Martine's Reviews > Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
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Mar 18, 08

bookshelves: british, modern-fiction, psychological-drama, film, early-twentieth-century
Recommended for: budding writers and closet socialists
Read in March, 2008

I haven't yet read Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, a supposedly excellent autobiographical account of a middle-class man's descent into abject poverty, but I would imagine that some of the experiences Orwell describes in that book must have served him equally well in writing Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which must rank among the bleakest novels about self-induced poverty ever written in the English language.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying centres on Gordon Comstock, a talented twenty-nine-year-old writer who has renounced a successful career in advertising -- not just to get some serious writing done, but on general principle. Gordon, you see, hates money. More specifically, he hates the English middle class's slavish devotion to money and all the things it stands for. Refusing to serve the money god any longer, Gordon steps out of the rat race, only steadily to sink into poverty. In his good moments he feels morally superior to the people surrounding him, whose petit-bourgeois gentility he despises; in his bad moments he realises that he himself is despicable and that his new-found 'freedom' will never make him a successful author, as poverty (which Orwell calls 'a spiritual sewer' and 'spiritual halitosis') leads not to creativity but rather to moral deadness, which is unconducive to being either creatively or socially successful. Needless to say, the increasingly squalid and unproductive Gordon soon begins to pity and loathe himself, to the point where his self-hatred threatens to poison his relationships with the few people with whom he is still in touch. The question is: can his loved ones get him to give up his dream of a money-independent existence before it's too late?

Keep the Aspidistra Flying features some black comedy and social satire, but even so the book is fairly depressing. Orwell expertly dissects the poor man's pride and paranoia, his nagging obsessions and insecurities, and his constant struggle between hope, optimism, envy, despair and self-loathing. No doubt many readers will find Gordon a frustrating and pig-headed protagonist (he is!), but being a slightly frustrated aspiring writer myself, I could sort of relate to him -- enough to acknowledge that he's a powerful creation. I also really appreciated the urgency of Orwell's writing. Many of his ideas on capitalism and poverty are repeated with great insistence throughout the novel, meaning Keep the Aspidistra Flying is hardly a very subtle read, but definitely a compelling one. Finally, I greatly enjoyed the colourful picture Orwell paints of 1930s England, where class is everything and where splendour and squalour go hand in hand. I didn't really care for Gordon's sudden change of heart in the final chapters, which seemed a bit pat to me, but even so, Keep the Aspidistra Flying struck me as an excellent book, full of powerful observations about writing and life in general that I wish I had come up with myself.

Talk about being a frustrated writer. :-)
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