodder for thought. Set in what Marx would have understood as the final phase of Capitalism, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a fascinating and utterly unfamiliar portrayal of a social milieu now almost totally defunct. An aspidistra (for those like me who had no idea) is a hardy house plant popular in the Victorian era but which had fallen out of fashion by the 1930s, becoming a lower class pretention of wealth, a reflection of the “mangy, lower-class decency” Gordon is desperate to avoid. As he walks the streets of London he sees them in almost every window he passes, a sort of symbol for the aspirational rather than revolutionary working classes.

“There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.”

This is a society in which there appears to be a genuine battle of ideas between socialism and capitalism, an age in which it is only clear in hindsight which direction history will take. What struck me while reading was a sense of what we have lost in the last seventy-odd years. When did we grow so used to consumerism that we stopped questioning its relevancy? When did the desire for something new and the money to purchase it become so central to our lives? What I realised with some sadness was that I have never known a time when the simplistic slogans and garish stereotypes of advertising haven’t been present all around me. I cannot conceive what life without marketing would be like. Gordon, it seems, can. And he doesn’t like the world as it is becoming. Orwell is careful not to let his own politics influence the direction or inflection of what takes place, but just being present in such an environment really brought home to me how completely that element of thought has disappeared. I like to consider myself a socialist, yet that is in a modern liberal context rather than this. The ideas of Gordon and some of his friends are as alien to me as feudal agrarianism would be. It reminded me of my grandfather, John Ruddock, who was a founding member of a communist leaning actors organisation, and made me wonder what he, and all those others like him, would make of the world of today? What would Orwell think?

I hope this does not come across as me romanticising a past time for that is not the aim. Some of the descriptions of the mental and physical realities of poverty are incredibly moving. Before long, Gordon has slipped into a listless and depressed malaise. He cannot afford a drink in a pub with friends, or to go to the cinema. His only pleasure becomes an illicit cup of tea in his cold room before crawling into bed. He is too cold to write anymore, and when he tries all he sees is the faults of what is already written. He edits, endlessly, but never composes. When finally he earns some money through poetry he is so drunk on potential that it brings nothing but further misery.

Like 1984 and Animal Farm, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is hard-hitting social satire rather than political programme. Gordon rejects socialism just as heartily as he does consumerism, and the only obviously socialist characters are middle or upper class young men with good intentions but who remain oblivious to the realities of the poor. This is not a book to turn anyone communist. But in portraying a society in which debate and discussion appears rife, Orwell gives today’s reader a chance to appraise the world of today in a different light. Doing so reminded me of things I have forgotten to see.

Yet it is often considered one of Orwell’s weaker novels. Partly this is due to the changes to some of the slogans that his publishers imposed at the last minute for fear of litigation, partly because Orwell disowned it later in life, considering it a writing exercise which he had only published because he needed the money. But it is also because, although blessed with the same tight and visual prose that makes much of Orwell’s oeuvre so readable, it is not in the same league as his later works. There are elements of biography to much of what takes place, and although Orwell does not speak through Gordon, anyone familiar with Down and Out in Paris and London will note that the descriptions of life on the streets and poverty come from personal experience.

Between it’s infuriating narrator and bleak demeanour, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is not a book to fall in love with. Not for me anyway. Rather the significance of it lies in its portrayal of a forgotten era in history, one I didn’t realise had so completely disappeared until I delved inside. This is probably a better book to review than it is to read.

6.5 out of 10


Matthew Selwyn said...

Really enjoyed your very full review. The more I've been jumping around, reading people's opinions on the books, the more I'm getting the feeling that the key to whether someone really enjoyed it or not is whether they found it funny or not. I do agree that Orwell picked out something essentially true about poverty but also that there is quite a lot wrong with the book. If you're interested, my review is here: Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks for the comment, Matthew. It's given me a reason to revisit a book I've not much thought about since I read it.
Great review, by the way. Folks, if you've read to the end of this review, I'd highly recommend checking out Matthew's - he gets it and understands the context of Orwell's writing.

Matthew Selwyn said...

No problem, Sam - I feel like it's one of those funny little books that will crop up from time to time, so if I prompted one of those moments, then I'm glad.

And many thanks for the kind words - I'm not sure my own review adds much to your own, but I'm certainly glad if it was of a passing interest. I've just been reading through some of your reviews and have been pleased to find so many of the books I've read in the last few years appearing in the your index. It seems likely we have very similar tastes, although you seem to have read approximately 17x as many books as me!

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