Every time I go into one of those old-fashioned second-hand bookshops – the ones with rows of leather-bound copies of Punch and shelves full of long-expired novels and the sweet smell of decaying paper pervading the air – I think of Gordon Comstock, George Orwell’s anti-hero in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Poor Gordon, an advertising dropout and aspiring poet who is scraping a living as an assistant in such a bookshop, is forever bemoaning a world ruled by ‘the Money God’ rather than the Muses.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying is Orwell’s most autobiographical novel, written in 1935, when temporarily his career appeared to have stalled. His first two books, Down and Out in Paris and London and Burmese Days, had earned him some modest critical acclaim, but his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, had had a mixed reception. It had been written under the influence of James Joyce’s Ulysses and had been part-experimental, but the experiment had failed. So he jettisoned the ambition to write highly poetic fiction and at the same time abandoned any lingering hope of ever shining as a poet. Henceforth his prose would be pared down and economical, aspiring to an ideal of clarity – the clarity, he said, of a windowpane.
Since the end of 1934, he had been living in Hampstead, working part-time, like Gordon, for a bookseller. A job among mostly forgotten books seemed to symbolize what he then saw as his own failure as a writer. He was also frustrated in love. Too poor to get married, he was reduced to occasional affairs with ‘liberated’ girlfriends or encounters with prostitutes. He had a lot to get out of his system, and his anger and frustration would soon be channelled into his own brand of left-wing politics. By the end of the year he had met his future wife and was about to set foot on ‘the road to Wigan Pier’ to study the effects of mass unemployment in the industrial north, a journey t
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