Keep the Aspidistra Flying

by George Orwell

Cover image

Publisher: Harcourt Brace
Copyright: 1936
Printing: 1956
ISBN: 0-15-646899-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 248

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Gordon Comstock has rejected the money world. He can't imagine a worse fate than being stuck in a job at an advertising firm, writing to get money out of other people's pockets, settling down to married life with children and an aspidistra. He's a poet, a poet with only one volume of verse published, but a poet. And so, he works in a bookstore, selling books and keeping the lending library, staying in an inexpensive boarding house and writing poetry in the evenings. Or trying.

The sole problem with his life, as far as he's concerned, is that "good jobs" pay good money and his doesn't. Because of his lack of money, he can't afford good food or good drink. He can't afford a better place to live. He can't afford to go out with his friends, because one can't become the sort of person who lets other people pay for him. Most damnably, he can't possibly get married to the woman whom he loves and who loves him. There's no way they could afford it on his salary. Everything in his life, particularly his internal monologue, comes down to money.

The best part of Keep the Aspidistra Flying is that Orwell is an excellent descriptive writer. He paints a picture of Depression-era London so vividly that I felt I could picture portions of it, even though it's entirely outside my experience. I fell in love with the book in the first chapter, full of passages like this:

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.

Every word is carefully chosen, with detail implying the larger image and subtle use of internal alliteration and rhythm. Reading Orwell is like a clinic in sentence construction.

Unfortunately, by the fourth chapter I'd fallen out of love with the book again. Or, more specifically, with Gordon.

The problem with Keep the Aspidistra Flying is that it's told exclusively from Gordon's perspective and Gordon is an ass. His money problems are real, but he's also obnoxiously obsessed with them. He spends the vast majority of the book moping, feeling terribly sorry for himself, doing unthinkably cruel things to his friends and his love, and driving people away. Almost worse, he's thoroughly depressing, wallowing in misery and ignoring sensible advice whenever he manages to make his situation worse. Believability isn't a problem; I had no trouble placing Gordon in a real world. He's quite like the sort of person one wisely avoids because they're toxic.

Mostly, Gordon's friends don't help matters. Again, one can't argue with the realism: those who are coping better with life shy away from Gordon, and those who stick with him have their own problems, such as his rich publisher friend who's so full of liberal guilt that he can't bluntly lay into Gordon when he deserves it. (Orwell's biting satire cuts just as deep into that sort of thought paralysis as it does into Gordon's.) I could easily believe the situation. I'm just not sure I wanted to read about it at such length.

The most sympathetic character is Rosmary, Gordon's love. One has to wonder why she tolerates him, given some of the things that he puts her through, but she's otherwise a ray of good sense and practical cheerfulness in a depressing book. Orwell also does show some of what makes their relationship work in a few of those moments where one watches two close friends suddenly start laughing at each other and realizes that they understood each other perfectly even if no one else does. It's a tricky and impressive effect to pull off in a novel. The heart of the story for me was a wonderfully bittersweet trip they take together into the country, a trip that shows both Gordon's legitimate hardship and his overreactions to it, and which features some wonderfully memorable, if sad, moments of authentic human effort and attempted but failed connection. In Rosmary's company, Gordon is elevated to a far more interesting effortful tragedy, instead of his more typical self-absorbed depression.

I've seen Keep the Aspidistra Flying described elsewhere as a dark comedy. Reconsidering the book, I think I can see where one could arrive at that classification, particularly if Gordon struck one as absurd somewhere near the beginning and one went down that mental path while reading it. However, that wasn't my reaction to the novel. Gordon struck me as too real to laugh at and his life too painful to find funny. Orwell also doesn't offer humor as an easy out. There are things that happen that are absurd when read in the right light, but they're deadly serious to Gordon and Orwell is merciless in his depiction of his protagonist's state of mind. I think to read this book as a dark comedy requires a bit more distancing from the story than I could manage.

Is the beautiful writing and the moments of memorable characterization worth putting up with Gordon's self-destructiveness for nearly 250 pages? Even in retrospect, I'm not sure. The ending is an ambiguous masterpiece that leaves one thinking hard about how Gordon should order his priorities, but by the time one reaches it, it's hard to still care about what he believes in. He slams shut so many doors and refuses so much well-intentioned and generous help that it's hard to keep any sympathy for him. Without that sympathy, it's hard to stay invested in the story or Gordon's root convictions that generate the story. The back cover of my copy uses words like "poignant"; I think that's being generous. Poignancy balances hope and pain. Malignant self-destructive depression is not poignant; it's ugly, brutal, and circular.

I'm not sorry I read this book, particularly given the background of Orwell's other writings and the political context they bring to it. There are bits of it I'll remember for a long time. But I'm not sure I could recommend it unless you're looking for truly excellent setting description and don't mind reading deadly realism to get it.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-03-31

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