Monday, June 8, 2015

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

London!  Mile after mile of mean lonely houses, let off in flats and single rooms; not homes, not communities, just clusters of meaningless lives drifting in a sort of drowsy chaos to the grave!  He saw men as corpses walking.  The thought that he was merely objectifying his own inner misery hardly troubled him.  His mind went back to Wednesday afternoon, when he had desired to hear the enemy aeroplanes zooming over London.   
During my ill-fated pursuit of a doctorate in History I had a class on Modern Britain.  The professor was an expert on the press and publishing industry, and one class session was devoted to George Orwell.  I read Down and Out in London and Paris and Road to Wigan Pier for this session, both of which I heartily recommend for being well-written, interesting, and fun.  (I'd read 1984 and Animal Farm in junior high, and remembered them well enough that I thought I could wing it in class if the prof asked me about them.)  A woman in the class mentioned Keep the Aspidistra Flying, warning us all it was very bad and nobody should read it. Inquiries as to why it was so bad yielded no details--"It is just bad," she assured us.

This exchange stuck in my mind due to its mysteriousness; why did this student object so heartily to Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and with so little specificity?  Years later, I guess in the early 2000s, I read the novel myself, and developed theories as to what about the novel had inspired her distaste.  I found the novel quite good, and recently decided to reread it.  Last week, during rare moments of solitude on a cross-country road trip, I read an old hardcover university library copy of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company and printed in the USA.  The novel first appeared in 1936.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is one of those novels in which an artist or writer has no money and is struggling to survive and achieve recognition for his art.  There are lots of these out there; Henry Miller's oeuvre comes to mind, as does Charles Bukowski's. There's also Knut Hamsun's Hunger.  Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage also includes some of this kind of material.  Even though these books are pretty thick on the ground, I tend to fall for them; there is something about the idea of the down and out writer, railing against society and counting his pennies, unsure of what tomorrow might bring, that appeals to me.

Prefacing the text proper of Keep the Aspidistra Flying is half a page of Bible verses, I Corinthians xiii, with the word "love" replaced with "money" (e.g., "abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money"), a childish sort of joke that gives us a foretaste of the book's theme.

Gordon Comstock, our hero, is an unsuccessful poet, "aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already," consumed with envy of those with money, and convinced that everything worth having--charm, love, sex, a successful career--is the product of access to money:  "It was the lack of money, simply the lack of money, that robbed him of the power to 'write.'  He clung to that as an article of faith."  "All human relationships must be purchased with money.  If you have no money, men won't care for you, women won't love you...."  The first two dozen pages are full of lines like that, as well as descriptions of Gordon toying with the coins in his pocket and fretting because he can't afford as many cigarettes as he would like to smoke, and so has to ration them out, resist smoking some today so he won't have to face a day without tobacco on the morrow.

One of the things I enjoy about Miller's and Bukowski's stories about down and out artists and writers is how the protagonists are total and absolute jerks.  They may rail against the evils of the world or capitalism or society or whatever, but they are no better-- they steal, they abuse women, they take advantage of friends, and so on.  This sets up dramatic tension, as the reader has to wonder to what extent the impoverished artist is the victim of our allegedly horrible society, and to what extent he has made his own bad luck.  (It also matches the reality of writers and artists I have met, a disreputable and snobbish lot who are always taking advantage of people, taking temporary jobs at art supply stores or bookstores so they can steal supplies, and moaning that the taxpayers should subsidize their decadent lifestyles because the art-buying public is too obtuse to voluntarily part with their lucre--which the artist himself of course has contempt for--to buy their paintings and sculptures.)

Gordon Comstock fits comfortably into this mold; he hates everybody and everything, from the advertisements pasted on the walls, to the books in the bookstore and lending library where he works, to the customers of the store, who come in two types; the educated snobs he hates for their money and polish, and the middle-class and lower-class readers of thrillers and romances whom he despises for their lack of taste and refinement. Comstock even hates Greta Garbo and Arthur Rackham!  He is so angry at the modern world that he looks forward to the inevitable mass war that will see bombers blasting civilization to rubble!  Gordon's seething hatred, his inexhaustible store of criticisms, complaints and calumnies, is amusing; some specimens of his spleen are funny in their own right, and the sheer volume of off-the-wall complaints creates, in Gordon, a laughably absurd, but still quite real, character.

Through flashbacks about his family and exemplary episodes chronicling Gordon's relationships in the mid-1930s with such people as his friend Ravelston (a wealthy and ineffectual socialist who edits a leftist periodical nobody reads called Antichrist), his long time girlfriend and office worker Rosemary (they have been dating two years and have not had sex yet), and his sister Julia (she barely makes a living for herself, but has been lending Gordon money for years which he has never paid back), we learn the hows and whys of Gordon's poverty.  As we expected, he has made his own bed, but blames society for his troubles.  When he does get fifty American dollars from selling a poem he doesn't use it to buy new clothes or pay back his sister Julia; he blows it all on booze and a whore within hours of cashing the check!  He blames this selfish and idiotic behavior on the fact that he can't be expected to know how to wisely spend money because he's never had money before.  When Gordon had a decent job he was good at (as copywriter at the ad agency where he met Rosemary) he quit, a decision he rationalizes as "declaring war on the money god."  He never finishes his second book of poetry because he's "too crushed by poverty to write." And so on.

Things get worse for Gordon as the novel progresses; he loses his crummy flat and lame job at the bookstore and lending library after, while inebriated, punching a police officer, so he has to take an even crummier apartment and an even lamer job at an even worse lending library, one which only caters to the lowest dregs of society, providing them books which are"published by special low-class firms and turned out by wretched hacks at a rate of four a year, as mechanically as sausages...."

Eventually, Rosemary has sex with Gordon out of pity.  ("It was magnanimity, pure magnanimity, that moved her.  His wretchedness had drawn her back to him.")  When Rosemary turns up some weeks later with news that she is pregnant with his child, Gordon suddenly comes to his senses. He abandons his war on the money-god, gets his job at the ad agency back, throws the unfinished manuscript of his second book of verse down a storm drain, and marries Rosemary. After resisting bourgeois life and its rules for years, the appearance of his child has inspired him to embrace middle-class life. To Rosemary's amazement, he even buys an aspidistra, the hardy plant which to him has long symbolized boring middle-class pretensions.

There is a lot to like about Keep the Aspidistra Flying.  I've already told you I enjoy Gordon acting like a total jerk to everybody.  Numerous minor characters are also entertaining.  At the same time that Gordon's misadventures are funny, Orwell manages to convey to the reader a sense of his desperation and frustration as he faces cold and uncomfortable residences, doubts about his poetry career, boring jobs, and guilt at how poorly he treats Ravelston, Rosemary and Julia, who are always trying to help him despite his trespasses against them and his self-destructive behavior.  The book is also full of interesting tidbits about literature and literary life, like a quick rundown of authors popular in the 1930s, many of whom are largely forgotten today, and a description of lending libraries, which, unlike the free public libraries I have been familiar with all my life, are private businesses that charge a few pennies to their customers for each book "borrowed." 

Orwell makes a number of surprising and interesting choices with the novel.  It is definitely strange for Gordon to throw his manuscript, the product of years of work, down the drain!  We expect writers to glorify writers, and we expect lefties like Orwell to denounce advertising, but in the end of the book Gordon turns his back on literature decisively and embraces a job producing deceptive ad copy.  Orwell's attacks on advertising seem sincere, so the reader wonders what he is trying to say by having Gordon's salvation come from producing catchphrases and slogans that will fool people into purchasing items they don't need, like foot deodorant.  (Deodorant, like advertising, is apparently a hot button issue with socialists; at Rutgers a history prof in a 19th century class told us that the selling of deodorant was a scam, and just recently we had Bernie Sanders disparagingly bringing up deodorant.  At the CUNY Grad Center there was a perennially disheveled Marxist prof who famously smelled bad.)

There is a real ambiguity about the book's attitude about capitalism and the bourgeoisie; to what extent does Orwell share the at times contradictory criticisms he puts in Gordon and Ravelston's mouths?  Should we see Keep the Aspidistra Flying as the story of a man who is stupidly rebelling against capitalism and then makes his peace with it and lives a better life thereby, or as the story of a brave man who follows his principles as long as he can, and is eventually crushed?  This ambiguity is stark when one considers that Gordon's character arc is similar to that of Winston Smith in 1984; Smith wages a (pathetic) war on the Big Brother government, and in the end of the novel embraces ("loves") Big Brother, while our man Gordon Comstock pursues his own quixotic struggle against "the money god" only to rejoin the ranks of the strap hanging army of salarymen at the end of the book because he loves his wife and baby.

Besides 1984Keep the Aspidistra Flying reminded me of Don Quixote, the tale of a mad man sometimes seen as the portrayal of a man who suffers (and makes others suffer) because he has noble values in our corrupt world, and A Clockwork Orange, in which the evil protagonist is reformed by the prospect of becoming a father.
So, if I am giving a big thumbs up to it, why did that student in my late 1990s class object to the novel?  I'm guessing it is because the book is a resounding endorsement of traditional family values and, by 1990s (and 21st century) standards, totally "politically incorrect."  In that first chapter in the bookstore Gordon heaps scorn on feminists, homosexuals, and women who like to read popular fiction about love and sex.  The book is full of what I guess you would call "essentialist thinking."  Gordon, like "all small frail people hated to be touched," while we are told fat men typically have a good humor and never admit to being fat: "No fat person ever uses the word 'fat' if there is any way of avoiding it....A fat man is never so happy as when he is describing himself as 'robust.'"  Scots get a similar treatment.  Gordon's competition for title of "Most Villainous Character" in the novel is a physically deformed businessman of low scruples; his physical ugliness represents his moral ugliness in a way that is common in literature, but which nowadays is likely to be seen as declasse or even a "microaggression" against people with disabilities.  

At the end of the book we get an unambiguous, unalloyed indictment of abortion. First the emotional case against abortion.  Gordon, even though his modus operandi though the whole novel has been to act selfishly and to hope English society will be obliterated by enemy bombs, finds abortion unthinkably revolting: "'Whatever happens we're not going to do that.  It's disgusting....I'd sooner cut my right hand off than do a thing like that.'"  Then a few pages later the scientific case against abortion. Gordon goes to a public library and looks at medical textbooks with illustrations of fetuses; Orwell describes in detail a six-month-old and a nine-month-old fetus--Gordon is "surprised" that "they should begin looking human so soon."  He'd thought it would look like a blob with a nucleus!  Finally the moral case against abortion.  "Its future, its continued existence perhaps, depended on him.  Besides, it was a bit of himself--it was himself.  Dare one dodge such a responsibility as that?"

Women in the novel are less interesting and well-rounded than the male characters; there are briefly sketched women we are supposed to find repellent (the feminist bookstore customer, a suspicious public library employee, the whores, or "tarts" as Orwell styles them), while the important female characters (Julia and Rosemary) are there to be Gordon's victims; they are there to demonstrate what a creep Gordon is and lack inherent interest.  Gordon is not punished for treating Julia and Rosemary so poorly, and a minor character (the good-natured fat man alluded to above) cheats on his wife repeatedly, but after hitting him in the head with a glass decanter she takes him back.  

I believe I have diagnosed my former classmate's allergy to Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and I "get" why she wouldn't like it or recommend it to a class of grad students in the humanities and social sciences, but I will have to disagree with her overall assessment of the book.  I love Orwell's clear writing style, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a fun novel, full of laughs and period interest, and its somewhat ambiguous and idiosyncratic take on social and political issues may offer surprises to today's readers.  Definitely worth a read.


  1. I wonder if Bradbury's "The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone" (first published in The October Country in 1955) could have been written as a counterpart to this. The stories are roughly point for point diametrically opposed except for the middle point of throwing the manuscript, the protagonist's magnum opus down the drain.

    1. I haven't read any Bradbury lately, maybe I should track that story down and look for parallels.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.