Only in a book compiled by an English editor, with the assistance of a team of writers, editors, critics, and reporters who are also, for the most part, English, would George Orwell’s third novel, following on the heels of Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter, have made a list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.
It’s not that Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a bad book – it’s pretty good, actually, and paints a vivid picture of a kind of genteel poverty that is harrowing, the more so for being based on some of his own experiences recounted in his memoir Down and Out in Paris and London. It’s a good read – I enjoyed it. But does it really belong on a list of the most important English-language novels ever written? Side by side with War and Peace? Anna Karenina? One Hundred Years of Solitude? Probably not.
Orwell himself wasn’t happy with the book, once it was published. In a letter to George Woodcock on 28 September 1946 he noted that it was one of the two or three books of which he was ashamed, saying he wrote it only because he needed the money. Which isn’t the worst reason for writing. Especially if you’re Orwell. This is the writer, after all, who would go on to give us Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-Four.
The story takes place in England in the 1930s and centres around Gordon Comstock who, at the age of 29, has declared war on money. Intelligent, well-educated, and poor, Gordon is obsessed with the idea that everything – everything – revolves around money; as the song says, money makes the world go around:
“For after all, what is there behind, except money? Money for the right kind of education, money for influential friends, money for leisure and peace of mind, money for trips to Italy. Money writes books, money sells them. Give me not righteousness, O lord, give me money, only money.”
If only he had money, he thinks, he’d have the time, the freedom, to write. Money would give him the right connections so that he would publish in the right places and come to the attention of the right people. “Serve the money-god,” he says, “or go under.” And so he chooses to go under.
Gordon is the last male in a line of respectable but dull, ineffectual family members who have never, since Gran’pa Comstock made his fortune, succeeded at anything. They are not an “old” family, “merely one of those families which rose on the wave of Victorian prosperity and then sank again faster than the wave itself”. His parents and older sister, Julia, have invested all their hopes and dreams for the future in Gordon. He’s bright – gifted, even – and shows literary promise. “He alone had it in him to ‘succeed'”. And so they spend what money they do have making sure he goes to an expensive public school, where he’s tormented by the other boys for not being rich. Julia, who idolizes her younger brother, goes to work at a tea-shop, contributes to the family income, and saves her pennies for gifts for Gordon. At seventeen Gordon drops out of school, cadges off his sister for a while, and finally – grudgingly – accepts a job in the accounts department of the New Albion Publicity Company. Here he meets Rosemary Waterlow who eventually becomes his girlfriend.
While there, a slim volume of Gordon’s poetry is published to mildly positive reviews. Word gets out that the accountant is actually a poet and Mr. Erskine, the managing director, promotes him to the position of copywriter. He does well in this job – so well that they raise his salary, which you’d think would be a good thing.
But it’s not. Gordon is terrified of Making Good, “to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra!” He resents having to work for a living, and resents those who don’t. He decides that what he wants is not a good job, like the one he has at the New Albion, but one that will keep him fed and sheltered without claiming his soul. And give him the time to complete his poetic opus, London Pleasures. Through his friend Ravelston, the wealthy left-wing publisher of Antichrist magazine, he’s hired as an assistant at a dilapidated, second-hand bookshop: “The hours were long, the pay was wretched – two pounds a week – and there was no chance of advancement”. It’s exactly the kind of job he’s looking for.
Surprisingly, it seems that living in a wretched bedsit in a slummy part of town, never having enough money to socialize or treat Rosemary to a decent dinner, and putting up with a nosy, penny-pinching landlady is not the Paradise you would think. The job is boring and in the evening when he does get back to his room he’s either too tired, too cold, or too hungry to write. And his obsession with money intensifies. Everyone, he believes, despises him for not having money. He’s convinced that Rosemary, who says she loves him, would agree to have sex with him if only he had money. She urges him to go back to New Albion – Mr. Erskine has said he’d consider taking him back. As she puts it, “We can’t afford principles, people like us.”
But Gordon is determined not to give in. He won’t take a better-paying job, and he won’t let Rosemary or Ravelston help him out. His pride, however, doesn’t prevent him from continuing to “borrow” from Julia, although he hates himself every time he does it.
Gordon is profoundly depressed, and increasingly neurotic. A day out in the country turns into a nightmare when he and Rosemary end up at an expensive hotel, shamed into ordering a meal they can’t afford and being humiliated by a supercilious waiter. Afterwards, they attempt to make love for the first time but Rosemary stops him when she sees he hasn’t brought a condom. Even this, according to Gordon, is all about money: “You say you ‘can’t’ have a baby. … You mean you daren’t; because you’d lose your job and I’ve got no money and all of us would starve.”
As absurd and self-pitying as he seems, there is something rather noble in Gordon’s war against money. Especially when the cost of noncompliance is so high: there was little unemployment insurance and no national health care. Falling between the tracks could, and often did, lead to disaster.
It’s just that he goes about it in such a hapless manner. He professes to despise capitalism but, unlike Orwell, he’s not interested in turning his literary talents to working for social justice. I’m convinced that the main reason George Orwell didn’t care much for this book is because he didn’t particularly like its hero.
But the story is the one that most closely mirrors Orwell’s life at the time. He, too, was a struggling writer – although more gifted than Gordon – and he, too, worked part-time in a London bookshop. Orwell didn’t believe he’d ever be successful in his lifetime, which made him able to relate to the sublimely unsuccessful Gordon.
The book received mixed reviews; Cyril Connolly felt all the talk about money kept it from being a proper work of art. And readers objected to the grimness of the story, which is only partly relieved by the ending – Rosemary gets pregnant, Gordon goes back to his “good” job at New Albion, and the two of them get married. In another book that might be seen as a happy ending. But, after Gordon’s diatribes against bourgeois conventions, it seems anticlimactic and rather sad.
The term “Orwellian” has come to mean the dark face of the future, as described in Nineteen Eighty-four. But these days, at a time when the Money God reigns supreme and young people are facing overwhelming student debt and outrageous housing costs, Keep the Aspidistra Flying may actually be more relevant.