Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

by George Orwell

Paperback(First Edition)

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Overview


Gordon Comstock is a poor young man who works in a grubby London bookstore and spends his evenings shivering in a rented room, trying to write. He is determined to stay free of the “money world” of lucrative jobs, family responsibilities, and the kind of security symbolized by the homely aspidistra plant that sits in every middle-class British window.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156468992
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 03/19/1969
Series: Harvest Book Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 275,396
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.88(h) x 0.64(d)
Lexile: 790L (what's this?)

About the Author




GEORGE ORWELL (1903–1950) was born in India and served with the Imperial Police in Burma before joining the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was the author of six novels as well as numerous essays and nonfiction works.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

The clock struck half past two. In the little office at the back of Mr. McKechnie's bookshop, Gordon — Gordon Comstock, last member of the Comstock family, aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already — lounged across the table, pushing a fourpenny packet of Player's Weights open and shut with his thumb.

The ding-dong of another, remoter clock — from the Prince of Wales, the other side of the street — rippled the stagnant air. Gordon made an effort, sat upright and stowed his packet of cigarettes away in his inside pocket. He was perishing for a smoke. However, there were only four cigarettes left. To-day was Wednesday and he had no money coming to him till Friday. It would be too bloody to be without tobacco to-night as well as all tomorrow.

Bored in advance by to-morrow's tobaccoless hours, he got up and moved towards the door — a small frail figure, with delicate bones and fretful movements. His coat was out at elbow in the right sleeve and its middle button was missing; his ready-made flannel trousers were stained and shapeless. Even from above you could see that his shoes needed re-soling.

The money clinked in his trouser pocket as he got up. He knew the precise sum that was there. Fivepence halfpenny — twopence halfpenny and a Joey. He paused, took out the miserable little threepenny-bit and looked at it. Beastly, useless thing! And bloody fool to have taken it! It had happened yesterday, when he was buying cigarettes. "Don't mind a threepenny-bit, do you, sir?" the little bitch of a shop-girl had chirped. And of course he had let her give it him. "Oh no, not at all!" he had said — fool, bloody fool!

His heart sickened to think that he had only fivepence halfpenny in the world, threepence of which couldn't even be spent. Because how can you buy anything with a threepenny-bit? It isn't a coin, it's the answer to a riddle. You look such a fool when you take it out of your pocket, unless it's in among a whole handful of other coins. "How much?" you say. "Threepence," the shop-girl says. And then you feel all round your pocket and fish out that absurd little thing, all by itself, sticking on the end of your finger like a tiddleywink. The shopgirl sniffs. She spots immediately that it's your last threepence in the world. You see her glance quickly at it — she's wondering whether there's a piece of Christmas pudding still sticking to it. And you stalk out with your nose in the air, and can't ever go to that shop again. No! We won't spend our Joey. Twopence halfpenny left — twopence halfpenny to last till Friday.

This was the lonely after-dinner hour, when few or no customers were to be expected. He was alone with seven thousand books. The small dark room, smelling of dust and decayed paper, that gave on the office, was filled to the brim with books, mostly aged and unsaleable. On the top shelves near the ceiling the quarto volumes of extinct encylopædias slumbered on their sides in piles like the tiered coffins in common graves. Gordon pushed aside the blue, dust-sodden curtains that served as a doorway to the next room. This, better lighted than the other, contained the lending library. It was one of those "twopenny no-deposit" libraries beloved of book-pinchers. No books in it except novels, of course. And what novels! But that too was a matter of course.

Eight hundred strong, the novels lined the room on three sides ceiling-high, row upon row of gaudy oblong backs, as though the walls had been built of many-coloured bricks laid upright. They were arranged alphabetically. Arlen, Burroughs, Deeping, Dell, Frankau, Galsworthy, Gibbs, Priestley, Sapper, Walpole. Gordon eyed them with inert hatred. At this moment he hated all books, and novels most of all. Horrible to think of all that soggy, half-baked trash massed together in one place. Pudding, suet pudding. Eight hundred slabs of pudding, walling him in — a vault of puddingstone. The thought was oppressive. He moved on through the open doorway into the front part of the shop. In doing so, he smoothed his hair. It was an habitual movement. After all, there might be girls outside the glass door. Gordon was not impressive to look at. He was just five feet seven inches high, and because his hair was usually too long he gave the impression that his head was a little too big for his body. He was never quite unconscious of his small stature. When he knew that anyone was looking at him he carried himself very upright, throwing a chest, with a you-be-damned air which occasionally deceived simple people.

However, there was nobody outside. The front room, unlike the rest of the shop, was smart and expensive-looking, and it contained about two thousand books, exclusive of those in the window. On the right there was a glass show-case in which children's books were kept. Gordon averted his eyes from a beastly Rackhamesque dust-jacket; elvish children tripping Wendily through a bluebell glade. He gazed out through the glass door. A foul day, and the wind rising. The sky was leaden, the cobbles of the street were slimy. It was St. Andrew's day, the thirtieth of November. McKechnie's stood on a corner, on a sort of shapeless square where four streets converged. To the left, just within sight from the door, stood a great elm-tree, leafless now, its multitudinous twigs making sepia-coloured lace against the sky. Opposite, next to the Prince of Wales, were tall hoardings covered with ads for patent foods and patent medicines. A gallery of monstrous doll-faces — pink vacuous faces, full of goofy optimism. Q.T. Sauce Truweet Breakfast Crisps ("Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps"), Kangaroo Burgundy, Vitamalt Chocolate, Bovex. Of them all, the Bovex one oppressed Gordon the most. A spectacled rat-faced clerk, with patent-leather hair, sitting at a café table grinning over a white mug of Bovex. "Corner Table enjoys his meal with Bovex," the legend ran.

Gordon shortened the focus of his eyes. From the dust-dulled pane the reflection of his own face looked back at him. Not a good face. Not thirty yet, but moth-eaten already. Very pale, with bitter, ineradicable lines. What people call a "good" forehead — high, that is — but a small pointed chin, so that the face as a whole was pear-shaped rather than oval. Hair mouse-coloured and unkempt, mouth unamiable, eyes hazel inclining to green. He lengthened the focus of his eyes again. He hated mirrors nowadays. Outside, all was bleak and wintry. A tram, like a raucous swan of steel, glided groaning over the cobbles, and in its wake the wind swept a debris of trampled leaves. The twigs of the elm tree were swirling, straining eastward. The poster that advertised Q.T. Sauce was torn at the edge; a ribbon of paper fluttered fitfully like a tiny pennant. In the side street too, to the right, the naked poplars that lined the pavement bowed sharply as the wind caught them. A nasty raw wind. There was a threatening note in it as it swept over; the first growl of winter's anger. Two lines of a poem struggled for birth in Gordon's mind:

Sharply the something wind — for instance, threatening wind? No, better, menacing wind. The menacing wind blows over — no, sweeps over, say.

The something poplars — yielding poplars? No, better, bending poplars. Assonance between bending and menacing? No matter. The bending poplars, newly bare. Good.

Sharply the menacing wind sweeps overThe bending poplars, newly bare.

Good. "Bare" is a sod to rhyme; however, there's always "air," which every poet since Chaucer has been struggling to find rhymes for. But the impulse died away in Gordon's mind. He turned the money over in his pocket. Twopence halfpenny and a Joey — twopence halfpenny. His mind was sticky with boredom. He couldn't cope with rhymes and adjectives. You can't, with only twopence halfpenny in your pocket.

His eyes refocused themselves upon the posters opposite. He had his private reasons for hating them. Mechanically he re-read their slogans. "Kangaroo Burgundy — the wine for Britons." "Asthma was choking her!" "Q.T. Sauce Keeps Hubby Smiling." "Hike all day on a Slab of Vitamalt!" "Curve Cut — the Smoke for Outdoor Men." "Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps." "Corner Table enjoys his meal with Bovex."

Ha! A customer — potential, at any rate. Gordon stiffened himself. Standing by the door, you could get an oblique view out of the front window without being seen yourself. He looked the potential customer over.

A decentish middle-aged man, black suit, bowler hat, umbrella and dispatch-case — provincial solicitor or Town Clerk-peeking at the window with large pale-coloured eyes. He wore a guilty look. Gordon followed the direction of his eyes. Ah! So that was it! He had nosed out those D. H. Lawrence first editions in the far corner. Pining for a bit of smut, of course. He had heard of Lady Chatterley afar off. A bad face he had, Gordon thought. Pale, heavy, downy, with bad contours. Welsh, by the look of him — Nonconformist, anyway. He had the regular Dissenting pouches round the corners of his mouth. At home, president of the local Purity League or Seaside Vigilance Committee (rubber-soled slippers and electric torch, spotting kissing couples along the beach parade), and now up in town on the razzle. Gordon wished he would come in. Sell him a copy of Women in Love. How it would disappoint him!

But no! The Welsh solicitor had funked it. He tucked his umbrella under his arm and moved off with righteously turned backside. But doubtless to-night, when darkness hid his blushes, he'd slink into one of the rubber-shops and buy High Jinks in a Parisian Convent, by Sadie Blackeyes.

Gordon turned away from the door and back to the bookshelves. In the shelves to your left as you came out of the library the new and nearly-new books were kept — a patch of bright colour that was meant to catch the eye of anyone glancing through the glass door. Their sleek unspotted backs seemed to yearn at you from the shelves. "Buy me, buy me!" they seemed to be saying. Novels fresh from the press — still unravished brides, pining for the paperknife to deflower them — and review copies, like youthful widows, blooming still though virgin no longer, and here and there, in sets of half a dozen, those pathetic spinster-things, "remainders," still guarding hopefully their long preserv'd virginity. Gordon turned his eyes away from the "remainders." They called up evil memories. The single wretched little book that he himself had published, two years ago, had sold exactly a hundred and fifty-three copies and then been "remaindered"; and even as a "remainder" it hadn't sold. He passed the new books by and paused in front of the shelves which ran at right angles to them and which contained more second-hand books.

Over to the right were shelves of poetry. Those in front of him were prose, a miscellaneous lot. Upwards and downwards they were graded, from clean and expensive at eye-level to cheap and dingy at top and bottom. In all bookshops there goes on a savage Darwinian struggle in which the works of living men gravitate to eye-level and the works of dead men go up or down — down to Gehenna or up to the throne, but always away from any position where they will be noticed. Down in the bottom shelves the "classics," the extinct monsters of the Victorian age, were quietly rotting. Scott, Carlyle, Meredith, Ruskin, Pater, Stevenson — you could hardly read the names upon their broad dowdy backs. In the top shelves, almost out of sight, slept the pudgy biographies of dukes. Below those, saleable still and therefore placed within reach, was "religious" literature — all sects and all creeds, lumped indiscriminately together. The World Beyond, by the author of Spirit Hands Have Touched Me. Dean Farrar's Life of Christ. Jesus the First Rotarian. Father Hilaire Chestnut's book of R.C. propaganda. Religion always sells provided it is soppy enough. Below, exactly at eye-level, was the contemporary stuff. Priestley's latest. Dinky little books of reprinted "middles." Cheer-up "humour" from Herbert and Knox and Milne. Some highbrow stuff as well. A novel or two by Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. Smart pseudo-Strachey predigested biographies. Snooty, refined books on safe painters and safe poets by those moneyed young beasts who glide so gracefully from Eton to Cambridge and from Cambridge to the literary reviews.

Dull-eyed, he gazed at the wall of books. He hated the whole lot of them, old and new, highbrow and lowbrow, snooty and chirpy. The mere sight of them brought home to him his own sterility. For here was he, supposedly a "writer," and he couldn't even "write"! It wasn't merely a question of not getting published; it was that he produced nothing, or next to nothing. And all that tripe cluttering the shelves — well, at any rate it existed; it was an achievement of sorts. Even the Dells and Deepings do at least turn out their yearly acre of print. But it was the snooty "cultured" kind of books that he hated the worst. Books of criticism and belleslettres. The kind of thing that those moneyed young beasts from Cambridge write almost in their sleep — and that Gordon himself might have written if he had had a little more money. Money and culture! In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club. With the same instinct that makes a child waggle a loose tooth, he took out a snooty-looking volume — Some Aspects of the Italian Baroque — opened it, read a paragraph and shoved it back with mingled loathing and envy. That devasting omniscience! That noxious, horn-spectacled refinement! And the money that such refinement means! For after all, what is there behind it, except money? Money for the right kind of education, money for influential friends, money for leisure and peace of mind, money for trips to Italy. Money writes books, money sells them. Give me not righteousness, O Lord, give me money, only money.

He jingled the coins in his pocket. He was nearly thirty and had accomplished nothing; only his miserable book of poems that had fallen flatter than any pancake. And ever since, for two whole years, he had been struggling in the labyrinth of a dreadful book that never got any further, and which, as he knew in his moments of clarity, never would get any further. It was the lack of money, simply the lack of money, that robbed him of the power to "write." He clung to that as to an article of faith. Money, money, all is money! Could you write even a penny novelette without money to put heart in you? Invention, energy, wit, style, charm — they've all got to be paid for in hard cash.

Nevertheless, as he looked along the shelves he felt himself a little comforted. So many of the books were faded and unreadable. After all, we're all in the same boat. Memento mori. For you and for me and for the snooty young men from Cambridge, the same oblivion waits — though doubtless it'll wait rather longer for those snooty young men from Cambridge. He looked at the time-dulled "classics" near his feet Dead, all dead. Carlyle and Ruskin and Meredith and Stevenson — all are dead, God rot them. He glanced over their faded titles. Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Ha, ha! That's good. Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson! Its top edge was black with dust. Dust thou art, to dust returnest. Gordon kicked Stevenson's buckram backside. Art there, old false-penny? You're cold meat, if ever Scotchman was.

Ping! The shop bell. Gordon turned round. Two customers, for the library.

A dejected, round-shouldered, lower-class woman, looking like a draggled duck nosing among garbage, seeped in, fumbling with a rush basket. In her wake hopped a plump little sparrow of a women, red-cheeked, middle-middle class, carrying under her arm a copy of The Forsyte Saga — title outwards, so that passers-by could spot her for a highbrow.

Gordon had taken off his sour expression. He greeted them with the homey, family-doctor geniality reserved for library-subscribers.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Weaver. Good afternoon, Mrs. Penn. What terrible weather!"

"Shocking!" said Mrs. Penn.

He stood aside to let them pass. Mrs. Weaver upset her rush basket and spilled on to the floor a much-thumbed copy of Ethel M. Dell's Silver Wedding. Mrs. Penn's bright bird-eye lighted upon it. Behind Mrs. Weaver's back she smiled up at Gordon, archly, as highbrow to highbrow. Dell! The lowness of it! The books these lower classes read! Understandingly, he smiled back. They passed into the library, highbrow to highbrow smiling.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Keep the Aspidistra Flying"
by .
Copyright © 1956 Estate of Sonia B. Orwell.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Lionel Trilling

A remarkable novel...A summa of all the criticisms of a commercial civilization that have ever been made.

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Keep the Aspidistra Flying 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Thea_Kronborg More than 1 year ago
Gordon Comstock is not the most endearing of characters, and becomes increasingly less so as the novel progresses. Waging his own personal war against the "money code" Gordon trudges through life on 2 quid a week, convinced that he cannot be a real writer while maintaining a "good" job. At times the book is too repetitive, however this is an excellently written book with a perfectly anticlimactic ending. Darkly humorous interspersed with the gritty realities of surviving in London as a would-be poet sticking unrelentingly to his ideals. Gordon's life is the physical embodiment of irony. A great read. One of those books you feel smarter for having read.
mistunes More than 1 year ago
wish the DVD would come out The Merry War" with Richard Grant and Helen Bohnam Carter..based on this book .movie was awesome
Guest More than 1 year ago
I lived and breathed this book from beginning to end. At times I wanted to cry out, I became so involved with this moth-eaten, mildly sympathetic character. Orwell uses his usuall broad strokes here, but on a much smaller canvas. Especially recommended for starving artists.
bsima on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was left with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. While the protagonist bemoans the money driven society he sees himself surrounded by throughout the entire novel, in the end he happily abondons his principles and bows down to the "money gods". This is imparted with the general tone of a happy ending. The rather depressing conclusion one is left with is that if you can't beat them, join them. I found the protagonist petulant and irritatingly childish at times. The biting social commentary is the principle attraction of the novel.
MorgannaKerrie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book reminds me to keep writing.
patience_crabstick on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My whole life, I've avoided George Orwell. I figured anything by the author of 1984 would be unbearably dreary. Maybe I wasn't so wrong. Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a about a young man leading an unbearably dreary life. Gordon Comstock , poet, former copywriter at an advertising firm, has declared war on money. The result is a life devoid of all pleasure, other than sneakily brewing tea in his bedroom, a practice forbidden by his landlady. I was blown away by Orwell's writing: concise, witty, he makes every word count and this book is a joy to read as much for the elegant writing as for its observations on social class and money as well as Gordon Comstock and his absurd predicament.
john257hopper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Probably my least favourite Orwell novel, as I found the central character Gordon Comstock very irritating with his constant moans about having no money and his stubborn resistance to doing anything constructive about it; he really has chosen poverty due to his mental attitude. The novel improved after he got hopelessly drunk and spent the night in a police cell. The story became more engaging and the ending was heartwarming, if a little sudden and twee.
patrisha on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dear George Orwell,It's not you, it's me. It had to happen, really, this bit of faultering in the crush I've had on you. Sure, I've known you for years, but as you know, I've been completely smitten with you since last summer when I read your first published novel, Down and Out in Paris and London. I grew more smitten while reading An Age Like This, 1920- 1940, your early correspondance, reviews, and essays, and I remained so while reading your 2nd published novel, Burmese Days. But now the new car smell has faded a bit from my crush (sorry George, I know how you detest it when emotions are fetishized and commodified). It's just that this latest book of yours that I've read, your 4th published novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936, GB; 1956, US) has turned me from you a bit. I know that I'm probably making a mistake; others tell me how great you are--critic Lionel Trilling is quoted on the back leaf of my Harcourt edition as saying that Keep ... is "A remarkable novel ... a summa of all the criticisms of a commercial civilization that have ever been made," and the San Francisco Chronicle calls it "Both humorous and poignant." And to an extent, I agree--especially with Trilling's "summa" statement. The story is simple enough: Gordon Comstock, a decent poet of little success, has declared war on money. He is determined that he will live in a constant state of poverty, battling throughout the book to avoid succumbing to the ownership of what is, to him, the symbol of the drudge of middle class life: the aspidistra, a spindly-leafed member of the lily family, prized for its ability to withstand poor soil, little light, and minimal care. And I have to say that establishing this plant as Comstock's nemesis is a fabulously Orwellian statement about what it means to achieve enough "success" to land oneself in the middling rank. If it were only that to consider, George, I'd still be all about you.So what's my problem? you ask. Why am I giving you the "it's not you, it's me" speech? My problem is that your main character annoys me tremendously. Yes, Gordon Comstock shares some similarities to John Flory, the protagonist in Burmese Days. Both men step outside their immediate social group to take an objective look at that group. Both make attempts, albeit misguided and rather unsuccessful attemps, to avoid being manipulated by those close to them. But Flory is a much more sympathetic and likable character whose main flaw, one could argue, is blind romantic optimism. Perhaps in some ways, George, you see Comstock as Flory taken to the next step, the place one goes after blind romantic optimism has failed. To me, however, Comstock comes off as a whiney, self-destructive man having a major pout. He is determined that everyone around him be as repulsed by him as he is by the system that prizes the bastion of mediocrity that is the aspidistra. In all honesty, George, I think the problem, as is so often the case when a romance takes a downward turn, is that Comstock reminds me of a past relationship, he reminds me of a friend in my real world, the one outside of the pages, who wanted to issue a similar indictment against society. I know it's bad form to compare our situation with one past, but it's true, I've seen it before, the way Comstock relishes his smugness as he sits in his pious filth only to realize that he is the only one who understands the joke. The problem is that neither my friend in the past relationship nor Comstock seem to understand that society as a whole doesn't take much notice when one man refuses to conform to its dictates. At most that refusal may get him tossed in jail for some fairly innocuous reason, but there's no real improvement in the social soil. As with my friend, when Comstock realizes this, he becomes disenchanted with his perfect society of one and must decide which is worse, to slog though life in embittered solitude or to join the rest of the group by opening the curtain
meggyweg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book grew on me. At first I hated it. Gordon is a rather unlikeable protagonist. He quit his well-paying job because he didn't want to be a capitalist slave, then he spent the rest of the book whining about how miserable he was being poor. But I gave the book another read, and decided I liked it. Sure, Gordon is whiny, but that's pretty realistic -- very few people bear their suffering in silence. His relationship with Rosemary and the way his poverty affected it was also well-done.A bonus: if you compare the beginning of Aspidistra to 1984, you can see similarities -- both characters are looking out the window at a dismal scene, a poster is flapping. And there are also similarities to Gordon and Winston's incarcerations. Both sit in jail cells made of glittering white bricks.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This Orwell character wrote some books besides 1984 and Animal Farm... This is the first one I read other than those two. I just completely related to Gordon Comstock -- truly unimaginable for most people, I'm sure. It's really a simple story. I don't believe he's trying to make any bold sociological statements like in other works. He just wants to write a nice little story. Also check out Down and Out in Paris and London, if you have the Socialist leanings that I do.