This book was a present from a friend of mine who reminds me, in some ways, of Gordon Comstock – the hero of this tale. I’ve read quite a lot of Orwell and have always got a lot out of his books but for some reason I didn’t think I was going to enjoy Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I was wrong though – I’d forgotten just how great Orwell is. The way that he writes people showing off the worst side of themselves – It’s like he’s seen you lying in bed, cutting your toenails. He knows all your shameful secret thoughts.
Gordon Comstock is a man who has taken it upon himself to scorn money and the pressure to have a good job. He is hell-bent on giving his entire life over to the pursuit of nothingness. His goal is to have no worldly ambition. You wouldn’t catch me going out with a man like Gordon – that’s for sure – but he’s somehow managed to snare himself a beautiful, sweet, infinitely patient girlfriend called Rosemary, whom he treats abominably. She refuses to sleep with him and he insists that this is because women are all materialistic shrews at heart. He tortures them both with his obsession with money (and his wilful lack thereof) and she worries herself half to death over him as he sinks deeper and deeper into filth and poverty.
The contrast between Gordon and his wealthy editor friend Ravelston is stark and, despite Ravelston’s best diplomatic efforts, money always comes between them. Determined not to be a sponger, Gordon gets himself in all sorts of ridiculous scrapes, trying to save face in front of both Ravelston and Rosemary and, by the time the book reaches its climax, he has got himself into a very bad way indeed. Watching his life disintegrate before you will make you cringe, I warn you.
Orwell has an incredible way of capturing the petulance, the stubbornness and the vanity of people and that’s what I loved about this book. That’s what I’d forgotten about him. He’s such a good painter of people. He holds a mirror up to everything that is absurd and self-defeating about human nature. Even people who can’t identify with Gordon Comstock will find that some of the cringeworthy moments in Keep the Aspidistra Flying ring true to them. George Orwell writes the everyman – if it’s characterisation you’re after, you can’t do better than him.