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16 March 2022

From the NS archive: New novels

25 April 1936: In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell makes it clear that he hates London and everything there.

By Cyril Connolly

In this piece from 1936 the literary critic Cyril Connolly reviews four new works: “Flowering Judas” by Katherine Anne Porter, “Indian Tea” by Aileen Smiles, “The Bad Companions” by Maurice L Richardson and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” by George Orwell. Across the selection there is a highly critical understanding of class structures, with the authors taking particular aim at the emerging middle class. The popularity of this topic alludes to the public’s growing interest in social mobility and the developing class consciousness, Connolly writes. Each work uses realism partly inspired by their author’s own experiences, although they come from starkly different perspectives. In his satirical novel “The Bad Companions” Richardson, who was born into wealth before rejecting this background to join the Communist Party in 1930, approaches the topic as “unhampered by any middlebrow concessions to respectability or good taste”. Orwell takes the opposing position in “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, which documents a working-class setting in a “completely harrowing and stark account of poverty, and poverty as a squalid and all-pervading influence”.

Some years ago there appeared a story in Transition called “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”. Afterwards, I remember reading an article, during the expatriate controversy, which gave a list of the American writers living abroad who had achieved work of permanent importance. There was Ezra Pound, of course, the grand old man of anthologies, Hemingway, Kay Boyle, the inevitable William Carlos Williams who, like Herbert Read over here, has to appear in the first number of any American magazine before it can claim to be advanced and, among others, Katherine Anne Porter. It seemed a long way to have got on one story, and trying to find out more about her work I was told that she had produced a limited edition of her tales and that “I might get a copy for fifty dollars”. This English collection of her stories includes all that appeared in the luxury edition of Flowering Judas and four new ones. They seem to me about as good as any short stories that have been written lately. I do not think they are equal to the best stories of Lawrence, Huxley, Hemingway or Maugham, or a story like “The Disinherited” by Elizabeth Bowen, but, in the more sober tradition of the Thirties, with their open puritanism, and their instances of verbal and emotional under-emphasis and good taste, this book strikes a welcome note, impeccably obeying the strict canon of the time yet revealing an authoress who, besides being imaginative and fastidious, is also witty and intellectually robust. Several of the stories are about Mexico and do much to rid it of the Bogeyman quality with which it was invested by Lawrence, and the longest is about the film company, with American capital and a great Russian director, which spent so much time there.

I quote part of a description of a Mexican revolutionary:

Not for nothing has Braggioni taken pains to be a good revolutionist and a professional lover of humanity. He will never die of it. He has the malice, the cleverness, the wickedness, the sharpness of wit, the hardness of heart, stipulated for loving the world profitably. He will never die of it. He will live to see himself kicked out from his feeding trough by other hungry world-saviours…

Once he was called Delgadito by all the girls and married women who ran after him; he was so scrawny all his bones showed under his thin cotton clothing, and he could squeeze his emptiness to the very backbone with his two hands… Now he is a leader of men, crafty men who whisper in his ear, hungry men who wait for hours outside his office for a word with him, emaciated men with wild faces who waylay him at the street gate with a timid “Comrade, let me tell you…” and they blow the foul breath from their empty stomachs in his face.

Flowering Judas is a book that I can recommend with enthusiasm to all novel readers. It should even satisfy the solid taste, the traditional Anglo-Saxon distrust of brilliance, of the Sage of Huntingdon. As it was first tipped in this paper over a year ago, I should like to mention the other novel bracketed with it as needing an English publisher. It was Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, a violent and disturbing little satire of the slump period, highly unpleasant, and extremely readable.

Indian Tea is a difficult novel to assess. I still can’t say whether it is really good or not, but, reading it in a car at Easter, I know it gave the greatest pleasure, between meals, to our little freight of human souls. Although it is a first novel it is the work of a born storyteller, not a highbrow, and not a stylist, but an observant and humorous young writer with a feeling for drama, and a depth of realism and common sense. It is the story of two people, an athletic, simple boundery young tea-planter and a stern, rather priggish but good-looking young governess, whose souls a Fakir interchanges by means of a snake rite, such as Teiresias underwent, and such as is quoted in “The Waste Land”The governess becomes the young planter, with his fine body, his native mistress, his bad reputation. The planter finds himself a woman, with two small children to look after. The novel is the record of their experiences till they can be changed back again. It is an unusual plot, but so well handled as to seem not at all improbable after a few pages, and gives enormous scope to the writer’s comic spirit, her passion for India, and her detached, alert interest in the habits of the English middle class. As the book progresses one gets more and more devoted to the young planter, his manly attempts to drink as much as he used to, to keep in with his old friends, and the curious public school mixture of shrewdness, dishonesty and charm which enables him soon to qualify, for a governess, as “very hot stuff”. Some incidents, such as the servant’s nightclub, are too far-fetched, but the authoress brings on the whole the same glowing descriptive power to polo, tennis tournaments, tea-planting, dressmaking, yoga, frontier warfare, Indian women, house-parlourmaiding, fishing and tiger shooting; and after reading this most entertaining book, with its admirable character drawing, one will know the exact status, ambitions and hobbies of all the passengers on one’s next P and O. If only all novels were so delightful!

The Bad Companions is a picaresque, satirical novel of the gay, topsy-turvy amoral type introduced, in 1928, by Decline and Fall. To my mind, such books stand or fall by their freshness, by the authentic quality of the author’s good spirits. One touch of the serious political or social criticism and the pie-crust collapses. This touch, in The Bad Companions, is agreeably absent. The material used by Mr Richardson, however, is someway hackneyed. His two rogues are not original, one is the typical disciple, the Lazarillo, the other a conventional blend of Philbrick and Captain Grimes; his themes – old school ties, retired colonels in Cheltenham, the clash of Black shirts and Red shirts with the Mercutio-like hero squashed in the middle and crying “A Plague on both your houses” – are rather obvious and have been a little too much in the air. But the treatment is most agreeable, the author is unhampered by any middlebrow concessions to respectability or good taste, his jokes are new, his attitude to life adventurous, anarchical and sexy.

He has, in particular, an eye for the horrors of modern architecture and decoration, a refreshing breeze from the Left blows through his chapters, he uses psychoanalysis sparing and ingeniously, is sceptical, sophisticated and anti-puritan without any touch of Scottish heartiness. This is a book written more especially for the male sex, and for the more politically minded of it; at its worst the conventionality of the material, even down to the escaped lunatic, is irritating, at its best we can catch an echo of the resonant but unpopular accents of Groucho Marx.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying also brings up the question of material. It is about London. Burmese Days was about Burma. Now the reader knows too much of London, and not enough about Burma. He cannot, in fact, be as interested in Hampstead. But the writer of Burmese Days was also himself fond of Burma and included many beautiful descriptions of it, while the writer of Keep the Aspidistra Flying hates London and everything there. Hence the realism of one book was redeemed by an operating sense of beauty, that of the other is not. It is, in fact, a completely harrowing and stark account of poverty, and poverty as a squalid and all-pervading influence. The hero works for two pounds a week in a bookshop. He has a girl whom he is too poor to marry, and is writing a poem on which he is too poor really to concentrate. It is winter. The book is the recital of his misfortunes, interrupted by tirades against money and the spiritual evil it causes. It is written in clear and violent language, at times making the reader feel he is sitting in a dentist’s chair with the drill whirring, at times seeming too emphatic and far-fetched. There have been so many novels in which young men and their fiancées sit over the gas fire and wonder where the next shilling is coming from, or go out and hate the streets. This is perhaps the most logical of all of them, but suffers, with an irony which the author would appreciate, from the fact that the obsession with money about which the book is written, is one which must prevent it from achieving the proportion of a work of art.

[see also: George Orwell outside the whale]

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