Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Orwell’s Rare Happy Ending

 From The Imaginative Conservative:

All of Orwell’s work touches on politics and class structure. He was, in addition to a novelist, a journalist and essayist, primarily concerned with the wrongs in the world and their effect on individuals. With his keen mind and sharp sense of humor, he critiqued, dissected, and roasted authors, readers, the use of the English language, Gandhi, the British Empire, Socialism, Fascism, being a child, etc. He is exceptionally good at splitting hairs, dissecting, with surgical precision, the problems others had got wrong. He is less good at suggesting solutions.

Orwell’s novels are not exactly where you turn when you are looking for uplifting reading with happy endings. The one lesser known exception is his short, bright novel, “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.” I would go as far as to call it charming and delightful. It was published in 1936, following “Down and Out in London and Paris,” “Burmese Days,” and “The Clergyman’s Daughter,” and nine years before “Animal Farm.” It may be fair to consider it the best of his fiction, as it is a marvelous story, unencumbered by analogy and didacticism. It is all sardonic humor and affection for all his characters.

Even more than most of Orwell’s writing, this story offers smooth reading—uncomplicated prose, so exacting and direct that it verbally brings to life scenes in which the words themselves almost disappear. Almost, because his judicial and dexterous use of them elicits a pleasure that often compels the reader to go back to take in a delightful phrase once more. It is, perhaps, not ironic that the protagonist of “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is an aspiring poet.

Gordon Comstock is already twenty nine, the youngest of, and last hope for the Comstock family to make anything of itself. Not one of its members had had any guts, any success. Only his father, among the ten children of the last Comstock to have done anything, had produced any offspring. On Gordon, the younger of his two children—and the only son—was hung the burden of “making good”. He is the end of the Comstock line—an unproductive and dead-in-life family. Fruitless in wealth, accomplishment and progeny, all the family looked to Gordon with expectation and sacrifice. And he resented it.

Gordon had shown promise, too. His older sister was sacrificed so Gordon could be sent to goodish schools. His uncle had secured a “good job” for him. But Gordon despised the English middle-class world into which he was born, where the pursuit of and enslavement to a “good job” seems to be the very purpose of life— respectability as a death sentence. He wanted to be a writer. He aspired to make his mark on the world as a poet. And so, Gordon, selfish and ungrateful, waged war on the money-god.

He left his “good job” writing sales slogans at an advertising agency, and took to subsistence living as a clerk in a bookshop, writing evenings in a rented room of a bachelors-only, lower-middle-class, boarding house. The flagstaff of Middle-class respectability, a potted Aspidistra plant, was stationed in the front window. (Read more.)


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