I was in high school. The assignment was 1984. An Orwell anthology, still smelling like the public library, lay on my desk like some hardbound Bible. Awed by the pile of pages, I teased my way toward the assignment while reading bits and pieces from the collateral books. And then I stumbled across the opening lines of Keep the Aspidistra Flying:
“The clock struck half past two. In the little office at the back of Mr. McKechnie’s bookshop, Gordon—Gordon Comstock, last member of the Comstock family, aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already—lounged across the table, pushing a fourpenny packet of Player’s Weights open and shut with his thumb.”
And somehow, that was it. Three days later, I’d devoured Aspidistra and made no progress on my assignment. Something of the grit and chill of pre-war London had crept from the book and settled in my young bones. Child that I was then, I knew nothing of poverty, or art—had not even imagined the pressures of keeping rent in the hand, food in the belly. I did not know money then.
Nevertheless, when I first read Aspidistra, it became my favorite book; Orwell, my favorite author. I barely understood the work on a conscious level—when asked, I described it as a book about a man who tries to live without money, and fails. The book was really heady, I’d say, because Orwell seemed to defy his own socialist political beliefs.
God knows who taught me to talk about Orwell’s socialism, but that’s what I’d say. I thought the book was about politics.
Aspidistra is actually quite nearly autobiographical, in many ways being a fictional response to Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell’s account of his own intentional descent into poverty. Orwell describes Gordon’s first, abortive attempt to “escape success” as an editorial on his own experience: “The first effect of poverty is that it kills thought. […] You do not escape from money merely by being moneyless. On the contrary, you are the hopeless slave of money until you have enough of it to live on.”
In college, I convinced several friends to read the book. Some liked it; most didn’t. A close friend, after reading it, told me he enjoyed it—but it was surprisingly crude, distastefully raw. This critique was often repeated, and wasn’t unique to my friends. The Guardian describes Aspidistra as “savagely satirical;” Goodreads.com describes it as “darkly compassionate” and “grinding.” The front of the book itself includes a snippet from a Time review calling it “gritty, growling.”
As time went on, I inclined to agree—but I held fast to the book, regardless. Orwell’s point was true, after all. We can’t live without money. We don’t cast off success when it’s offered to us. Whether we’re college kids accepting jobs, or mid-career bureaucrats accepting promotion, we cow to money and success. Gordon calls money the “only real religion—the only really felt religion,” and he may be closer to the mark than we want to admit. Christians often go for it much the same as atheists.
Aspidistra remained my favorite book until sometime after college. And yet, for all the debates and headaches I’d had over it, I hadn’t ever re-read Aspidistra.
So I read it again over the past couple weeks. And as I read, I thought of all the Art I’ve chased and never quite accomplished; I saw all my grimy, cold, hungry nights in grad school as though they were pulled straight from those pages. I thought of the years spent working part-time jobs with a graduate degree, writing bad, bitter poetry. I watched Gordon struggle against the money-god, and lose—so blissfully lose—and thought of how I, too, surrendered at the first opportunity.
There is a ragged morality in Aspidistra, one I carried from my high school desk to the roof of my first apartment after college. I was an artist then, in some weak sense. I wrote poetry and played in bands; I rarely had money for a full meal. Like Gordon, my poverty was somewhat intentional—I could have worked another job, but preferred my long, impoverished evenings in my dingy room overlooking the city, alone with my thoughts and cigarettes.
From this ragged, bitter place, I found membership in a silent brotherhood: one of the teeming masses who earnestly pursue art, and never really achieve it. More Gordon Comstock than John Keats, I found myself one of those many men with a basement full of unfinished paintings, a sheaf of unfinished poems.
And yet—“It occurred to him that he was merely repeating the destiny of every human being. Everyone rebels against the money-code, and everyone sooner or later surrenders. […] Did they know that they were only puppets dancing when money pulled the strings? You bet they didn’t. And if they did, what would they care? They were too busy being born, being married, begetting, working, dying.”
For all the politics, all the poverty, all the struggled art, all the grit and grime of 1930s London, Orwell’s story here completes a quite familiar arc. All is vanity, then, after all—and there is nothing new under the sun.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell (1934), $11.
Pages: 248 / 7,810 (Total pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus)