Dual Book Review: Keep The Aspidistra Flying and Down and out in Paris and London, both by George Orwell

I stumbled on ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’ while browsing audiobooks on Overdrive, a library partnered app that lends out e- and audio- books. I recognized the author, George Orwell, but not the title. I figured it would be a good put-me-to-sleep tome so I downloaded it and spent the next weeks being frustrated, baffled, bored, and confused by turns.

We all know Orwell’s dystopian novels but they’re set in fantastical places that we can only imagine. Aspidistra is set in London between the two great wars and follows the dismal life of Gordon Comstock as he lives a ridiculous life warring against ‘The Money God’.

He’s come up with this idea that middle class people are miserable because they worship this idea of ‘respectable money’ and ‘good jobs’ and without those things, they look down on you. He chooses to fight ‘The Money God’ by eschewing his well paid position as an ad man to work as a poorly paid clerk in a book shop. I never did quite figure out what his worldview was but I found his constant hemming and hawing over money incredibly irritating.

You see, Gordon is exactly the kind of poor person that conservatives think of when they think of poor people. He’s not stupid and he could make more money, but he chooses poverty and then complains about it pretty much every minute of every day. He complains to his best friend who is reasonably wealthy but can’t bear to talk about money because it’s not respectable to do so. He complains about it to his long suffering girlfriend who won’t have sex with him because she’s not ready but he blames his poverty. He essentially makes everyone around him as miserable as himself and then blames his lack of money and everyone else’s respectability for his misery.

The Aspidistra in the title is a hardy houseplant that was common at the time because it could withstand not only the variance in temperature but also the crummy indoor air quality caused by coal and gas heating. Gordon sees it as a symbol of the middle class clutching at respectability and worship of the money God and so he despises it everywhere he sees it, which is really everywhere.

The story follows his internal monologue as he berates his girlfriend for not sleeping with him until she finally gives in, he comes into enough money to pay his sister back and treat his friends to a nice dinner and proceeds instead to blow it on booze and food, sexually assault his girlfriend, hook up with a prostitute who steals the money he was supposed to return to his sister, and punch a police man.
This event lands him in jail, he loses his job, loses his ‘respectable’ housing, and ends up even poorer than he started. And he revels in it. Finally he’s escaped the worship of The Money God and he gets to wallow in his own filth and read trash all day instead of anything intellectually stimulating. His friends try to rescue him from his self created hell but to him, it’s heaven. 

At this point in the story I’m furious. He’s screwed over everyone who cares about him and it’s no ones fault but his own because there’s literally an easy, well paying job waiting for him to take it this entire time and his pathetic high mindedness means he’d rather live in squalor and boredom. What a pathetic shit. His girlfriend even finally sleeps with him to prove her love but she leaves him as she found him: dirty, smelly, and stupid.

And she gets knocked up.

Which then turns his entire life around and he takes the job, marries her, and moves into a nice lodging house and lives happily ever after. With an aspidistra in the window sill.

What the Fuck, Orwell!?! I’m pretty sure this isn’t actually a happy ending? I mean, it sounds ok; guy gets girl, they start a family, he’s deliriously happy… But his new life as the reader leaves him doesn’t fit his ideology. How is he happy?

I was so confused by this book that I suggested it for my next book club session and I’m very curious to see how my friends feel about this book. I felt such strong anger when he tried to rape his girlfriend and when his own form of money obsession ruined his life but my relief at his eventual redemption was confused. Taking into account the dystopian nature of his other works, I can’t imagine that it’s not a cautionary tale of a man shoving his principles under the rug in order to live a superficially happy life.

I finished Aspidistra so unsatisfied that I had to pick up another Orwell so I started his autobiographical Down and out in Paris and London which shed some light on all three of his other works I’ve now read (1984 and Animal Farm, of course). Orwell lived as a tramp and a pauper for a few months in his twenties. He had served in the army and was living ok when someone stole most of what little he had and suddenly he went from what we would think of as paycheck to paycheck to what we think of as straight up homeless.

The book covers the two or three months between the theft and a new job in London that pulled him from poverty but in that time he worked as a dishwasher in a Parisian hotel restaurant, tried some scams, lived as a tramp in and around London, and describes in detail what it feels like to be truly penniless.

Aside from the eye opening descriptions of the physical conditions of poverty, Orwell includes some philosophical ideas around work and the lack thereof, what it feels like to accept charity, and the kinds of men and women stuck in poverty and homelessness and why the middle and upper classes don’t like them. It helped me understand a little better why he wrote some of the other books and where he was coming from when he dreamed up these stories.

I also saw a few quotes I liked and one in particular that I felt resonated with the cause of Sex Workers Rights:

“He (the blue collar working man) is kept at work ultimately because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him.

This could very easily be said of anti-prostitution activists on both liberal and conservative sides. They know nothing about us, our lives, and our clients and are thus afraid of all of it. As you’ll see in my coming review of ‘The Bonobo and the Atheist’ I believe fervently in the underlying goodness of humans and that simple, kind, nonjudgemental education can save the world. It’s getting it simple, easy, and nonjudgemental that will be the hard part.

In summary: both of these novels are reasonably short and easy to read and they made me think in ways I hadn’t quite before. Orwell, as we all know, is a phenomenal writer and shares with us a valuable glimpse into a life many of my readers have never known and hopefully never will in the future.