"You Can Still Beat Life By Turning Your Face Away"
Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
Most people know George Orwell for his essays or his political allegories (Animal Farm and 1984). But before either of those he was a novelist and poet. Reflecting on his beginnings, Orwell wrote:
I wrote my first poem at the age of four or five, my mother taking it down to dictation. I cannot remember anything about it except that it was about a tiger and the tiger had ‘chair-like teeth’ – a good enough phrase, but I fancy the poem was a plagiarism of Blake’s ‘Tiger, Tiger’. . . From time to time, when I was a bit older, I wrote bad and usually unfinished ‘nature poems’ in the Georgian style.
(Why I Write, George Orwell)
Some of Orwell’s most charming essays were about the natural world—toads, fishing, owls, summer, elephants. You also see his awe for nature in his first novels: Burmese Days paints the oppressive heat of the tropics in thick descriptions, while Keep the Aspidistra Flying’s most arresting passages occur in the countryside, such as when Orwell describes a clump of autumnal beech trees: “Nothing grew at their roots, but the dried leaves were strewn so thickly that in the distance the slopes looked like folds of copper-coloured silk.”
The characters of this novel, however, live thoroughly de-natured lives. Packed into cramped tenements along the oily River Thames, they dwell, as Jacques Ellul had it, “in a lunar world of stone, cement, asphalt, glass, cast iron, and steel.” While they appreciate the idea of nature, they have no understanding of or relationship with it, save in these brief little day-trips out of the city, which are becoming increasingly unavailable because unaffordable. Orwell muses on this contradiction within poetry:
But how absurd that even now, in the era of central heating and tinned peaches, a thousand so-called poets are still writing in the same strain! For what difference does spring or winter or any other time of year make to the average civilized person nowadays? . . . It was a different matter in the Middle Ages. There was some sense in writing poems about spring when spring meant fresh meat and green vegetables after months of frowsting in some windowless hut on a diet of salt fish and mouldy bread.
The only “nature” to be found in the city are the little houseplants in everyone’s apartments, chief among them the aspidistra. A hardy perennial (i.e. it re-grows every year), the aspidistra was popular with the Victorians for its ability to grow in basically any environment—including dark, damp, sooty rooms.
The novel’s protagonist, Gordon Comstock, despises the aspidistra. He sees it as a symbol of the middle-class surrender to “the money God,” which has woven itself into every facet of life. Rather than join the rat-race, Comstock fancies that he might somehow avoid it by plunging downwards instead towards failure; he would face the money God head-on, even if it destroyed him.
Above all, Orwell is a writer fascinated with the muck and squalor of everyday living. His early novels are worldly and dominated by their overt social criticism. This puts them at odds with the natural world occasionally glimpsed within. Nature’s beauty grows from a sense of its remoteness from and indifference to the struggles of human life. Orwell never had the heart to write about its beauty in this way; he is not cruel enough to let nature overshadow the messy passions of his characters. When Comstock travels into the English countryside, nature’s sublime never impresses upon him. It only serves as a point of juxtaposition, drawing attention back to the degraded terms of the life he must serve in the city he loathes.
Comstock’s whole being is lived within and exhausted by his rage against money. He sees money as undermining the dignity of all human relations: work, marriage, love, and friendship. To spite it, he quits a cushy copywriting job to work in a bookshop. There he wastes his days, getting worked up about advertisements, and ridiculing the customers in his head: “A lean, straight-nosed, brisk woman, with sensible clothes and gold-pimmed pince-nez – schoolmarm possibly, feminist certainly – came in and demanded Mrs Wharton-Beverley’s history of the suffrage movement. With secret joy Gordon told her that they hadn’t got it.”
These are the funniest passages of a quite funny novel, but they also show how pathetic Comstock really is. His only recourse in a world beyond his control is to withdraw into himself. Yet in turning away from his friends and from society, he only ensures his own demise; his failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, his helplessness learned. One even suspects the integrity of Comstock’s beliefs. Though he welcomes every setback which befalls him, he endures them only through the expectation they will one day repay him in literary inspiration (Comstock is a minor poet) and thus fame and money.
In the course of things he publishes a poem and gets a bunch of money for it, which he immediately splurges with the only two people in his life, girlfriend Rosemary and publisher-friend Ravelston. The irony is that his obsessive hate for money only gives it more control over him. Rather than using his money prudentially—say, to get to the point in his life where he no longer has to forsake his principles—he burns through it all as soon as he has it. Acting sensibly is simply not an option; that would imply a rapprochement with the money God.
Things get worse for Comstock. After getting booked for a drunk and disorderly, he loses his job and has to move to a neighbourhood on the absolute bottom-rung of society. If he falls any lower, he will be homeless. Yet he obtains a perverse satisfaction in these new, grinding surroundings:
It was a place where you could be happy, in a sluttish way. To spend your days in meaningless mechanical work, work that could be slovened through in a sort of coma... He never made his bed properly, but just turned back the sheets, and never washed his few crocks till all of them had been used twice over. There was a film of dust on everything. There was always a greasy frying-pan and a couple of plates coated with the remnants of fried eggs and a couple of plates coated with the remnants of fried eggs. One night the bugs came out of the cracks and marched across the ceiling two by two. He lay on his bed, his hands under his head, watching them with interest... Life had beaten him; but you can still beat life by turning your face away.
This novel’s progression is Comstock’s acquiescence of society. Nearly thirty—“and already rather moth-eaten”—the man simply refuses to grow up. No-one was ever handed a life so perfect or effortless. Comstock’s mistake is believing that this absolves him of his failures, in thinking that he can somehow find love and friendship entirely on his own terms, wholly outside the society he hates. He can’t, and his failure to accept this corrodes his capacity to live.
Some books are worth reading for the insight they give into a period. Keep the Aspidistra Flying gives you that powerful sense that the people of the past were not so different from us. Indeed, this book shows us that life then was disturbingly similar to life now: people still want to escape the city and be among nature (with no real idea of what that would entail); they still buy and kill ridiculous numbers of houseplants (monsteras and succulents, rather than aspidistras); they have the same middle-class dreams of a family and a house (or a dog and an apartment); they have a secret dislike of smug feminists and middle-class hypocrites; and they love to whinge about work while saving up to splurge their hard-earned money on the fruits of the growth economy. Yet despite all this, the world does not end; the sun also rises, and life carries on. That is Gordon Comstock’s lesson.