George Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep The Aspidistra Flying, proves once again, how when it comes to entertaining the masses while socially critiquing them at the same time, old George knows how to bring it.  Borderline insulting, while witheringly accurate, Keep The Aspidistra Flying is a wonderful example of commentary that has stood the test of time.

First off, before we go any further, in case anyone was wondering what the heck an ‘Aspidistra’ is, it’s a plant.  Apparently a horrible, hard-to-kill, borderline spiky plant that,  if we’re going by the numerous descriptions of them in the book, are in every home in London.  OK, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s carry on.

Keep The Aspidistra Flying follows the miserable life of Gordon Comstock, a 30 year old man that has decided to fight against society’s dependence onmoney.  As ridiculous as it sounds, Gordon has indeed ‘declared war’ on the economy, and is trying to resist to its powers.  Despite being rather intelligent, and having a ‘good job’ in an advertising agency, Gordon quits to work in a bookstore and focus on his poetry writing.  Although that sounds good in theory, in reality Gordon is paid little to nothing for working long hours in the bookstore, and as a result of his near poverty, Gordon fails to find the time, energy or passion to actually successfully write any poetry.

Ironically, as Gordon quickly learns, the less money a person has, the more important it is.  Although Gordon has lofty ideas of being ‘above’ the need for money, he soon learns that everyone needs money, and his complete lack of it, of course, means it is largely all he thinks about. He alienates friends because they have more than him and are apparently disgraced by his lack of wealth and he cannot provide or support his girlfriend who, in return, cannot see herself marrying him (this is the 1930s after all).  And, perhaps most ironic of all, is when Gordon does find he has a small amount of money he is overwhelmed by what it can buy him, literally and figuratively, and quickly loses control of it, and himself.

Being a George Orwell book, the plot of Keep The Aspidistra wasn’t exactly a walk in Candy Land (I wish).  Gordon is a completely unlikeable character.  Although he has brains and the opportunity to make something of himself, he chooses to avoid it all, making himself miserable for ‘a higher cause’.  What this ‘high cause’ is nobody is all that sure, even Gordon himself, except that he knows he must continue to fulfil it, even though it’s making him desperately miserable.

There were aspects of this novel that I really, really enjoyed.  The first was the accuracy and continual relevance of the plot and the main character, despite it being written 80 years ago.  We all know of a Gordon Comstock, particularly in Australia where it is an insult to be ‘middle class’ or ‘mainstream’. You know the ones.  They have tattoos, wear second-hand filthy clothing, don’t shave, live on the dole and sneer at anything that is commercial or popular.  Because, after all, they are ‘above that’.  And it makes much more sense to sit around in a squallor, being melancholic and pensive about the furrows of life, then actually, you know, go out and live.

Furthermore, when I delved a bit deeper into Orwell’s past, I soon learnt that he himself experienced similar aspects of Gordon’s life before he wrote this book, as well as coming across many Gordon Comstocks who would rather ‘fight the man’ (or whatever the equivalent 1930s version of that is) then apply themselves and contribute to society.

What I particularly liked about Keep The Aspidistra Flying was that it showed the gritty realities of life when we try to live out our ideals.  Does that sound horrible?  I guess, but once again, that’s life.  I’d love to be like Gordon Comstock; a person who fights against capitalism, who is above money and material goods, who focuses on their craft instead of helping out someone richer and more powerful than myself.  In theory that’s great.  But in reality?  I’m not above the system.  I’m not above workplace hierarchy, and just like Gordon, I’d end up dissolute and miserable.

The other aspect of Keep The Aspidistra Flying that stood out for me was the sheer eloquence of George Orwell’s writing.  Yes, his topics of choice are bleak, but damn, he was a fantastic writer.  Despite the fact that this book was written 80 years ago, at no point was I confused, bored, or alienated.  It didn’t matter that Gordon lived in an entire different time and generation to me, thanks to Orwell I felt like I was in the room next to him.  And although Orwell is dealing with some pretty vast and heavy issues (who hasn’t tried to critique society and failed miserably?), he does it in a way that is succinct and easy to understand for the average reader.

I also noticed that while the ending of Gordon was similar to that of protagonists of his other novels (particularly Winston from 1984), I felt that it was for the best for Gordon, which made a nice change.  Yes, he is ‘giving in’ and settling for a ‘good job’, but as a reader I felt almost happy for him, glad that he was finally taking the steps to join society, and dare I say it?  Grow up.

For anyone who hasn’t read George Orwell, I wouldn’t dare suggest that Keep The Aspidistra Flying has had as much an impact on our views of society as 1984 or Animal Farm, but I definitely think it is compelling and relevant.  It is a brilliant well-written novel that continues to strike the heart of the issue almost 80 years later, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a great read from a very classy author.

Have you read Keep The Aspidistra Flying or any other George Orwell novels?  Let me know!

keep the aspidistra flying by george orwell

Keep The Aspidistra Flying – (image taken from http://www.upload.wikimedia.org)

Advertisements