Ye gods, this was an irritating book.
George Orwell’s 1936 novel is the story of Gordon Comstock. Comstock fancies himself a poet and a writer, no less, living in London in 1935. He published a slim volume of promising verse called – for reasons unlikely to become clear again at the moment – Mice. Comstock lives on two quid a week earned from his post in a bookshop, sponges regularly off of his sister, is beastly to his girl-friend, and associates with – but won’t borrow money from – Ravelston, the well-off editor of a socialist magazine called Antichrist. Comstock gave over a good job at an advertising agency because he has “declared a war on money”, and is determined to live by his writing or sink into the muck. So naturally, he sinks.
It’s almost too awful to have to recount the course of this story, so I won’t. Maybe it irritated me so much because it reminded me of a time in my own life when I thought similarly – fortunately, people were around to tell me that I was being an idiot. Comstock has no such beneficial friend in his circle. If Émile Zola had written Aspidistra, we the readers would at least have had the satisfaction of seeing Comstock be hit by a railway engine and die, or something. But instead, he lives, and [spoiler alert] after much misadventure, debauchery, squalor and still more beastliness, he is redeemed. It’s painful. Comstock is an irritating oik, Rosemary is insipid (but probably the most useful character in the book), and Ravelston is the sort of patrician milksop that one might gleefully imagine having been strung up from a lamppost in a moment of weakness.
In short, this was not the Orwell of prophecy and power and prescience, but one of an earlier, poverty-driven “problem novel”. It does not even have the merit of Down and Out in Paris and London, which was sometimes funny. Well-written? Yes, of course. A bloody nuisance to have to read and finish? Absolu-bloomin’-lutely. I’m sure that when I initially read Keep the Aspidistra Flying, I was simple annoyed by how close it struck to home, but even in retrospect I still have to grit my teeth.
On a separate note, although I own a print copy of this book, I read the Penguin ebook version because it was sent to me as a gift. Here’s what I would advise you, gentle reader: don’t ever, EVER buy Penguin ebooks. This is my third or forth Penguin ebook in a year, and my complaint is the same. They are shabbily OCR-ed, not edited after they’ve been scanned, and consequently full of glaring, irritating, infuriating typographical errors. There were stretches of Aspidistra which literally had errors on EVERY PAGE. The notion that Penguin has the nerve to charge $9 for this digital excrescence makes me want to find some of their senior editors and do unspeakable things to them with hot pokers. Although frankly, that would be too good for them. Get your act together, Penguin!
Originally reviewed 11 April 2012.
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