George Orwell’s third novel was published by his established publisher, Victor Gollancz, on April 20th 1936. He had previously published Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter: but while those two novels were based on his own experiences, Keep The Aspidstra Flying had a protagonist, Gordon Comstock, who seemed much more like Orwell himself. Orwell, though, had never presented himself and his experience directly in any of his books up to that time; even his memoir Down And Out In Paris And London reversed the order in which he had experienced those cities; and Keep The Aspidistra Flying was never a thinly disguised autobiography. In addition, Gollancz feared Britain’s dubious and exploitative libel laws and made Orwell change even more of the detail.
Americans had to wait twenty years, until 1956, before it was published in the USA. That is, most readers would have been aware of Orwell through Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Animal Farm (1945) before they read this novel.
In 1936 the book received reviews from William Plomer in The Spectator, an anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement, Kenneth Macpherson in Life And Letters Today, and Cyril Connolly in the New Statesman and Richard Rees in Adelphi. These can all be found in Jeffrey Meyers’ George Orwell: The Critical Heritage: there must have been more. Connolly and Rees were friends of Orwell but the others were not, so the attention his novel received cannot be regarded as literary log-rolling.
By the time Keep The Aspidistra Flying appeared in the USA Orwell’s name, his themes, and the subjects he dealt with were all much better known. Henry Popkin’s review in Commonweal (again in Meyers’ collection) makes Orwell’s prescience as a social critic clear:
‘But now, in 1956, the various arms of mass culture are amalgamating. Gordon’s bete noire, the advertising industry, has expanded its operations. Over here [in the USA], in addition to running election campaigns, it supervises television entertainment for many of the people who used to frequent Gordon’s shabby haven, the lowbrow lending library. A Gordon Comstock in our decade would be much more overwhelmed by the extensive operations of the advertising world; he would propbably find fewer alternatives to sustain him before he fell back into the waiting arms of the mass media.’
Orwell’s friend and memoirist, Tosco Fyvel, made much the same point in his George Orwell: A Personal Memoir (1982), written long after Orwell’s passing.
The novel was filmed in 1997, with Richard E Grant as Comstock, from a script by Alan Plater (who had written the BBC’s 1984 biographical The Crystal Spirit: George Orwell On Jura). The softer, alternate title A Merry War indicates a problem found by some reviewers: the poverty had been ‘cleaned up’. Mike Batt composed the soundtrack, later reworking it as a three part orchestral suite: both are available on a single CD.
Gordon Comstock appears to have some aspects of Orwell, but the differences display Orwell’s inventiveness: unlike Comstock, Orwell had never worked in advertising; it is unlikely he had ever walked through the door of such an office; and yet he instinctively knew how it worked, and he also knew how it failed.
Nor did the friends and flat-mates with whom he lodged or shared digs in the 1930s ever suggest that he was the owner of an aspidistra himself. This should not surprise us, for as he wrote elsewhere, ‘Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?’
Wikipedia entry for Keep The Aspidistra Flying: