on September 9, 2010
"What he realised, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion-the only really felt religion-that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success. Hence the profoundly significant phrase, to make good." (43)
The story starts off with Gordon Comstock, a man of about 30, who observes as people come and go from the bookstore in which he works; the descriptions are quite amusing. He is a writer, who is struggling to finish a work called `London Pleasures.' He wrote a book of poetry called `Mice' that did not sell very many copies, and the discounted copies that remain in the store have been untouched for the past two years. But Gordon is no ordinary bookseller; he has declared war on money.
Throughout the story, he thinks about his past, his poor genteel family. And of his sister, Julia, who was not given an education because all the money was put into Gordon's education. Of his old well-paying job that he left to realise his dreams as a writer, and what he soon discovered: the world is run by money. His girlfriend won't even sleep with him for the fear of having a child that they won't be able to afford. See the struggles Gordon Comstock faces throughout his war against money.
I enjoyed reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell; the story was amusing at parts. The insight of what Gordon observed was immense, of money being at the bottom of everything. The prose is magnificent, and like Orwell's other novels (1984, Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London), this is one to be read.
The following are some quotes I enjoyed (may contain spoilers!):
"Money writes books, money sells them. Give me not righteousness, O Lord, give me money, only money." (9)
"Money, once again; all is money. All human relationships must be purchased with money. If you have no money, men won't care for you, women won't love you; won't, that is, care for you or love you the last little bit that matters. And how right they are, after all! For, moneyless, you are unlovable." (14)
"The first effect of poverty is that it kills thought. He grasped, as though it were a new discovery, that you do not escape from money merely by being moneyless. On the contrary, you are hopeless slave of money until you have enough of it to live on-a "competence," as the beastly middle-class phrase goes." (49-50)
"That is the devilish thing about poverty, the ever-recurrent thing-loneliness. Day after day with never an intelligent person to talk to; night after night back to your godless room, always alone." (64)
on January 12, 2004
George Comstock, living in 1930s London, wants to gain the benefits of a good life without working hard for them. So, with his own peculiar philosophies and ideas in his head, he rebels from the conditions of life he finds himself in, tries to pursue an easier life, becomes lazy whilst perceiving himself clever doing so, finds himself falling, broke each week, having to count his pennies, his life deteriorating; and eventually comes round - full circle - to accept the limitations that modern life generally forces onto most of us, whether we like the nature of the concrete jungles we live in or not...
This is an excellent book about life and the forces in life we are subject to - the fact that most of us have to be compliant cogs in a huge wheel of industry of some sort if we want to get on in life, whether we want to be or not, and if we try to step off the treadmill and leave the rat-race, it doesn't work well and we won't like where it puts us.
The book is a very good read, and well worth reading. It should be handed to any child who wants to be a rebel and thinks he can get by without working hard, to make him understand better some of the things that modern life involves and requires of us.
on June 21, 2002
It is a bit difficult task to place George Orwell (pen name for Eric Aruthur Blair) in the history of the 20th century English literature. A novelist? A journalist? A critic? Or just a guy who loved propaganda? Whatever it is, he is and will be remembered as the one who wrote "1984" and "Animal Farm." Still, before he wrote these famous works, he wrote a pretty good book of novel, and that is what you're looking at now.
"Keep the Aspidistra Flying" one of the most starange titles you ever see, is about a "poet" (and formerly a copywriter for advertizing company) Gordon Comstock, who, with sudden desire to be free from the curse of money, left this good job and starts the life of an aspiring artist. As he had previously a book of his own poems published (the title "Mice"), and received a review from The Times Literary Supplement, which said "exceptional promise," why not pursue his way as an artist? And his next project "London Pleasure" which must be the next Joyce or Eliot will be completed soon, probably next month, or next year perhaps....
As his misadventure starts, Rosemary, his long-suffering but always faithful sweetheart, naturally is dismayed, and it takes a long time for him to realize that his happiness, whatever it is, is possible with her presence. But aside from the romantic aspect of the novel, which in itself is well-written with good portrait of independent Rosemary, the book attracts us with the author's satire on the middle-classness of England, which is represented by those ugly, die-hard aspidistra decorating the windows of every house. Gordon's loathing of respetability is deftly turned into a dark comedy that attack the parochical mind of some people, sometimes including Gordon himself. For instance, Gordon, no matter how poor and disheveled he becomes, never lets his girlfriend Rosemary pay the check of lunch because, in a word, it is not proper. Those who are interested in Englishness might find something amusing in this book, I assure you.
As is his satire, Orwell's English style is always full of power, brisk and lively, and never lets you bored. The only demerit is, as time has changed since then 1936, some names are no longer familiar to us; once hugely popular novelists like Ethel M Dell is mentioned with derogatory comments from Gordon, and her bestselling novel "The Way of an Eagle" is clearly treated as trash in Orwell's mind, but in the 21st Century whoever read them? Hence, some part of the book is lost on us if you don't know these names like Dell or Hugh Walpole, but never mind. Such part consists only small part, and if you don't get it, just skip it.
At the time of publishing, "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" was never a commercial success, and in Orwell's lifeime it was never reprinted, but these facts should not discuorage you from reading it. It is wickedly funny book that makes you, if not smile, at least grin not a little.
The book was made a movie in 1997 as "The Merry War" starring Richard E Grant and Helena Bohnam Carter. The film, more inclined to romance side of the book, is also a good one. Try it.
In Christopher Hitchens’s memoir, Hitch-22, he talked about his writing and early influences. George Orwell was one influence, and Hitchens singled out Keep the Aspidistra Flying. He also talked about how he encouraged Martin Amis to read Orwell, with Amis concluding Orwell couldn’t write “worth a damn.” It’s a matter of interpretation, but I disagree with Amis’s assessment (which he himself might now disagree with because he referred to several Orwell novels in his novel Money). Anyway, Keep the Aspidistra Flying was my fifth Orwell novel, and I enjoyed it. The central character, Gordon Comstock, won’t conform. He’s a failed poet who disdains money, lives in a bedsit in London, and leaves or won’t take better-paying jobs because he doesn’t wish to “sell out” and worship the money god. He doesn’t want a villa and an aspidistra – a plant he sees as a symbol of conformity. But living without money (and love) is difficult, and Gordon has to figure out a way to make compromise. Just about anyone could relate, especially people with socialist views. You can push against the system, or you find a way to work within it, or both. Gordon, I think, made the right decision. Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a good novel and Orwell remains one of my favourite writers. Five Stars.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World
on January 5, 2003
Having completed "Keep the Aspidistra Flying", I have now read all of the novels of George Orwell. I can say with such authority that this one may be his best. George Orwell was, first and foremost, a Socialist and this book is his examination of being a Socialist in a Capitalist world. His hero, Gordon Comstock, is mired in a dead-end job that is just middle-class enough to require proper dress and behavior but not enough to enable him to afford any but the most essential living expenses. We sympathize with him. Or at least we do until we realize that his disdain for the pursuit of money has pointed him in the opposite direction. He is so anti-capitalist that he purposely keeps himself in his lower state. He quit a previous job because it paid too much. He won't strive beyond his current status because then he would enter a higher social status. He is convinced of the righteousness of his beliefs even though he has bled his sister dry "borrowing" money from her over the years. She "lends" him the money because the family always had such high hopes for this erudite young man. Gordon complains, to those that listen, that money is the root of all evil yet he is so ready to be victimized by it. He complains to his girl-friend that she measures him by his net-worth. This isn't true but he can't see that the problem is that HE is measuring himself by his own net-worth. He talks the talk but can't walk the walk. Well, money leads to one disaster of his own making and ends up as the solution to another "disaster" of his own making. I'm sure the prospective reader would prefer to read the book to see how his story ends so I won't go into any more details here.
This novel is enjoyable on many levels. I found myself, like most, getting upset with Gordon Comstock for his self-destructive "nobility". I was ready to rant and rave about it until I remembered my post-college Bohemian days and realized that I went through such a stage myself. I'm sure many of us have and so I think there is a personal connection that will appeal to a lot of readers. For pure literary merit, this is a hard 20th Century satire to top. Orwell scared a lot of people with his futuristic novels "Animal Farm" and "1984". He tried to indoctrinate many a reader with his Socialistic essays including his half-novel/half-essay; "The Road to Wigan Pier". I have a feeling that he was poking fun at himself in "Keep the Aspidistras Flying". Maybe that's why it works so well.
on October 16, 2002
My God! Whatever happenned to good old clean writing where one regards the scene, action, events and characters at hand, contemplating universals and dissonent examples to reach some higher, usually very personal, truth?
Thank God there is still Orwell? This is one of his best. Forget the literary critic's remarks about this being a young Orwell. Who cares? It is honest, clean and offers a valuable example of life of working poor in England in the 1930s. When you contrast it to our present circumstance you see a lot that has changed and so much that has not; two pound / month was just not enough to survive, but to slowly starve to death. But Gordon will not yeild to the Money God that he has delcared war against. While he is waging this war we glimpse at his self-induced problems along the way.
The ending poses that critical question; Is he a hero? Was he conqueror of, or conquered by the Money God?
There are a few dated expressions which add colour to the book in my estimation. The trash readers of the times he refers to are unknown to most of us nowadays. But it does not matter. We know what he means. You could just as easily substitute Danielle Steel with the names of the other trash authors of the 1930s. We would then get his intent.
A great read. A true modern classic.
on June 22, 2002
Orwell repudiated his early novels, and it's easy to see why when you read "Aspidistra." In this novel, Orwell steered mostly clear of the Joyce-inspired purple prose that marred "A Clergyman's Daughter," but that's not enough to save it. The protagonist, would-be poet Gordon Comstock, toils in self-imposed exile and poverty in secondhand bookshops, constantly bemoaning his lack of pecuniary means, although there's a "good job" at the New Albion ad agency waiting for him to reclaim it. He's a thoroughly unsympathetic character, peevish and boorish, who treats his saintly girlfriend abominably, and the ambiguous ending, with Comstock getting engaged and rejoining the ad agency, caps it all off: is Orwell saying that Comstock has been defeated (returning shamefacedly to the realm of the "money-god"), or has Comstock finally come to his senses? We're never sure where Orwell's coming from here, and for a writer whose goal was to make us see the economic underpinnings of human behavior, this ambiguity is most un-Orwellian.
on May 21, 2002
Fine read, full of Orwell's clear, precise prose. This absorbing novel depicts with harrowing clarity the main character's descent from struggling poet to a man stripped of his delusions, wallowing in a Dickensian dead-end job with weird, freakish people around him (brilliant evocation of pre-war, pre-bombed backstreet London) and finally to a kind of redemption, of the kind that that comes with age and experience; a stoical acceptance of life. Some of the supporting characters in this book are fantastic: the used book store dealer with long legs and short torso who resembles a pair of scissors when he walks, for example. There are many excellent flourishes, like the numerous advertizing slogans the main character constantly glimpses ("The Food That Is Shot Out Of A Gun!"), and his subsequent observation that advertizing is "the rattle of the stick in the swill-bucket.".
Orwell's 1930's novels, like this one, Burmese Days, and Coming Up for Air, are far better literature than the cold war cautionary tales Animal Farm and 1984. If you like the latter (and more importantly, if you don't), try Keep the Aspidistra Flying and the others. Orwell has a wonderful way of telling a hard tale and yet, through the sheer power of his solid prose, and unmystifying outlook on life, managing to uplift the reader, leaving him stronger and more positive (if less rosy-eyed) than before.
Lastly, if you've ever had any employment, paid or volunteer, involving dealing with the public, this is your book. Orwell's ongoing description of the strange shapes the public takes when you're forced to observe and serve them is one of the most wryly understated comic depictions in 20th century literature. Oh, the humanity...
on March 16, 2002
Gordon Comstock is a very good advertising copywriter and a pretty bad poet. But if he indulges his delusion that he can write poetry, he gets to
live a bohemian life of chic poverty, easy morality, and reflexive socialism. Admitting he's really meant to write advertising jingles would require
him to settle into a respectable, but dreaded, middle class existence of comfort, family, and an aspidistra in the window. The horror, the horror....
You can judge who the three most important writers of the last three centuries were by the attempts of both Left and Right to co-opt them and claim
them as their own : Adam Smith (18th Century); Alexis de Tocqueville (19th Century); and George Orwell (20th Century). With the exception of
people telling me I'm swinish for not thinking that James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and the James brothers (Henry and William) are geniuses, I'd
guess that no topic has generated more hostile email to Brothers Judd than our classifying Orwell as a conservative. These hostile correspondents
though never offer any more evidence than the mere fact that Orwell called himself a socialist and fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
It goes almost without saying that they don't refer to his writings, because it is there that their argument falls apart. Nowhere is this more evident
than in the semi-autobiographical--indeed, Orwell later thought it overly autobiographical--Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
The title of the book is awkward and maybe even off-putting, but necessary. Meanwhile, the filmmakers chose an equally appropriate, but
misleading title, for Gordon Comstock is at war on two fronts. The first is with his long-suffering girlfriend, Rosemary, who he hopes to coerce
into bed without marrying :
Each laughed with delight at the other's absurdities. There was a merry war between them.
The second front is Gordon's war against the money god :
What he realised, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only
real religion--the only really felt religion--that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer
except failure and success. Hence the profoundly significant phrase, to make good. The decalogue has been reduced to two
commandments. One for the employers--the elect, the money-priesthood as it were--'Thou shalt make money'; the other for the
employed--the slaves and underlings--'Thou shalt not lose thy job.' It was about this time that he came across The Ragged Trousered
Philanthropists and read about the starving carpenter who pawns everything but sticks to his aspidistra. The aspidistra, flower of England!
It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn. There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras
By God! That sounds like a ringing enough call to arms doesn't it? Except, that is, for the inconvenient title of the novel : Keep the Aspidistra
Flying. This story, like nearly all of Orwell's, is anti-revolutionary and possessed of both a deep love of middle-class England and a good-natured
contempt for wealthy socialists (like Comstock's publisher, Ravelston) and all of those (like Gordon himself) who romanticize poverty and the
poor. And so, when Gordon, who by then has been reduced to rather dire straits, finally abandons his life of destitution and the half-written book
of inane poems that he'd been writing to resume his advertising job and marry Rosemary, who he's gotten in the family way, it is in no wise a
defeat, but a triumph :
Now that the thing was done he felt nothing but relief; relief that now at last he had finished with dirt, cold, hunger and loneliness and could get
back to decent, fully human life. His resolutions, now that he had broken them, seemed nothing but a frightful weight that he had cast off.
Moreover, he was aware that he was only fulfilling his destiny. In some corner of his mind he had always known that this would happen. He
thought of the day when he had given them notice at New Albion; and Mr. Erskine's kind, red, beefish face, gently counselling him not to chuck up
a 'good' job for nothing. How bitterly he had sworn, then, that he was done with 'good' jobs for ever! Yet it was foredoomed that he should come
back, and he had known it even then. And it was not merely because of Rosemary and the baby that he had done it. That was the obvious cause,
the precipitating cause, but even without it the end would have been the same ; if there had been no baby to think about, something else would have
forced his hand. For it was what, in his secret heart, he had desired.
And if that doesn't convince you that the story represents a whole-hearted embrace of bourgeois existence, try this :
Our civilization is founded on greed and fear, but in the lives of common men the greed and fear are mysteriously transmuted into
something nobler. The lower-middle-class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture
and their aspidistras--they lived by the money-code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency. The money-code as they
interpreted it was not merely cynical and hoggish. They had their standards, their inviolable points of honour. They 'kept themselves
respectable'--kept the aspidistra flying. Besides, they were alive. They were bound up in the bundle of life. They begot children,
which is what the saints and the soul-savers never by any chance do.
The aspidistra is the tree of life, he thought suddenly.
Orwell offers up this wisdom with a light touch. He also has the characteristically brutal honesty to portray Comstock (his younger self) as quite a
horse's arse during his bohemian phase. This comes through even more clearly in the film, where Comstock (as played by Richard E. Grant) is
nearly difficult to like, prior to his epiphany. It is only when he accepts his own responsibility for the life growing in Rosemary that he comes to be
"fully human" and likable.
Now, if you can reconcile all of that with a belief that Orwell should be considered a man of the Left and not essentially a conservative, kindly drop
us a line and explain. Meanwhile, we'll keep the aspidistra flying.
GRADE : A
on July 16, 2001
This book is certainly not up to the level of Orwell's masterpieces, _1984_ and _Animal Farm_, but is fairly entertaining nevertheless. The theme is the idealism of youth versus the realism of adulthood. Our hero, Gordon Comstock, believe strongly in socialism, and refuses to compromise his values by taking what he calls "a good job" and becoming part of the "money-code," i.e., being corrupted by society's obsession with making money. He just wants a part-time job and to be left alone to write his poetry, which he was having a great deal of difficulty having published. Comstock does manage to secure a good, well-paying job as a copy writer for an advertising firm (the epitome of crass capitalism), but resigns so that he could achieve his lifetime desire to sink in the mud. Comstock eventually comes to realize, however, that being poor means being forced to borrow money from his publisher friend (who runs a small literary magazine called "antichrist") and from his loving, but long suffering girlfriend, Rosemary. This Comstock cannot allow himself to do. He also cannot, without having money, provide Rosemary with the happiness she feels that she deserves. Comstock eventually throw in the towel and secures himself a happy ending of sorts.
The ending that Orwell chose feels tacked on. It appears that Orwell was unsure how he wanted to end the book, so he decided to write this one, which seems a bit too facile. Orwell, however, makes his point of the idealism of youth quite well, and does so with much humor. An example of this is the section where our hero does a little too much celebrating, thereby landing in trouble (nothing permanent) when he spends the money he receives from the publishing of some of his poems. Orwell's allusion to the growing of a few white hairs associated with becoming an adult is apt and, in a way, quite sweet. I felt, however, that Orwell treated the issue of youthful idealism v. adult corruption in too much of a black and white, all or nothing manner. Is it not at all possible for someone to hold a good paying, full time job and still write poetry in his spare time? I do not believe that working for an advertising firm as a copy writer should compromise one's deeply held beliefs in socialism. It would hardly place our hero in the same class as a wealthy corporate executive, much less on the same level as a John D. Rockefeller or a Donald Trump.