Literary modernism has a fraught relationship with humanity. There is a tendency to concentrate on the negative aspects of modernity, at the expense of the great advances we have made. In this formulation, the twentieth century was the century of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, not the double helix and antiobiotics. In 1920 Georg Lukacs described the novel as “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God”; George Orwell, meanwhile, wrote of Joyce’s Ulysses, “here is life without God. Just look at it!”.
Near the end of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock, wandering the streets of London while pondering what to do about his pregnant girlfriend, thinks:
He looked up and down the graceless street. Yes, war is coming soon. You can’t doubt it when you see the Bovex ads. The electric drills in our streets presage the rattle of the machine-guns. Only a little while before the aeroplanes come. Zoom — bang! A few tons of T.N.T. to send our civilization back to hell where it belongs.The novel was published in 1936 and set in 1935, but both author and character are already clear that war is coming. Gordon reflects on this: “A curious thought had struck him. He did not any longer want that war to happen. It was the first time in months — years, perhaps — that he had thought of it and not wanted it.” This ambivalence about the nature of modernity and the future of humanity is instructive, suggestive of a deepening concern about our progress.
This, then, is the backdrop to a particularly sour novel. Although class remains to this day an issue in the UK – the Eton elite running their old boys’ network in government demonstrate that eloquently – it is impossible to comprehend the extent to which it dominated ordinary life in the 1930s. Gordon’s world is narrow and bigoted and wholly unpleasant and it informs his beliefs to a high degree. He is obsessed with the evil “Money God” which “dominates all aspects of life” and consequently dominates every aspect of this novel, too. We are told:
What he realised, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success.So we are back in the godless world Orwell identified in Joyce but as well as godless it appears soulless. The result is unedifying. Symbolic of the brutality of modern life is the aspidistra:
It was about this time that he came across The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and read about the starving carpenter who pawns everything but sticks to his aspidistra. The aspidistra became a sort of symbol for Gordon after that. The aspidistra, the flower of England! It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn. There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.Money and class and decency thus become inextricably linked, and Gordon’s obsession grows to an unhealthy degree. He tells his girlfriend, Rosemary: "Don't you see that a man's whole personality is bound up with his income? His personality is his income. How can you be attractive to a girl when you've got no money?"
He refuses to conform. He “declares war” on money and refuses to allow it to rule his life the way it does everyone else’s. For this reason he gives up a good job in an advertising agency and instead works in a lowly paid bookshop. He is always profoundly short of money, counting out the pennies and the cigarettes until pay day, but he absolutely refuses to accept charity, other than borrowing from his long-suffering sister, Julia. This stubborness reaches its nadir during a day out with his girlfriend, Rosemary. He has very little money but Rosemary wants to go into the countryside for the day so they take a train out to Burnham Beaches. Unable to find a country pub in which to have lunch, they end up in an upmarket and expensive hotel and, because Gordon cannot bring himself to ask for something cheap, they end up buying from the ruinously expensive menu. This wipes out all of Gordon’s money and, because he refuses to allow Rosemary to pay for anything, they have no money for the return rail fare.
When Gordon does come into money, after one of his poems is bought by an American journal, it leads to disaster. His obsessions overwhelms him and he ends up blowing the whole £10 (two or three months’ wages) in one ghastly evening, getting outrageously drunk, attacking Rosemary, going with a prostitute and getting arrested for assaulting a policeman. His subsequent conviction results in him losing his job and his life spirals further downwards into squalor and penury.
All of this is told with a brutal inevitability and it causes a significant weakness in the novel. Gordon is such an unpleasant and self-obsessed person it is impossible to believe that Rosemary, an intelligent and self-assured woman, would remain with him. His behaviour is appalling. Indeed, in the aftermath of the disastrous night out he sexually assaults her. Yet, this is never even alluded to again. Instead, Orwell must continue with his plot in order to conclude his deliberations on money and the abject nature of modernity. It is overplayed. There is a didacticism about it which becomes unconvicing. The characters behave according to type, and their actions feel designed to force the narrative rather than deriving from any sense of realism.
Orwell apparently disliked this novel (although I am always wary of accepting writers’ opinions of their own works – Faulkner famously dismissed Sanctuary as a “terrible” potboiler, for example, although he knew perfectly well it was anything but). Indeed, Orwell professed to be “ashamed” of Keep the Aspidistra Flying because it was written purely because he was “desperate for money”. I think it is genuinely flawed because its thematic concerns become excessively laboured. It is almost the reverse of Steinbeck: Steinbeck is generally accused of sentimentality in his projections of human nature; in this novel, Orwell takes the opposite extreme. Somewhere between the two one might reach a genuine understanding of human nature and modernity. The result will not be wholly positive, but nor will it be as bleak as modern novelists have a tendency to suggest, and as we are presented with in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.