Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell (1936)
After my review of George Orwell: A Literary Life last week, I decided to Google-up on what’s going on in the Orwell universe as of late. One link follows another and, as these things tend to play themselves out, I am now registered to attend an all day conference on the author’s work at Goldsmith’s, University of London, this summer. With exception to the occasion I went to a lecture on James Joyce during the Bloomsday celebrations in Galway almost a decade ago – an event at which I was the youngest attendee by at least a good 35 years – this is perhaps the most outwardly “literary” thing I have yet done in this lifetime. Nevertheless, I am quite unashamed in my excitement at going to the event and will be bringing Herself with me.
Since there are still a few months to pass before the conference, I figure that perhaps now is as good a time as any to re-familiarize myself with Orwell‘s fiction as a preparation.
Summary – Gordan Comstock, poet and cynic (imagine a sort of proto-Holden Caulfield), walks out of a relatively well paid job at an advertising firm, the New Albion, to pursue a life uncorrupted by the influences of money and a social system he despises. Having shunned the trappings of respectable living, we find him working for a pittance as a bookshop assistance and two years into a masterpiece that he is clearly incapable of starting, let alone completing. From here we follow Comstock’s descent into depression, deprivation and all that such a collapse entails. While it is all well and good to talk of pride being before the fall, Keep the Aspidistra Flying explores the grim reality that such a plummet would actually involve.
The verdict – Orwell was always fiercely critical of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, describing it to his agent, Leonard Moore, as ‘a good idea, but I am afraid I have made a muck of it… I am afraid it is very disconnected as a whole, and rather unreal.’ More to that, and along with his other pot-boiler of a novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), he instructed his literary executor never to have the book reprinted. While Keep the Aspidistra Flying is certainly not one of Orwell’s finest works, it is a competent and thought provoking little book in its own right. While Eng. Lit. undergraduates are more than happy to churn out wave after wave of Freudian and Jungian “interpretations” of Nineteen Eight-Four (1949), ironically, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is perhaps Orwell’s most complex exercise in character psychology. His portrayal of Comstock is a sharp and empathetic examination of what happens when lofty but sensitive intellect is pushed into depression by poverty. If you want to understand why some people fail to realize their ambitions, read this book.
Memorable Quote – “The interesting thing about the New Albion was that it was so completely modern in spirit. There was hardly a soul in the firm who was not perfectly well aware that publicity — advertising — is the dirtiest ramp that capitalism has yet produced. In the red lead firm there had still lingered certain notions of commercial honour and usefulness. But such things would have been laughed at in the New Albion. Most of the employees were the hard-boiled, Americanized, go-getting type to whom nothing in the world is sacred, except money. They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket. And yet beneath their cynicism there was the final naivete, the blind worship of the money-god.”