Monday, October 7, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“KEEP THE ASPIDISTRA FLYING” by George Orwell (first published in 1936)

            I suppose it is the fate of some novelists to be known for only one or two of their many works. Except among specialists, this certainly seems to be the fate of “George Orwell” (Eric Arthur Blair 1903-50). His political fable Animal Farm and his dystopian 1984 have probably been republished many times more than all the rest of his output combined, and have given the world words and phrases like “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad”, “All Animals Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others”, “Big Brother is Watching You”, “thought crime” and “doublespeak”.
            If people use the term “Orwellian”, it is always of these, Orwell’s last two works, that they are thinking.

            But this really distorts our view of Orwell’s literary career. For most of the 1930s, his novels were largely exercises in realism, with some brief nods to modernist experimentalism (Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up For Air) and he devoted almost as much energy to social and political reportage as he did to fiction (Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia). Collections of his journalism and occasional articles are probably almost as often read as Animal Farm and 1984, and are much better known than his other novels.

            Whenever I read Orwell, I am struck by his very Englishness. In a whole lot of ways, his 1930s novels seem in direct line of descent from Dickens and from one of his literary heroes George Gissing [look him up on the index at right]. Orwell is angry at the shortcomings of England and its complacent middle-class; but then he is half in love with them too, especially when he looks around the world and sees some of the alternatives on offer.

            I think this ambiguity is well expressed in what I regard as his best novel from the 1930s, Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

            It was written when Orwell was about thirty, so rather inevitably it has a hero of about the same age, Gordon Comstock.

            Comstock is a poet who has had one slim volume published, but who is determined to pursue a career in literature. So he gives up his safe and well-paid job as a copywriter in an advertising agency, determined to devote himself to poetry. He despises those who worship money and respectability. The novel’s epigraph is a parody of the verses in Corinthians about “Charity” [Love], except with the word “Charity” replaced with “Money” to suggest the present world’s religious obsession with the stuff.

            To pay the rent, Gordon finds a position as a bookshop assistant. But it is lowly paid, so he is sometimes helped out by his sister Julia, who struggles through life as a waitress. Gordon’s wealthy friend Ravelston is the archetypal “parlour pink” (i.e. “Remuera Radical” or “Wadestown Wadical”) – an aristocratic socialist and patron of poets and arty little magazines, who sometimes pushes money Gordon’s way out of a sense of guilt. Gordon’s girlfriend Rosemary would definitely be happy if Gordon returned to respectability and a secure income, but she doesn’t nag him about it.

            Gordon gets one small material break. An American publisher sends him a handsome cheque for some poetry. Thinking he can now make a living from his writing, Gordon proceeds to blow the money on an expensive restaurant meal. After a spectacular bender, where he drunkenly hits a policeman, he just avoids a jail sentence, but he is sacked from his job in the bookshop for the scandal he has caused. Ravelston finds him another job, at lower pay, with a seedier bookseller in a slummier part of London.

            Gordon sinks lower down the social scale, finds he just can’t write poetry, and resigns himself greyly to living at the slum level…. whereupon he gets his girlfriend Rosemary pregnant, decides that there is something worth living for after all, agrees to marry Rosemary and take up responsibilities as a family man, and happily resumes both respectability and his well-paid job at the advertising agency.

            End of novel.

            Throughout, the aspidistra is the symbol of middle-class respectability. Not being English, I am one of those who has to look up the internet to be told that this hardy pot-plant, which can live with very little watering and fresh air, was once a staple of English middle-class parlours and hence represents the English middle-class as handily as the cloth cap represents the working class. English working class people with social pretensions sometimes had aspidistras too (hence the cheerful double entendre music hall song “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World”). And, as well as promoting the virtues of middle-class endurance, Orwell’s title is also a cheeky riposte to the socialist “Keep the Red Flag Flying”.

            Like 1984 and indeed like the majority of Orwell’s novels, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is written in the third-person limited style. We see things through the consciousness of Gordon Comstock alone, although the author shies from completely identifying with him. The detailed descriptions of what is seedy, slummy, grimy and foul are most redolent of Orwell’s literary master Gissing. For some readers, the abrupt “happy ending”, however, could be very hard to take, with Gordon Comstock suddenly embracing everything that he has despised for most of the novel.

            Or perhaps it is not really that improbable.

            There is, after all, a recurrent motif in Orwell’s work of the (lower) middle-class chap that Orwell was, taking an exploratory look at the social orders beneath the one into which he had been born, and then returning to base. I do not say this in any derogatory sense. I am fully aware that Orwell was often sneered at and criticised by doctrinaire members of the more extreme Left. They resented the man who blew the whistle on their daydreams and pointed out that Stalinism was no improvement on serfdom. They were particularly offended by his truthful reportage on how the Left was helping to destroy itself in the Spanish Civil War. Such people like to present Orwell as the Eton-educated tourist who merely pretended to be down-and-out in Paris and London for a few months; looked at industrial Wigan with a publisher’s contract in his pocket; and sometimes had a wealthy patron. The inference is that he didn’t know real poverty and didn’t have the true proletarian credentials of his critics. But this misses the acuteness of Orwell’s observations, not to mention the essential humanity of his vision (the sequence in The Road to Wigan Pier about the woman unblocking a drain with a stick comes to mind).

            Even so, it must be admitted that Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying doesn’t really fall all that low socially. Working as a bookshop assistant, even in a seedy bookshop, isn’t exactly the lowest one can fall; and the incident that causes Gordon to lose his respectability (punching the policeman) is one that would be shrugged off by really hardened sons of toil.

            There are passages in the novel which remind me of the angry tirades of the intemperate Richard Aldington in his Death of a Hero. Orwell sometimes lets Gordon Comstock give way to strident dyspeptic raves against literary fashions (the novel’s opening, which describes the contents of a bookshop), wealthy litterateurs posing as proletarians, advertising and money-consciousness. Despite the third-person voice and conscious literary framing, there are times when the author is not sufficiently distanced from his main character.

            Even so, there are some essential things in this novel that ring true to me. One is the situation of the poet constantly wondering if anything he does has any real value, in a world that is already choked with slim volumes. The second is the notion of a man being galvanised by the prospect of becoming a father. Am I allowed to say that I often experience the former and I do remember the latter, unfashionable subject for literature though it may now be?

            A final comment on the novel itself. Gentle modern souls might scold Orwell for the way he has Comstock routinely refer to homosexuals as “nancys”, especially in the opening chapter. And there may be some angry feminists who wonder why Gordon and Rosemary didn’t solve the problem of her pregnancy by arranging an abortion – although if they do think along these lines, they will probably have not understood either Orwell’s scale of values or where the novel has been heading in the first place, let alone the moral landscape of 1936.

            Now, skipping away from the novel itself, I refer to the two substantial biographies of Orwell I have on my shelves – Bernard Crick’s George Orwell: A Life (1980) and D.J.Taylor’s slightly more critical Orwell: The Life (2005). Both confirm that, although Orwell never fancied himself as a poet, much of Gordon Comstock’s bookshop experience was autobiographical, and drawn from Orwell’s own time behind the counter of an arty bookshop in the early 1930s. They also note that at the time Orwell was writing the novel, he was courting and about to marry his first wife, so the final epiphany of Gordon Comstock would have been near to his own heart.

            More amusingly, though, there is the knowledge that the novel’s wealthy left-wing patron of the arts Ravelston was based on the aristocrat Sir Richard Rees, who did help Orwell financially when he was broke, but whose large unearned income was still a source of annoyance to the struggling Orwell. Why this amuses me is because I also have on my shelf an admiring literary study of Orwell called George Orwell: Fugitive From the Camp of Victory which Richard Rees had published in 1961, a decade after Orwell’s death. In it, Rees gamely gives a six-page analysis of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but somehow never gets to mention that he himself figures in it.

Semi-Relevant Footnote: Sorry about this, but yet again I have to mention a novel’s film connections. Keep the Aspidistra Flying was filmed in 1997 with the long-faced Richard E. Grant as Gordon Comstock and Helena Bonham-Carter as Rosemary. In America it was released under the title A Merry War (a phrase from the novel referring to the battle of the sexes) for the obvious reason that Americans couldn’t be expected to get the aspidistra reference. But apparently it was released in New Zealand under that title too. We are out of touch with England, aren’t we? Anyway, having watched it on DVD, I think it is a decent enough dramatization of a novel that doesn’t have a great deal of external action or plot development. Inevitably it misses most of Gordon’s internal mutterings and protests, which are so important to the novel. Indeed, given its rather syrupy soundtrack music and ending, much of the film comes close to being light romantic comedy. The film’s Gordon is simply eccentric and self-dramatizing (Richard E. Grant being flamboyant as usual) where the novel’s Gordon is genuinely bitter and an “angry young man” twenty years before the term was invented. My teenage children found the film boring. A little research tells me it got some quite positive reviews in the USA (especially from Roger Ebert and the New York Times), but I do not know how much business it did. 

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