Thursday, November 17, 2016

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

I have finally finished this book containing three novels by George Orwell.  The first, Burmese Days, I reviewed last year and you can read the post here.  

I set the book aside but last month read the remaining two stories. 

Keep the Aspidistra Flying comes largely from the viewpoint of Gordon Comstock, a poet, working at a bookstore while trying to launch his career as a writer.  He is poor, lives in a lower income-but not the lowest as we later see- tenement house run by a persnickety landlady who  exacerbates Gordon's already hard life with rules such as no smoking or making tea in his room.  Not that Gordon observes any of her rules, it's just annoying to have to cover up his "crimes".

He wants to live solely as a poet but he's not rich.  The money he makes at the bookstore is barely enough to pay his bills and keep him from starving, hence his is a grinding existence.  He has a girlfriend but he can't afford to marry her.  He shakes his fist at his lot.  Yet it is his choice to live like this.

Gordon worked at a business where he wrote jingly sort of slogans for advertisement posters.  He made a decent salary and met Rosemary there.  But he felt this sort of work beneath his artistic soul, as if he were prostituting his talents.  So he quit and began working at a bookstore for dirt wages where presumably he was able to keep his philosophical integrity intact.  He smirks at the "riff raff" who came in to read best sellers and popular romances, since he himself only read literature.

Yet he despises a lot of the classic authors as well.  Why are these "literary" authors considered so high brow when they write dreck, he moans to himself. Gordon leads a frustrated existence.

He has a girlfriend, as already mentioned, her name is Rosemary, but he can't afford to take her anywhere or do anything with her, least of all marry her.  He absolutely refuses to take any money she offers although he's not above receiving funds from his sister, even though he knows she is sacrificing financially in order to help keep him out of dire straits.

His friend, Ravelston, is an ardent socialist or communist, and a firm believer in a social revolution that would equally disperse the income of the rich and spread it around to the poor.  Since he himself is rich and on some level either doesn't make the connection that he would stand to lose a portion of his own money or, more realistically, he understands all too well that such "equal distribution" doesn't impact the rich as it does the middle class who, under such a system, are punished for earning wages by having a good chunk of their income taxed away, he can afford to be so "broad minded".

This has nothing to do with anything, but I imagine Ravelston looking like Russell Brand.

Ravelston does understand this, sort of; enough to make him feel guilty.  He attempts to exorcise this guilt by befriending Gordon.  It's his "see I'm mingling with the unfortunate" statement.  Nevertheless, Ravelston enjoys life, lives in a comfortable apartment, and has a girlfriend with whom he enjoys everything that Gordon cannot.  

Interestingly, Ravelston's girlfriend, also a member of his communist group, refuses to associate with Gordon or any of the lower classes, since they dress so poorly and stink.  I think this reflects perfectly the Armchair Socialist in our day.  They feel virtuous and fashionable espousing a theory that creates "equality" while enjoying their exclusive, elitist life; which is why they live in Aspen and not Harlem.

One could sympathize with Gordon if he wasn't so arrogant or so foolish.  An American magazine pays him handsomely for a set of poems. Oh, what Gordon could do with it!  Pay his rent, groceries, a couple of pack of cigarettes!  What does he do?  Blow it all away in one extravagent night.  

He invites Ravelston and Rosemary on an evening at a restaurant but succeeds in making it a painful experience for everyone by being so wasteful with his money, refusing contributions from either his friend or girlfriend, that what could have been a nice month's salary is gone before the next day.

As if that isn't bad enough, Gordon has gotten himself so drunk that he ends up with a prostitute, assaults a police officer during a raid and wakes up to find himself in jail.  Ravelston posts bail and, because the book store owner fires him for his conduct, allows Gordon to live with him.

What has any of this got to do with an Aspidistra?  If, like me, you didn't know what an Aspisdistra is, it is a type of plant that  people keep for decorative purposes.  Gordon's apartment has one that he purposely neglects and abuses but the poor thing refuses to die.

When Gordon eventually leaves Ravelston and lives in an even grimier apartment, behold! another Aspisdistra is placed there by his current landlady.  The plant seems to signify a middle class existence.

I say this, because in the end, Gordon at rock bottom, admits defeat.  Not only has his life sunk to a Sartre-esque existence, Rosemary is pregnant.  They must marry as far as Gordon is concerned.  A strong pro-life statement produces this conclusion, which raises Orwell in my esteem.

Rosemary suggests she abort the baby.  His response:

Though they were feet part he felt as thought they were joined together-as though some invisible living cord stretched from her entrails to his.  He knew then that it was a dreadful thing they were contemplating- a blasphemy, if that word had any meaning. 

'No fear!' he said.  'Whatever happens we're not going to do that.  It's disgusting.'

He returns to the advertising company, receives his old job and enters into a middle class existence. He marries Rosemary and they move into a nice apartment, nothing upscale but appropriate for a middle income family.

One thing is lacking and Gordon goes out to buy it, but not without a row with Rosemary.  He wants an Aspisdistra.  Rosemary doesn't want such an ugly plant in her apartment but in the end Gordon gets his way.  

The story doesn't end there.  As they walk down the stairs to the florist, Rosemary stops suddenly.

'Oh Gordon!'


'I felt it move!'

'Felt what move?'

'The baby.  I felt it move inside me.'

'But it did really move?  You're sure?  You really felt it move?'

'Oh, yes.  It moved.'

For a long time he remained kneeling there, his head pressed against the softness of her belly.  She clasped her hands behind his head and pulled it closer...Somewhere in there, in the safe, warm, cushioned darkness, it was alive and stirring.

For all the dark and dreariness of Gordon's life, the story ends on a hopeful note.


Brian Joseph said...

I think that a lot of people who claim to be Orwell fans have not read this.

I have not. Though I find that gloominess is very common with Orwell, the positive note at the ending sounds different and refreshing.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian! Orwell fans should read this. Even though Orwell can be gloomy I find that his thoughts are so well articulated. Even if I don't agree with the philosophy of the protagonist I can enjoy how he develops and thinks.

R.T. said...

Everything I've read by Orwell leads me to a broad-brush statement/endorsement: he could write damned good prose, and all writers could learn a lot by reading Orwell. One of my favorite Orwell texts is his essay, "Politics of the English Language." It ought to required reading for anyone who writes anything.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I must say that I really enjoy Orwell's prose. Politics of the English Language is an excellent book.

Carol said...

I've only read 1984 - can't say that I 'enjoyed' it but it was certainly very powerful & prophetic. "Politics of the English Language" sounds like something I should read and I think the one you mentioned in this post sounds good. I'd heard of the title but had no idea what it was about.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Carol! I read both 1984 and Animal Farm and found both to be a harrowing experience, mainly because I saw the truth in those stories being carried out in countries even today and also how "free" countries such as ours can easily fall into such deception and tyranny.

Mudpuddle said...

i read "Aspidistra" when in my teens and found it depressing so i read it again. and again... i think the real reason was that it was one of the few books we had... still, i liked parts of it and it gave me a taste for Orwell which provided me with many interesting hours, reading his work... (don't forget Cool and Lam...)

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Mudpuddle! I'm sure I could not have read Aspidistra in my teens. I read 1984 and Animal Farm and wore off Orwell for the next several years. I am only now rediscovering him. I guess I'm old enough to take his cynicism and still enjoy his writing.

I have three Cool and Lams I got off ebay: Widows Wear Weeds, Traps Need Fresh Bait and Up for Grabs. Is there a A.A. Fair book I should start with, such as how Cool and Lam met?

Sharon Wilfong said...

Stupid blogger won't let me edit. I meant swore off Orwell. :)

Mudpuddle said...

i don't know for sure; you'll have to go by the publishing date, i guess; anyway, i surely hope you enjoy them as much as i do!...

Mudpuddle said...

re: Orwell; people do get stuck don't they, i mean like in cynicism, or despair, or even terror; rarely in joy or fun, though; and once stuck it seems almost impossible to extricate oneself; although, it can be done, i think... takes a lot of work, though...

Sharon Wilfong said...

Mudpuddle: I'm sure I will!