Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Aspidistras Fall. Hard. Keep The Aspidistra Flying Is A Dismal Novel.

The Good: It's short! Good dialog.
The Bad: A Pointless protagonist, slow pace, Lack of emotion.
The Basics: Uninspired, listless and counter-logical, Keep The Aspidistra Flyiung is not the ideal Orwell novel to read.

George Orwell has several redeeming traits. He's an excellent social commentator and his mastery of satire is pretty much unmatched in the literature of the first half of the last century. Look at his works like Animal Farm and 1984 and try to make the argument that he wasn't tapping into essential fears most every person has against government. I personally believe that his writing on the wound he received when shot is one of the best autobiographical descriptions to ever grace the page. In short, Orwell is a talented writer with a lot going for him.

Unfortunately, none of these traits comes out in Keep The Aspidistra Flying. In his most socially scathing works (like Animal Farm) Orwell succeeds because he remains focused on the societal elements. Here he shifts to a character - Gordon Comstock - in a quasi-autobiographical novel exploring lower middle-class Britain. The problem is it becomes immediately apparent that he's nowhere near as good a writer on a personal level as he is on a societal level.

To phrase it another way, Orwell excels at creating a whole macrocosm, he can set a reader down in a version of a world and get the reader immersed in it. He's a writer who would be ideal for the movies, actually. But in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, he attempts to create an individual and instead, there is a lifeless shell. Gordon Comstock never comes even remotely close to alive.

Orwell creates believable dialog but fails in creating an interesting or even remotely empathetic character. Gordon Comstock is a writer. While he has not written or published any poetry in some time, he has made his way - as best he can - working in a bookstore. He spends his days in a dreary existence selling every book but his and being miserable about it. At night he returns to a little apartment where he comes up with excuses not to write. The high point of the novel is a trip he takes with his girlfriend - who believes in him only like a simplified woman of the literature of yore could - to the country.

The essential problem in Gordon Comstock is not his insistence in remaining outside the material business world in an attempt to keep his art pure. In fact, his resistance to "legitimate" paying work is a noble, well presented Quixotic quest. The failure of it is while Comstock resists materialism, he fails to create art afterward. The typical night had Gordon lamenting about how he can't write because he is so poor. Rather than using the time afforded him by not being terribly well employed or having a job that he leaves at work, he comes home and laments about money. It's a disappointment in that Orwell's talent is alluded to but never realized in Gordon.

In fact, Orwell's message here is more murky than most any other work of his; it seems to be about the crushing nature of capitalism. Art vs. capitalism. Good idea. Yet, Orwell seems to be saying - through Comstock's inability to produce even when away from work - that it is a futile quest. Given the end of the novel, it's possible Orwell is even saying that the fight is not worth the effort.

At the very least, this interpretation seems to go contrary to Orwell's life. At best, it's a complete downer for anyone with a dream.

There are better Orwell novels that would be a better use of your time. There are certainly other works of his with a more concrete, or useful, message.

For other classic works, please check out my reviews of:
The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand
Portnoy's Complaint - Philip Roth
Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name - Audre Lorde


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. I feel sorry for you that out can't enjoy such a great book. personally I found Gordon a very easy character to like, and he feels very much alive particularly with his almost stupid hypocrisies makes him seem more human and by extension more engaging to the reader and would never say he was a "pointless protagonist".

  2. Different strokes! Truth be told, I wrote and reviewed this years ago and I've never wanted to go back to it. I seldom give a book I panned a second try! I recall the book being homogenously depressing, though.

    Thanks so much for reading and thanks for the comment!