Keep the Aspidistra Flying
George Orwell, 1936

Gordon Comstock, a rising star in the London advertising world, finds the rat race so unbearable that he quits his job, ostensibly in order to concentrate on his poetry. But the wages provided by his new job as a bookstore clerk are just barely enough to pay for his studio apartment and for meals of bread and margarine. Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a portrait of a man who isn't down and out, exactly, but is living in "respectable poverty": his basic physical needs met, but with no room to spare, and suffering from the mental toll of never having anything extra.

This one's pretty good — the best of the four Orwell novels I've read this year. At first it looked like it was going to be more of the same, as it starts at the bookstore and ridicules everyone who walks in. But it turns out that things are a little different. There are two main narrative voices in Aspidistra: a sort of essayist voice which is independent of Comstock, and then another one, the one that is usually active, which is filtered through Comstock's consciousness and is therefore unreliable. For instance, one of the main characters in the book is a wealthy friend of Comstock's, a socialist named Ravelston who runs a literary magazine. He is described as a parody of rich liberal guilt. But if you ignore the narrator's dismissive remarks and concentrate on what Ravelston actually says and does, it becomes clear that in fact he's extremely admirable: generous, sympathetic, loyal. Comstock's opinion of his girlfriend Rosemary is no higher than his opinion of Ravelston — lower, in fact, since he's a misogynist — and yet she proves to be as close to a saint as a human can realistically be. So while it's still largely a story about the miserable bastard of a protagonist shitting on these good people, that's much better than populating the book exclusively with bad people in order for the miserable bastard of a narrator to shit on them.

And speaking of "miserable" — probably what I was most struck by in reading Aspidistra is that today it so obviously falls into a category that might not have seemed so obvious in the 1930s. It seems to want to be a political or at least social novel. I mean, it's got a thesis: that food and shelter is insufficient, that a subsistence lifestyle isn't actually enough to subsist on, that things like vacations and the ability to treat a special someone to dinner occasionally are not luxuries but necessities of any life worth living — and that it really sucks that under capitalism you generally have to spend your days doing something odious in order to be able to afford these necessities. But ultimately, it's not a social novel. It's a psychological novel. Gordon Comstock's reaction to his "respectable poverty" is to find everyone around him contemptible and himself more contemptible still; to take every accidental slight as a grievous wound; to complain endlessly about his problems but never attempt to fix them; to refuse helping hands and lash out at the people offering them; to fall apart, to spend days lying in bed, and to declare that he wants to sink still lower. In short, he becomes depressed. Keep the Aspidistra Flying is basically the narrative version of the depression chapter in a Psych 101 textbook. In 1935 I imagine that most people had not spent their lives immersed in psychological vocabulary to such an extent that Comstock could instantly be placed in a pigeonhole. But this sort of thing is now very, very well-trod ground.

Still, I think Aspidistra, in addition to being a decent page-turner, serves as a valuable reminder that all too often in our political debates we lose sight of the fact that the question that prompts the argument is a very fundamental one: "Can I stand my life?"

Also, it was very interesting, after reading a bunch of books in which the looming specter of World War III hung over everything, to encounter a book in which the looming specter of World War II hangs over everything. Here it's 1935 and Comstock is convinced that in just a few years enemy planes will be bombing London to rubble. It reminded me of something I once read — that depression is the condition of viewing things realistically.

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