Jul 2, 2008

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

by George Orwell

Is the lucrative return of employment worth the awful tedium of spending your days at something you hate? Gordon Comstock doesn't think so. He turns down decent jobs and good opportunities, because they go against his principles, chooses instead to take a low-paying job in a bookshop and lives in a squalid rented room. He wants to make a living writing, but he isn't very good at it, and discovers that the woes of poverty (mainly hunger) make it harder and harder to concentrate on his poetry and write well. Sticking to his ideals, Gordon repeatedly refuses assistance from friends and family, sinking slowly deeper and deeper into poverty until he has to make a choice to survive. A job he doesn't want? or sticking true to his principles and creeping closer to starvation?

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is terribly depressing- for someone like me- an artist who failed to make a living at art. But it's also very witty, full of satire, which I half-missed the first time I read it. I was too stuck on the unhappy circumstance of Gordon- trying to do what he believed in, and getting mired in a downward spiral to the point of no return. A second reading provided more humor. Especially in the contrast of Gordon's friends- few in number- such as Ravelston, wealthy (but not happy with it) and his long-suffering girlfriend. Both sober and funny, this is one novel that I will not forget easily. It is interesting to compare this book to Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, which is semi-autobiographical account of the experience of poverty in said cities.

Side note: It must be prolific in English households (at least in Orwell's time), the aspidistra plant. Having a significant place in the title and also being very symbolic in the story. But I didn't know what it was and kept stumbling over the unfamiliar word. So to give my readers an idea (at least of its appearance) here are two old and very tacky book covers which feature the stubborn aspidistra. I don't like them, but they are illustrative, and so have a place here.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 248 pages, 1936

8 comments:

Terri B. said...

Thanks for the review! I've never heard of this Orwell book. Isn't it great how sometimes when you re-read a book you can see things you didn't see the first time through? I love it when this happens.

Gentle Reader said...

I hadn't heard of this book, either. I agree with Terri--I've reread a few things recently and found my perspective had changed so much it was almost laughable. I mean, I was a cliche of a young person reading something, and then I was a cliche of a middle aged person reading the same thing, and finding it a completely different experience! Also, thanks for clarifying on the aspidistra--I knew it was a house plant, but couldn't picture it :)

Bybee said...

I've been attracted to this novel because of that great title. And of course, it's Orwell.

writer2b said...

It looks a little like a pease plant, but a little more straggly...? I've never heard of this book either, but I really enjoyed your review.

I'd been coming to your blog for awhile before I realized you painted the header. I hope you won't give up on your artistic side! You're definitely not Gordon.

verbivore said...

I've only read Animal Farm and 1984, haven't touched any of Orwell's other work. I like satire so this one might be something I'd really enjoy.

Trish said...

I've read a few of Orwell's essays and have enjoyed them, but I'd really like to get more into his writing. I have a tough time with words whose immediate pronunciation comes to my head--probably like aspidistra. When I'm reading aloud to hubby, it never fails that there is a character with an impossible name that I have to improvize to keep from going crazy. wow, sorry for the ramble.

Nymeth said...

I hadn't heard of this one before either, and it sounds great. Thanks for the review, Jeane.

Jeane said...

I'm glad so many readers find this title interesting! I'd never heard of it before, either, until my husband got on an Orwell kick and asked me to buy every one I could find. So many new discoveries came to hand!

Writer2b- Thanks. Sadly, since my kid was born (which first takes up a lot of time, and second, gets into everything) and we bought a house (which required a lot more fixing up than we'd expected) there has been very little time and money to spend on art. Supplies are not cheap! So, well, reading and blogging has taken up the center of my spare time. Perhaps when the child has left the house in ten-plus years I will have energy to focus on art again.