Monday 10 October 2011

Orwell October: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

I'm now halfway through Orwell's novels (and actually I only have one more to read that isn't a re-read), and while I do love him, I do have to say that it is so clear that he went to Eton. He slips so often into public schoolboy speak (saying things like 'beastly' and 'spiffing') that it would annoy me so much if I didn't like him so much, and annoys me a fair bit anyway! Keep the Aspidistra Flying, being about a fallen public schoolboy and all, is not immune to this slight issue, and hey, guess what, there's a guy living in poverty again! Yay! If I didn't like Orwell so much...

I feel like I'm being slightly unfair because I'm reading all these books really close together which, quite frankly, would probably make anyone a little tired of the repetition of similar themes. This isn't really a criticism of Orwell because I'm pretty sure he's just writing what he knows, but compared to the highly original themes and settings of Animal Farm and 1984, it's a little disappointing. Luckily, though, the writing style that's present in those books is already here, which still makes these books better written than your average, but there's still a fair bit of repetition of themes that is a bit much to deal with within a short space of time.

It doesn't help, with Keep the Aspidistra Flying, that the main character, Gordon, is a complete and utter dick. I'll admit that, at first I thought he was kind of exciting and interesting- a kind of anti-capitalist hero, fighting against the materialistic values du jour and trying to find something deeper, hence why he's a poet. But no, that's not what he was all about at all! Instead, what we've actually got is a severely dysfunctional dude, who, rather than trying to live well without money is utterly obsessed with the fact that he has none, and uses it as an excuse to push people away from him, rather than trying to find anything deeper and better from life. He completely refuses to allow anyone to lend him money or buy him dinner, and yet when he finally gets a bit of money (which, for a supposedly unmaterialistic man he gets a bit too excited about for my liking) he acts like a complete twat and instead of blaming himself he once again blames money. He's completely exasperating and not in a 'ooh, he's so hot and sexy when he's all angry' way, but in a 'why the fuck are you being such a dick, just take that job you don't want and be happy, you utter moron!' way.

Because, oh yes, he does have a job waiting for him that would basically instantly pull him out of poverty, but he doesn't want it because... that would mean he would have money and that would mean he would have a chance to be happy (not because money makes you happy, but because poverty definitely doesn't) and he's basically just a pig-headed idiot. The only real saving grace of the whole thing though, is that it is quite clear that this is also the way Orwell feels about him- that he kind of contradicts himself continually, by wanting to disregard money whilst also being obsessed with it. I actually kind of got the impression that Gordon was possibly not unlike Orwell at a certain stage in his life, although I don't really have any evidence for that- the sort of struggling writer thing was a bit of an indication, but I could be really wrong about this...

Anyway, ignoring Gordon (because he's really annoying), I did like Rosemary, his pragmatic and totally feminist girlfriend (she wants to pay for him sometimes so they can actually, you know, do stuff, but he refuses to let her because he's a dick) and his rich friend Ravelston, who tries to be a socialist, but pretty much fails because he's rich- but he's still lovely, if a bit ineffectual. What either of them is doing around Gordon is never really discussed, but he must have charms beyond what Orwell goes into, since, when he is really down and out, they refuse to let him sink to the depths he actually wants to descend to: "Going to the devil isn't as easy as it sounds. Sometimes your salvation hunts you down like the Hound of Heaven." It's just up for debate whether the reader really wants them to...

Well, look at that. I've managed to go through a whole review without managing aspidistras! An aspidistra is a plant that looks like this (I didn't know this before I google-imaged it, so I had a completely different plant in mind while I was reading):
But anyway, the point of the aspidistra is that it represents the sort of middle class, settled, 'money-worshipping' life that Gordon despises and fears. But here's my problem with him- SPOILER once he does finally settle down, he immediately goes out and gets an aspidistra! It's like he can't see a middle way between being obsessed with money, and shunning money entirely, so he's kind of got to be miserable whatever path he takes. It made me grrrrrr a fair bit the whole way through END SPOILER. So yeah, aspidistras are a big, albeit frustrating, symbol of settling.

I feel like I've been overwhelmingly negative about this book, and I don't think that's necessarily reflective of how I felt while I was reading it. Whilst Gordon did frustrate me terribly, I don't think that you have to love a character to enjoy a book, and while I didn't love Gordon at all, I did think he was reflective of a certain kind of self-defeating personality, that won't let themselves be happy if it means having to make an effort at something they might not massively want to do. He's also a lousy poet. On the whole, I would actually say that I liked this better than A Clergyman's Daughter, even though I liked the protagonist a lot less, and rooted against him almost exclusively. Don't we all need to do that every once in a while though?


  1. "It doesn't help, with Keep the Aspidistra Flying, that the main character, Gordon, is a complete and utter dick."


    Also, about Orwell possibly having acted like that at some point -- prooobably? I think it's natural to look back at how one previously thought/acted and, if it was obviously idiotically, then to want to prevent others from making that mistake. This is how I look at me at the age 13. Sooo stupid was I.

    Also I totes get what you're saying about reading too many of his books in close succession and then getting a bit sick of his style. That happened to me with Dickens. I had to read an absurdist novel after my Dickens course because I was insanely sick of Victorian literary rules.

  2. I'm kind of actually thinking now that maybe Orwell doesn't hate Gordon, and really thinks everyone should be all grumpy and weird like him... just some things I read that made me think that he might think that actually everyone should be like that... which is scary.

    Also, aaaaaargh Dickens. Can't actually deal with him but I'm pretty sure I should finish one of his novels one day...