Sunday, September 11, 2011

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Remarkably, the cover of my copy seems not to be anywhere on the web. I'll add a picture when I get around to it.

Spoilers follow, but the book is approaching eighty years old: I'll just say read with care.


George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying is lauded in the cover copy as "in his best satirical vein," but despite the incisive wit of Orwell's language, this book is more reminiscent of Of Human Bondage than it is of Animal Farm. Gordon Comstock, only son of a struggling family, is obsessed with the power of money: he recognizes it as a God and he hates it. He deliberately sacrifices his opportunities to earn or save, sponges off his desperately poor elder sister, and does his very best to go down in a storm of blazingly pure self-righteousness, refusing to the very end to "worship the money-god"-- and refusing to the very end to believe that anyone else judges him on anything but his own poverty.

The man's utter pettiness and self-absorption are stunning, and yet, despite the repellent way he behaves toward everyone he knows, there remains the niggling feeling that Gordon has a point. He recoils from the soullessness of advertising, he's striving for success as a poet, and he's fighting to survive on unbearably little while still trying to interact with the moneyed classes that control the publishing and artistic circles he needs to break into. The struggle, slowly and believably, wears him down. The book is a coldblooded deconstruction of the romantic ideal of a starving artist in his cold garret: Gordon is angry, and unpleasant to be around, and frequently hungry and ashamed. His dream eventually falls into shreds around him, and he insists - demands, even, over his faithful lover's objections - that his surrender be complete.

The aspidistra, a houseplant colloquially known as the Cast-iron plant for its near invulnerability to poor care and poor conditions, becomes fixed in Gordon's mind as the symbol of the cast-iron middle-class respectability he flees from. It haunts him to the end, from the healthy plant he deliberately neglects and abuses to its dying replacement as his life collapses.

I find it oddly fascinating -- perhaps it's just me -- that aspidistra leaves were the precursor to the green plastic picket-fence dividers one finds in a modern commercial bento box. The poor plant is saddled with its bourgeois, commercial image in West and East alike.

This is not a novel to read if you want to be uplifted. It's Orwell, after all, and it's Orwell taking his brutal cynicism to a scenario that is all too real and everyday. The painfully unlikeable main character rang more than one personal chord in me, and his final decision made me feel a little sick to my stomach... but it's powerful, for all of that, and deeply human.


Recommended chaser for those of you who don't have time to go chop down a billboard afterward.

No comments:

Post a Comment