Book Review: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Image: Violet Daniels

Title: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Author: George Orwell

Publisher: Penguin, Modern Classics (2000/1936)

Rating: 5/5

I will never shut up about Orwell. Yes, it may seem kind of strange to be banging on about his writing so many years on; but his work will never not be relevant, regardless of the type of society we live in. Thus, I once again returned to reading some Orwell. This time, with a book which was published 84 years ago.

Synopsis

Gordon Comstock is disastrously unhappy. He’s a slave to an advertising industry that he despises. He is wasting his literary talents on an industry that he cannot morally support but is reaping the benefits for the sake of having a good job and monetary stability. However, Gordon soon realises that ploughing on with this goes against anything he stands for.

Gordon quits working at the advertising firm and instead spends his days being a bookseller, whilst trying to write. Every literary person’s dream, huh?

But the realities of living in self enforced deprivation soon take their toll. Living in such a futile, poverty stricken existence, soon sucks the life out of Gordon’s writing ambition. It begins to affect his relationship with wonderful Rosemary who he very much loves, and impacts his friendships.

The thing is, at the route of all success, whether that be family, romance, or friendships, is money. Having money gives you everything in a capitalist driven society. Gordon will have to somehow over come his natural opposition to this, if he is to maintain his relationship and devotion to Rosemary.

Gordon desperately did not want to become part of the capitalist, class stricken world that he found himself in, whilst working as a copywriter for an advertising industry. In trying to follow his heart and stick to his morals, he embarks on living in a world of self-inflicted squalor, poverty and pain. Within this, we see a vision into the world Orwell so despised, and the society in which he himself, did not feel part of.

Review

As soon as I had finished this, I knew instantly that it was my new favourite book, and possibly the best Orwell (so far) that I have read.

Others have dismissed this book as just pages of winging monologue, from a failed and depressed creative wannabe. However, I fully sympathized with the struggles and misfortune of Gordon Comstock and felt that the dialogue acted as an enlightening critique of the society that Orwell and many others were living through. This critique is timeless, as it can so readily be applied to our own society.

Fundamentally, Gordon was opposed to the idea of having money and the whole notion that society gives respect to those who have money and ‘stable’ jobs, above anything else. Even now, upon graduating, students are expected to have all these plans and to have secured graduate schemes before even having a chance to breathe after graduating. All for the sake of being able to tell someone your fancy job title and starting salary. After all, is money all there is? No, and this is precisely what this novel is about. It is a critique of the money driven society and individuals that succumb to its pull.

“Money, money, all is money!… Social failure, artistic failure, sexual failure – they are all the same. And lack of money is at the bottom of them all.”

In this book, is a character who tries to follow his principles and who is brave enough to stand against the societal norms he is enchained by. I sympathized with his struggle. To persevere with your own happiness, rather than reaping the benefits of an easy job, is a brave thing to do. Trying to make it as a writer, Gordon’s one true passion, was to take a massive leap in the dark.

However – this book is also an illustration of poverty, using London as an example. The vast difference between those who are in high paying jobs, and those who are struggling to make ends meet. Between those who are living in shared accommodation where the sheets are never free from bed bugs. To those who are living in bachelor pads on their own, that are big enough for a family of ten. As within all cities, there are the super thriving, and the people who are struggling every single day. It is a tale of how living in a city can be simultaneously the engine for creativity but also the architect of destruction when you are living in poverty.

“The bare floorboards had never been stained but were dark with dirt. In the cracks in the pink wallpaper dwelt multitudes of bugs; however, this was winter and they were torpid unless you over-warmed the room.”

I loved this book through and through. The political message is clear and ongoing, the struggle of poverty is brutally and honestly told, but the importance of being happy, self fulfilled and doing something we love is brought to the surface. Being a slave to capitalism will always have the potential to kill personal ambition – and that’s what is reiterated in this novel. Individuals must rise above its forces, by not becoming its slave.

Gordon resolves himself eventually from the cycle of poverty and goes back to his initial job due to the demands of certain circumstances (which I will not reveal as it will spoil the book!) but makes a definitive reservation to keep on writing, despite everything. He can recognise the wrath of capitalism and the drain it can have on his dreams, but he lets it go, and rises above it. Pure genius, as always.

“To abjure money is to abjure life.”

Going back to Orwell: 70 years on

The Essays of Orwell: Books Vs Cigarettes 1946

Before thinking about writing this post, it hadn’t occurred to me that today is the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s death, until reading something published by the BBC. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about his life, his writing and political outlook.

Who was George Orwell?

Known most for Animal Farm and 1984, Eric Blair, writing under the pen name, George Orwell, has come to be one of the most famous author’s of the twentieth century. Born in Bengal, Orwell would go on to win two scholarships at two prestigious English schools, Wellington and Eton.

After completing his education, Orwell became an Imperial Servant. This was the beginning of the period in which Orwell was manifesting his political outlook, in 1928, he resigned from the post, as influenced by rising anti-imperialist sentiment.

After this experience; Orwell tried to immerse himself in the realities of deprivation; he donned rags as he went to London’s East End and the poorest areas of Paris. Which later, formed the book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). This is often cited as Orwell’s first socialist memoir and insight into poverty. Later publishing, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) which is an even greater exploration of these themes. Wigan Pier deals with the conditions that working-class individuals were experiencing in Lancashire and Yorkshire, before the outbreak of World War Two.

Orwell is remembered primarily because of 1984, but during his time, he was a prolific figure in the more radical politics of the day. He was first of all, a self confessed anarchist, then came out as a socialist in the 1930s, against the rising tide of fascism. After being rejected for military service during the Second World War, he began working for the left-wing magazine, Tribune in 1943.

In this post however, it is not his novels I want to talk about, but rather, his essays. Having read 1984, Down and Out in Paris and London, Animal Farm and The Clergyman’s Daughter, I thought I knew Orwell quite well, until I started to discover his essays. This post in particular, will be discussing one essay, titled, “Books Vs Cigarettes” which Orwell published in 1946 in the Tribune.

Books Vs Cigarettes (1946)

Writing in 1946, after the end of World War Two, this essay is in response to the idea that reading is an expensive and inaccessible past time. This idea is often thwarted about in our own society, with the assumption it is a privilege that people in 9-5’s cannot afford. Orwell is therefore, critiquing the assumption that reading is a luxury activity.

Orwell in a convincing argument, states that mundane habits such as smoking and drinking, will cost the average person (per year) more than it would to sustain a reading habit. He details his own spending, Orwell was a heavy smoker himself, which cost him more than he spent on books per year.

Take this framework into today. The average Netflix, Amazon Prime or Spotify subscription probably amounts to being able to buy 1-2 new paperbacks per month. Or even better, when buying secondhand, probably 3-5, or even more, depending on the price. Orwell makes the point that there are far more expensive habits which are permitted among the populous, but reading is discounted as being a costly luxury.

Orwell also emphasizes the importance of buying second-hand books and borrowing from local libraries, friends or family which I think is important to point out. Reading doesn’t have to be an expensive habit, nor does it have to revolve around you owning the material you are consuming.

Additionally – Orwell goes on to highlight that the value of reading should not be purely in monetary terms, as one book can have a lifelong impact. (Indeed, 1984 itself is often sighted as a book which has changed the outlook of many readers, myself included.)

The impact of reading one book is worth more than its monetary cost, due to the longevity of the ideas it can plant,

“There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s attitude to life…”

George Orwell, “Books Vs Cigarettes,” 1946.

Final thoughts

Thus, in sum, Orwell argues that in fact, reading is one of the cheapest forms of, “recreations” and it is wrong to assume books are “less exciting” or not so worthy of spending time on. I feel this point is significantly applicable to now – with evenings easily absorbed by Instagram or watching YouTube on the loop. Reading is in fact, one of the most worthwhile past times, which does not have to cost you an arm and a leg.

On the anniversary of Orwell’s death; perhaps this should serve as a reminder that books are powerful and some books certainly leave their marks; on the way we think, view the world, and form opinions; in the most permanent of ways.

Furthermore, reading is not a luxury but a form of “recreation,” which is often brushed under the carpet in an age of so many other forms of entertainment. What would Orwell think? We can only guess.

I will be attempting to read as many of Orwell’s essays this year as I can, to try and understand the way he thought, and how this influenced his writing. I will keep you updated!

References

https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Orwell/Animal-Farm-and-Nineteen-Eighty-four

Link to the article: https://orwell.ru/library/articles/cigar/english/e_cigar

This is interesting too, was published by the BBC today: https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/would-george-orwell-have-had-a-smartphone/p080x74t