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#1936Club – “…money, like murder, will out.” #georgeorwell

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My final read for the #1936Club is one which took me a little by surprise! My love of George Orwell and his work must be quite clear from even a casual glance at the Ramblings. I have numerous paperback editions of his work, as well as a lovely boxed collection which Mr. Kaggsy presented me with many moons ago. So when we decided on 1936 for the club, and I realised his novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” was published that year, I thought it would be perfect for a re-read – as I had, I thought, read all of his fiction.

Aspidistra x 2!

Well – a quick dig on the shelves made me question myself; because rummaging revealed that I had *no* paperback edition of “Aspidistra”, only the nice hardback in the set, and I was sure I’d never read that copy. Then I started to actually explore the text and it didn’t seem familiar at all… So now I’m beginning to think that somehow I’d missed reading “Aspidistra” over the last few decades and that my encounter with it here is a first-time read – how exciting is that!!!

My posh hardback edition.

Anyway, I was faced with reading my posh book, which always stupidly makes me a bit nervous. However, fortune stepped in, in the form of Oxford University Press’s Word Classics series (I have quite a few of these – it’s always a toss-up whether to get an OWC or a Penguin Classic of a particular book, and I sometimes pick up both!) OUP have just issued a beautiful new set of Orwells in their OWC range, and were kind enough to provide me with a review copy of “Aspidistra” – what perfect timing!!

In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.

On to the story. “Aspidistra” was Orwell’s third novel (fourth published full-length work) and its epigraph, dealing as it does with all things fiscal, sets the tone for the book. Money really is the root of all evil, or at least the problems besetting the main character, Gordon Comstock, and many of those he encounters. Gordon is in effect the last of the Comstocks; a fairly feeble family who have gradually died out through mediocrity, the only members left are Gordon, his sister Julia, and the occasional aunt or uncle. Gordon’s mother and sister have scrimped and saved to get the young man an education, feeling that he has a chance to make something of himself. But Gordon has always been aware of the poverty in which his family have existed, the fact that he is of the wrong class and that those with money look down on them while living lives of ease. And so as the book opens, we encounter him having chucked up a reasonable job with decent pay in an advertising agency, and now slumming it by working in a bookshop and living in fairly unpleasant digs.

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.

Gordon is really not a happy man; his girlfriend Rosemary declares that she loves him but won’t sleep with him, which he puts down to money; he’s published a book of poems “Mice”, which was well reviewed but failed to earn him much; he’s struggling to write more, but his mood swings aren’t helping; and his friendship with the wealthy Ravelston is complex, poisoned once more by money. Money, money, money – that *is* very much what Gordon bangs on about all of the time, and bearing in mind the time when the book was written, he does have a point.

Lovely new OWC edition!

Britain in the 1930s was a land of extremes; the rich were trying to hold on to money and status, while the poor were struggling dreadfully. There was no welfare state, and some of the poverty portrayed in the book is devastating. I know other readers have perhaps had difficulty in warming to Gordon, but I think without insight into his circumstances, it’s hard perhaps to understand why he’s in the state he’s in.

Gordon also puts much of his situation down to lack of sex, and the book does discuss this issue a fair bit. In the 1930s contraception was relatively primitive (and presumably also cost quite a bit) and so any kind of sex life brought risks, particularly for the women involved. Gordon might seem to be being a bit selfish in his desire to sleep with Rosemary, but my reading of him is of a damaged, depressed man who lacks human warmth in his life, and I think he’s representative of many at the time.

Marriage is only a trap set for you by the money-god. You grab the bait; snap goes the trap; and there you are, chained by the leg to some ‘good’ job till they cart you to Kensal Green. And what a life! Licit sexual intercourse in the shade of the aspidistra. Pram-pushing and sneaky adulteries. And the wife finding you out and breaking the cut-glass whisky decanter over your head.

So Gordon and Rosemary attempt a day out in the country, on not very much cash, and that doesn’t go well at all. In our modern world, where sex is everywhere, it’s somehow shocking that the couple’s only chance for a physical relationship is if they go off into the woods for the day… Then Gordon has a windfall, and this is where things get really problematic, as events spiral out of control and he ends up in an even worse situation. He *could* go back to his old job, but refuses on principle – he doesn’t want to be sucked into the money world, tied to work and the 9-5 grind just to earn enough to live and have an aspidistra (the symbol for him of normality and conformity) in his front window like the rest of the respectable world. His stubbornness is infuriating at times, although you can understand his feelings. However, a crisis will come along and change everything – but how will Gordon respond?

There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.

I don’t want to give away any more plot elements, because “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is such a wonderful and fascinating book. I just can’t believe I hadn’t read it before! Orwell apparently always regarded 1936 as a pivotal year in his life: he visited the north, which led to “The Road to Wigan Pier; he went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, with all that brought; he broke through as a novelist, with “Aspidistra…” bringing him in some income; and from that point on he regarded his work as to be to fight against fascism in all its forms, which led to seminal works like “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen eighty-four”. He apparently dismissed “Aspidistra” but I think he shouldn’t have, because I feel it does explore very deeply and bitterly the pernicious effects of poverty. Gorden is angry and indignant; his sister Julia works all hours of the day just to survive; Rosemary is no richer either; and the degradation of some of the boarding houses in which Gordon stays is just awful. I believe “Aspidistra” draws on some of Orwell’s own life experiences, and of course he was well aware of what it was to be down and out, both in Paris and London! He may seem to be going on a bit about the evil of money, but we only have to look around us, in a world which is still anything but equal, to see that he has a point…

The next seven months were devastating. They scared him and almost broke his spirit. He learned what it means to live for weeks on end on bread and margarine, to try to ‘write’ when you are half starved, to pawn your clothes, to sneak trembling up the stairs when you owe three weeks’ rent and your landlady is listening for you. Moreover, in those seven months he wrote practically nothing. The first effect of poverty is that it kills thought.

The end of “Aspidistra” is interesting, although I’m loath to discuss it in detail because of spoilers. It might be the only logical one, and it does suggest perhaps that Gordon has been going through some kind of breakdown from which he *does* recover. The themes are often dark, the portrait of London between the wars often grimy and gritty, and the living conditions squalid. However, the book is not without its humour: Orwell’s portrait of the advertising business, with its corny slogans and ghastly advertising campaigns, has not dated, and his contempt for it is palpable! He definitely seems to feel that slavishly following the media is a Bad Thing (that’s a pretty modern attitude, too) and complains about the populace being so easily influenced. Well, not much changes.

My lovely Orwell box set

So I ended up thoroughly impressed with this Orwell which I hadn’t read, and yes, convinced again that he really was a genius. He captures brilliantly the post-war era, the struggles of the poor, the difficulty of coping on a few bob a week, and how the class system in England cripples the country and prevents it moving forward (hmmmm – familiar, that….) Although an early novel, it still features Orwell’s regular preoccupations, and I found the characters quite rounded too. His women characters were believable: sister Julia (interesting choice of name) with her self-sacrifice, and Rosemary, a well-defined character in her own right, caring for Gordon but often struggling to understand his principles. The latter, of course, can only be held successfully by people with money; if you’re poor, they go right out the window! I finished the book several days ago, and I’m still thinking about the many elements and issues it raised – such a thought-provoking read. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” was the perfect way to end my reading for the #1936Club – what a week it’s been and what an amazing choice of books there was from the year!

(Emma has also read the book for the club, and you can read her post here!)

*****

I though I’d also share a few separate thoughts on the new OWC edition of “Aspidistra”, as my hardback from the box set comes with limited notation which is mainly to do with textual variations. As this edition originally hails from 1987, much of the landscape of Britain and the terminology would be quite familiar to the reader then. However, getting on for 35 years later than that, there’s the need for a little more explanation and the new edition has excellent notation which explains many terms which might seem strange or exotic to a younger, modern reader! Additionally, there is detail on the money of the time; as that subject underpins the story, it certainly is important that the reader understands ‘old money’ (I can just about remember it…) The notes are provided by Benjamin Kohlmann, who also supplies an excellent introduction which discusses the book in the context of the 1930s – it definitely is a book of its time and that needs to be remembered, I think, to get the most out of it. Sensibly, readers are advised to treat the foreword as an afterword if unfamiliar with the plot, and I wish all books would remind us of that before we embark. There’s a bibliography and a chronology, and so really there’s all you need. As you’ll guess from my review, I really loved “Aspidistra…”; and I think if you plan to read it, the OWC would be the perfect edition to choose!

“How good it is, though, to be amongst people reading!”

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The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

Translated by Robert Vilain

Back in 2013, I read a really lovely book called “Rilke in Paris”, which focused on the life of the great German poet while he was based in the city. Rilke has been an author I’ve long wanted to read, and his only novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge” has been on my wanted list for decades – yes, really! So when Oxford World’s Classics were kind enough to offer me a review copy of their beautiful new translation, I was very, very pleased.

brigge

Rilke, of course, is probably best known for his poetry and Wikipedia says of him that he was a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist, “widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets”, writing in both verse and highly lyrical prose. Several critics have described Rilke’s work as inherently “mystical”. In fact, as well as poetry, he wrote plays and shorter prose, but this is his only extended work of prose.

“Notebooks” is a slim book, but very intense. It takes the form of diary-like entries, varying in length, in which the narrator (our eponymous Brigge) reflects on his current existence in Paris, his past and life itself. As we read on, his background is gradually revealed; from a noble Danish family, he’s been orphaned young and is living penniless. However, all of this is let slip a bit at a time, and the structure of the book is anything but linear. Instead, we’re treated to a sequence of impressions, reminiscences, historical facts and stories, all of which are told in with startling imagery and a vivid narrative form.

There were certain corner windows there, or archways or lamps that knew a great deal about me and used it to threaten me.

Brigge is of sensitive temperament and seems obsessed with the darker side of things. Particularly in the earlier sections of the book, he records his impressions of the sick and poor, haunting the precincts of hospitals and at one time being sent to the Salpetriere himself because of his nerves. The tales of his own past are laced with images of ghosts and strange manifestations, and he develops a strong love for his aunt, Abelone, which recurs through the book.

rilke

Actual facts about Brigge are revealed here and there, but we never build up a complete picture of him. We hear much of his grandfather’s death, less of his mother’s and father’s, and we know that all that remains of his possessions are in storage somewhere, rotting away, while he spends his time in Paris attempting to become a poet. He has visited many other countries in the past, but again these visits are dropped into the narrative with no real explanation.

It is as if the image of this house had collapsed into me, plunging down from an infinite height and shattering on my ground.

Reading “Notebooks” had a strange, dreamlike effect on me; the lines between past and present, real and unreal seemed blurred and it’s a book that in many ways is hard to get a handle on. If I’m honest, after this first read I couldn’t tell you exactly what it’s *about*, but it contains some wonderfully evocative passages of real beauty and I’m sure would reveal more on a second (or third!) reading.

That day had never really got properly light. The trees were standing as if they didn’t know what to do in the fog, and there was something high-handed about driving in amongst them. Now and then it began to snow again silently, and now it was as if every last mark were being erased and if we were journeying into a blank page. There was no sound but the bells, and one couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It stopped for a moment, as if the last sleigh-bell jingle had been sounded, but then it composed itself, came together, and gave of its all once more.

“Notebooks” is not a particularly easy read – the book is scattered with numerous historical references, and I was really grateful for the excellent notes provided in the Oxford World’s Classics edition courtesy of translator Robert Vilain. As usual with Oxford’s books, this one had all the extra material you could need – introduction, textual notes, bibliography, chronology, and appendices. These latter were particularly fascinating, containing as they did some alternative openings and endings for the book; the most interesting section for me was a sequence where Malte visits Tolstoy at his estate (which presumably mirrors Rilke’s real life visit to the great man).

So is Brigge a self-portrait of Rilke? That’s a difficult one to answer – I’ve seen this book described as semi-autobiographical and as the excellent notes to this edition show, certain events in the book relate to real events in Rilke’s life. However, I think the danger of conflating author and character here is very strong and I found myself thinking of them as very different. In fact, as Malte was flaneuring his way around Paris, he reminded me at times of the protagonists of Sartre and Camus, with their constant searching for meaning and explanation; although as the book was first published in 1910, it would be Rilke that influenced the existentialists, and not the other way round! Despite my occasional struggles with the historical detail, “Notebooks” was an absorbing read, with the often beautiful and evocative prose making the effort worthwhile, and I’m keen now to read some of Rilke’s poetry,

Review copy courtesy Oxford University Press, for which many thanks!

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