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A Merry War [aka Keep the Aspidistra Flying] (1997)


Gordon Comstock is a very good advertising copywriter and a pretty bad poet.  But if he indulges his delusion that he can write poetry, he gets to live a bohemian life of chic poverty, easy morality, and reflexive socialism.  Admitting he's really meant to write advertising jingles would require him to settle into a respectable, but dreaded, middle class existence of comfort, family, and an aspidistra in the window.  The horror, the horror....

You can judge who the three most important writers of the last three centuries were by the attempts of both Left and Right to co-opt them and claim them as their own : Adam Smith (18th Century); Alexis de Tocqueville (19th Century); and George Orwell (20th Century).  With the exception of people telling me I'm swinish for not thinking that James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and the James brothers (Henry and William) are geniuses, I'd guess that no topic has generated more hostile email to Brothers Judd than our classifying Orwell as a conservative.  These hostile correspondents though never offer any more evidence than the mere fact that Orwell called himself a socialist and fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.  It goes almost without saying that they don't refer to his writings, because it is there that their argument falls apart.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the semi-autobiographical--indeed, Orwell later thought it overly autobiographical--Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

The title of the book is awkward and maybe even off-putting, but necessary.  Meanwhile, the filmmakers chose an equally appropriate, but misleading title, for Gordon Comstock is at war on two fronts.  The first is with his long-suffering girlfriend, Rosemary, who he hopes to coerce into bed without marrying :

    Each laughed with delight at the other's absurdities. There was a merry war between them.

The second front is Gordon's war against the money god :

    What he realised, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion.  Perhaps it is the only
    real religion--the only really felt religion--that is left to us.  Money is what God used to be.  Good and evil have no meaning any longer
    except failure and success.  Hence the profoundly significant phrase, to make good.  The decalogue has been reduced to two
    commandments.  One for the employers--the elect, the money-priesthood as it were--'Thou shalt make money'; the other for the
    employed--the slaves and underlings--'Thou shalt not lose thy job.'  It was about this time that he came across The Ragged Trousered
    Philanthropists and read about the starving carpenter who pawns everything but sticks to his aspidistra.  The aspidistra, flower of England!
    It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn.  There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras
    in windows.

By God!  That sounds like a ringing enough call to arms doesn't it?  Except, that is, for the inconvenient title of the novel : Keep the Aspidistra Flying.  This story, like nearly all of Orwell's, is anti-revolutionary and possessed of both a deep love of middle-class England and a good-natured contempt for wealthy socialists (like Comstock's publisher, Ravelston) and all of those (like Gordon himself) who romanticize poverty and the poor.  And so, when Gordon, who by then has been reduced to rather dire straits, finally abandons his life of destitution and the half-written book of inane poems that he'd been writing to resume his advertising job and marry Rosemary, who he's gotten in the family way, it is in no wise a defeat, but a triumph :

    Now that the thing was done he felt nothing but relief; relief that now at last he had finished with dirt, cold, hunger and loneliness and could get back to decent, fully human life.  His resolutions, now that he had broken them, seemed nothing but a frightful weight that he had cast off.  Moreover, he was aware that he was only fulfilling his destiny.  In some corner of his mind he had always known that this would happen.  He thought of the day when he had given them notice at New Albion; and Mr. Erskine's kind, red, beefish face, gently counselling him not to chuck up a 'good' job for nothing.  How bitterly he had sworn, then, that he was done with 'good' jobs for ever!  Yet it was foredoomed that he should come back, and he had known it even then.  And it was not merely because of Rosemary and the baby that he had done it.  That was the obvious cause, the precipitating cause, but even without it the end would have been the same ; if there had been no baby to think about, something else would have forced his hand.  For it was what, in his secret heart, he had desired.

And if that doesn't convince you that the story represents a whole-hearted embrace of bourgeois existence, try this :

    Our civilization is founded on greed and fear, but in the lives of common men the greed and fear are mysteriously transmuted into
    something nobler.  The lower-middle-class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture
    and their aspidistras--they lived by the money-code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency.  The money-code as they
    interpreted it was not merely cynical and hoggish.  They had their standards, their inviolable points of honour.  They 'kept themselves
    respectable'--kept the aspidistra flying.  Besides, they were alive.  They were bound up in the bundle of life.  They begot children,
    which is what the saints and the soul-savers never by any chance do.

    The aspidistra is the tree of life, he thought suddenly.

Orwell offers up this wisdom with a light touch.  He also has the characteristically brutal honesty to portray Comstock (his younger self) as quite a horse's arse during his bohemian phase.  This comes through even more clearly in the film, where Comstock (as played by Richard E. Grant) is nearly difficult to like, prior to his epiphany.  It is only when he accepts his own responsibility for the life growing in Rosemary that he comes to be "fully human" and likable.

Now, if you can reconcile all of that with a belief that Orwell should be considered a man of the Left and not essentially a conservative, kindly drop us a line and explain.  Meanwhile, we'll keep the aspidistra flying.

FILM GRADE : A-

Buy the book and the film, A Merry War [aka Keep the Aspidistra Flying] (1997) (directed by Robert Beirman) at Amazon.com

(Reviewed:02-Mar-02)

Grade: (A-)

Websites:

See also:

    -George Orwell (1903-1950) - pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "george orwell"
    -GEORGE ORWELL (1903-1950) (Guardian Unlimited)
    -ARCHIVES : "orwell" (NY Review of Books)
    -The Political Writings of George Orwell
    -ETEXT: 1984
    -ETEXT: Animal Farm
    -EXCERPT: Barcelona, 1938 from Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell.
    -ETEXT: Articles
    -ETEXT: Shooting an Elephant
    -ETEXT: Reflections on Gandhi (1949)
    -ETEXT: "George Gissing" (1948)
    -ETEXT: 'A Nice Cup of Tea' by George Orwell
    -ETEXT: Politics and the English Language BY George Orwell
    -ETEXT: The Prevention of Literature (1946)
    -ETEXT: Revenge is Sour
    -ETEXT: Shooting an Elephant BY George Orwell
    -ETEXT: You and the Atomic Bomb    by George Orwell
    -ETEXT:   Why Socialists Don't believe in Fun (1943)
    -ETEXT:   Notes on Nationalism (May 1945)
    -ETEXT: Why I Write (1947)
    -ESSAY : Future of a ruined Germany (George Orwell, War correspondent, Sunday April 8, 1945, The Observer)
    -George Orwell (Essays, Biblio, etc.)
    -George Orwell (Chestnut Tree Cafe)
    -George Orwell (Spartacus Educational Home Page)
    -The Orwell Reader
    -the Internet Public Library:  Online Literary Criticism Collection:  George Orwell (1903 - 1950)
    -ARTICLE :  ORWELL RADIO SCRIPTS AND LETTERS FOUND (JUSTINE DE LACY, June 12, 1984, NY Times)
    -ESSAY :  Which is the book that has taught you most about what life is really like? Continuing our series, the novelist Jim Crace chooses Orwell's  Homage to Catalonia (Jim Crace, booksonline uk)
    -ESSAY: George Orwell, devoted family man 50 years after death, his son remembers (The Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY: Words and Things  On the 50th anniversary of George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language, Andrew Marr assesses the state of political English and finds it in robust good health. (Prospect)
    -ESSAY : On Shooting at Elephants (John Leonard, The Nation)
    -ESSAY : How Big Brothers used Orwell to fight the cold war (David Hencke and Rob Evans, June 30, 2000, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: A Comparison of Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984
    -ESSAY: Orwell & Marx: Animalism vs. Marxism
    -ESSAY: The big O: the reputation of George Orwell (Joseph Epstein, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: WRITERS IN UNIFORM (Stephen Spender, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : George Orwell, Socialist, Anarchist or what...? On George Orwell's Political Development (Claus B. Storgaard)
    -ESSAY: Homage to Catalonia and The Spanish Civil War (Andrew Weiss)
    -ESSAY : THE MACHO MAKER OF NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (Virginia Held, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : PUBLISHING: ORWELL'S SIMPLE SECRET (EDWIN McDOWELL, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : PUBLISHING: FROM BBC'S ORWELL FILE (EDWIN McDOWELL, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : THE VISION OF BOTH ORWELL AND KAFKA IS AS SHARP AS EVER (WALTER GOODMAN, December 30, 1983, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Is Bad Writing Necessary?: Adorno and Orwell's competing legacies (James Miller, Lingua Franca, December 1999/January 2000)
    -ESSAY : IN SEARCH OF '1984' (LINDA McK. STEWART, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : National inquirer (Ben Pimlott, July 25 2001, Financial Times)
    -ESSAY : Orwell for our time : He was the most influential and prescient political writer of the 20th century, argues Timothy Garton Ash. But does he have any relevance today?  (May 5, 2001, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY : And the word is Orwell :  He created Big Brother and defined the Cold War, becoming a century's most prescient political writer. But it's a long time since the wall came down. And his terrifying dictator is now a prime-time voyeur. Yet, writes Timothy Garton Ash, George Orwell is more relevant than ever. (Sydney Morning Herald)
    -ESSAY : Last days of Orwell : Fifty years ago, the creator of 1984 and Animal Farm was fatally ill but also newly wed, at the peak of his fame, and bursting with book ideas. (DJ Taylor, January 15, 2000, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY : Shadows of Orwell : When Luke Harding heard that George Orwell's birthplace had been turned into a cowshed, he travelled to one of India's poorest towns to see for himself  (June 24, 2000, The Guardian )
    -DISCUSSION: the Journalism of George Orwell (radion national)
    -Senior  Seminar: Professor Osborne  War & Remembrance
    -Orwellian & Animal Farm Studies Resources  From the Chico High School Library
    -READERS GUIDE: Animal Farm (Novel Guide.com)
    -ONLINE STUDYGUIDE: 1984 by George Orwell.  (SparkNote by Brian Phillips)
    -SUMMARY: Nineteen Eighty-Four (Maros Kollar)
    -ONLINE STUDYGUIDE: Animal Farm by George Orwell (Rebecca Gaines, Spark Notes)
    -SUMMARY: Animal Farm  (Maros Kollar)
    -DISCUSSION : orwell's "coming up for air" (George Orwell Campfire)
    -SUMMARY: The Road to Wigan Pier (Maros Kollar)
    -LINKS: George Orwell in Our Age
    -LINKS: George Orwell Resources
    -LINKS: Charles'  George Orwell Links
    -ARCHIVES : "george orwell" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of 1984 by George Orwell (Mark Schorer, NY Times, June 12, 1949)
    -REVIEW: of Homage:  George Orwell's Prelude in Spain (Granville Hicks, NY Times)
    -REVIEWS : of Coming Up for Air (Epinions)
    -REVIEW : of The Complete Works of George Orwell, Edited by Peter Davison (The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of ORWELL The Lost Writings. By George Orwell (Will Watson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of ORWELL The Lost Writings. By George Orwell (Walter Goodman, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of GEORGE ORWELL The Authorized Biography. By Michael Shelden (Samuel Hynes, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of ORWELL: The Road to Airstrip One. By Ian Slater (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of GEORGE ORWELL A Life. By Bernard Crick (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of GEORGE ORWELL A Life. By Bernard Crick (Steven Marcus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of George Orwell. The Age's Adversary by Patrick Reilly (Michael Foot, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation By JEFFREY MEYERS (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of ORWELL: Wintry Conscience of a Generation by Jeffrey Meyers ( JOHN CAREY, Sunday Times of London)
    -REVIEW : of Orwell by Jeffrey Myers (Paul Foot, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of Wintry Conscience of a Generation, by  Jeffrey Meyers (Enda O'Doherty, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW : of Orwell : Wintry Conscience of his Generation (Barcelona review)
    -REVIEW : of   ORWELL: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. By Jeffrey Meyers Prophet with a Typewriter (Christopher Hitchens, Wilson Quarterly)
    -REVIEW : of Orwell : Wintry Conscience (John Leonard, The Nation)
    -REVIEW : of Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation By Jeffrey Meyers (Matthew Price, In These Times)
    -REVIEW : of Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation , by Jeffrey Meyers (Roger K. Miller, Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of "Orwell" The new biography glosses over the defiant, troubled life of the eerily prescient author of "Animal Farm" and "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (Benjamin Anastas, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Orwell : Wintry Conscience of a Generation by Jeffery Meyers (National Post)
    -REVIEW : of THE POLITICS OF LITERARY REPUTATION The Making and Claiming of ''St. George'' Orwell. By John Rodden (Julian Symons, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of '1984' REVISTED Totalitarianism in Our Century Edited by Irving Howe (Arthur Schlesinger Jr, NY Times Book Review)

FILMS :
    -FILMOGRAPHY : George Orwell (Imdb.com)
    -INFO : Keep the Aspidistra Flying [A Merry War] (1997) (Imdb.com)
    -INFO : A Merry War (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Robert Beirman (Imdb.com)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Roger Ebert Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (James Berardinelli's ReelViews)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (James Bowman)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (John Simon, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Stephen Holden, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Bob Graham, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Edvins Beitiks, SF Examiner)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Marshall Allen, Boundless)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Paul Tatara, CNN)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Bruce Kirkland, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Charles Taylor, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Roger Gerbig, Internegative)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Peter Keogh, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Joan Ellis, Nebbadoon)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Joe Baltake, Sacramento Bee)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (MICHAEL JANUSONIS, Providence Journal)
    -REVIEW : of A Merry War (Ella Taylor, The Atlantic)
    -FILM REVIEW: Animal Farm a TV movie review  (Rick Norwood, SF Site)

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