I while back I read George Orwell’s book, Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
If you romanticize your status as a “starving artist” and perversely regard your low income as a badge of honor, you need to read this book! You’ll be amused, horrified, and inspired to change.
Yes, I don’t like the title either. An exceptionally hardy house plant, the Aspidistra was once ubiquitous in the windows of Britain. For Gordon Comstock, a struggling poet and the novel’s protagonist, it symbolizes what he hates: a world devoted to maintaining respectability and to making money.
Well, Comstock decides to form a one-man rebellion against the money cult that surrounds him. He’s determined to remain devoted to poverty and poetry, but ends up financially and spiritually sinking until he hits rock bottom, even as his saintly girlfriend silently endures his baffling stubbornness to accept her help or get a real job.
Comstock met Rosemary at an advertising firm. He reluctantly accepted a clerk position there, thanks to his uncle’s influence. One day, when his superior finds out that he’s a published poet (his collection of poems — Mice — sold 153 copies), he gets promoted to copy writer.
Though his poetry output suffered from his self loathing and stagnation, it turns out Gordon has an effortless talent for writing advertising copy. The irony is cruel: failing at artistic integrity, he succeeds at fueling the engine of the capitalist, money-worshipping system he despises. Here’s how he describes his workplace:
“Most of the employees were the hard-boiled, Americanised, go-getting type — the type to whom nothing in the world is sacred, except money. They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket.”
After his mother dies (freeing him from the consequences of guilt), Comstock quits his job, finding comfort in his return to poverty. Despite his struggles, he obstinately refuses help from his wealthy friend Ravelston, publisher of a monthly Socialist magazine. (Unbeknownst to Gordon, Ravelston had pulled strings to get his book of poems published.)
Gordon’s obsessive thoughts and rants can get a bit repetitive throughout the book, but Orwell’s observations on poverty shine through with exceptional clarity. I’ve never read a book that so convincingly argues that the humiliation of poverty is worse than its hardship. This is what Gordon’s friend fails to understand. Orwell also illustrates the obstacles faced by friends of different social classes, and the absurdity of being a wealthy Socialist who sympathizes with the poor, while dining in sumptuous style in his favorite restaurant.
Orwell speaks through Comstock, but he draws on his own experiences, such as when he found himself Down and Out in Paris and London — but that’s another book…
I love Gordon Comstock because I see myself in him — in some ways, I shared his attitude in my twenties! I thought I was rebelling, but I was only sabotaging myself. I owe a lot to this book for motivating me to start this blog.
George Orwell’s writing is direct, full of emotional sincerity, and powered with righteous indignation. Occasionally, he can even be funny. I leave you with this (it’s not really representative of the rest of the novel, but it made me laugh):
“This woman business! What a bore it is! What a pity we can’t cut it right out, or at least be like the animals — minutes of ferocious lust and months of icy chastity. Take a cock pheasant, for example. He jumps up on the hens’ backs without so much as a with your leave or by your leave. And no sooner is it over than the whole subject is out of his mind. He hardly notices his hens any longer; he ignores them, or simply pecks them if they get near his food. He is not called upon to support his offspring, either. Lucky pheasant! How different from the lord of creation, always on the hop between his memory and his conscience!”
After randomly paging to that passage, I decided to buy the book.