Orwell’s third novel, Keep the Apidistra Flying (1936), goes deeper into the world of poverty than any of Orwell’s previous long works by making explicit the protagonist’s clear minded choice of accepting poverty when the option of a bourgeois lifestyle is open to him. Despite Orwell’s denunciation of the work (like A Clergyman’s Daughter before it, Orwell later claimed that he was ashamed of the book and had only published it for monetary reasons), it feels very autobiographical in parts and the main character, Gordon Comstock, feels like a less intelligent, less resilient, more needy version of Orwell himself. Although John Flory, the protagonist in Burmese Days, was certainly meant as a partial stand-in for Orwell, Comstock feels even more personal.
At the start of the novel, Gordon works in a bookshop (just as Orwell himself did for a period). It is revealed that he had a job in an advertising agency, one that he gave up for what appears to his long suffering sister, who pines for Gordon to “make good”, to be no valid reason. Gordon has lowered his sights intentionally, in the name of what he describes as a war on the concept of money. He wants to be free of what he sees as the evil of lucre – all the while knowing that such a battle is futile, as he himself is more than well aware that those who are least free of the implications of money are those who do not have any.
Gordon only has two friends, but they turn out to be enough. One is Rosemary, a woman he has an on and off relationship with. Despite her seeming to honestly love Gordon, she tacitly refuses to be with him while he wages his war on commerce. Her reasons are what would have been any woman’s of the period: Gordon has no money and therefore they cannot be wed. Gordon tries to get her to confess to this constantly to no avail. Rosemary seems blind to the contradictions in her feelings towards Gordon.
Gordon’s other friend is a man named Ravelston, who is a member of the upper class who happens to be a Socialist. It is the latter fact that allows the friendship to exist at all; it is what keeps Ravelston in his seat while Gordon batters him with accusations of not understanding poverty (which Ravelston is honest in revealing his ignorance about). Things get very bad for Gordon before Rosemary comes to him and tells him that she is pregnant – the result of the one time she and Gordon have ever slept together. This is what causes Gordon to call a truce in his war on money. He either grows up or sells out, depending on which way you choose to look at it.
The ending is ambiguous in this respect and I think this is what caused Orwell to disown the novel. Which is a shame, because it is an excellent read. It is also key in the Orwell canon as the central dilemma that Gordon faces – whether to live a “pure” life than consigns him to dire poverty or to sell his soul to acquire middle class respectability – was one that Orwell fought with most of his life. It was only the simultaneous arrival of worldwide fame and tuberculosis that brought the matter to a close.
Orwell’s next book, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), was a return to non-fiction. It was the brainchild of his publisher, Victor Gollancz, who wanted a full length tome detailing the lives of working class northern populations for the Left Book Club and thought that Orwell was the right man for the job. Orwell agreed to write the book and spent two months in various locales in the northwest – Wigan, Barnsley, Sheffield, Leeds – researching the subject matter first hand. Unfortunately for Gollancz, when Orwell submitted the draft at the end of 1936, the publisher got more than he had bargained for. Gollancz loved the first half of the book, the one which details in typically visceral Orwell fashion the way in which the poor of the north of England live. The second half of the book, the one that examines the conclusions that Orwell had drawn from his time in the north, Gollancz was much more uncomfortable with. He tried to persuade Orwell to shed the second half altogether, but the author would have none of this. So Gollancz published the whole book – with an introduction essentially trying to equivocate for Orwell’s strident tone in the latter parts of the work. This foreword has thankfully been consigned to history and is no longer included in any current runs of Road to Wigan Pier.
The strengths of the book are what you would expect when you come to intimately know Orwell’s style; as always, it is the little details that stick with you. When it is recounted that the author had his two slices for breakfast handed to him by the owner of an establishment whose hands were so dirty they would leave an imprint of thumb in black on the corner of the bread, the whole squalor of the world Orwell has immersed himself in becomes vivid. There are countless other grotesque vignettes throughout the book. The woman who blows her nose on the shards of newspaper and then discards them randomly upon her own floor is one. The book is very careful with all of these descriptions of the characters Orwell chances upon. He never appears to judge these poor souls for their unhygienic lifestyles; you are given the sense that it is the fault of the system without Orwell explicitly having to say so. As I mentioned, it is these tiny moments that make the book what it is. Even though Orwell goes into great detail about the working conditions of the miners, somehow it’s that black thumbprint on the bread that haunts me.
Orwell’s battles with his publisher over the second half of Road to Wigan Pier was the harbinger of his approaching troubles with the orthodoxies of the British left. It was over the subject of the USSR that Orwell would particularly find himself on the other side of many of his contemporaries, particularly as opinions on Stalin started to harden. Socialists in Britain became convinced that on the other side of the Vistula, the Georgian leader of the Soviets had put in place a worker’s utopia; to go against this, you risked censure and perhaps even outright ostracism from the left wing cognoscenti.
This split with the church of the left time became even more pronounced when Orwell attempted to have his next book, another non-fiction piece entitled Homage to Catalonia (1938), published. Gollancz refused to print it, Orwell’s latest slant against the common left narrative of the time having gone just too far for him this time round. The publisher was fleeing in particular from Orwell’s denunciation of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, who had connections with the Soviet Union, and Orwell’s intricate descriptions of its attempts wipe out the revolutionary anarchist forces that he had fought with.
The Anglo-Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler once described the International Brigades that Orwell stood side by side with in Spain as the first truly cosmopolitan army of volunteers joining together to fight for a multi-national cause since the Crusades. The comparison with the medieval battle against Islam is striking; it makes you realise instantly that what the Crusaders had going for them was either the direct or tacit support of European monarchies. When Stalin turned against the legions of international socialists, denouncing them as Trotskyists in a move that was inevitable, they had nowhere to turn. Many of them died in Spain during the war or were subsequently killed by Franco; those who managed to escape the Iberian Peninsula ended up perishing in prison camps, often in countries like France who were fighting against the common fascist foe, a horribly crushing historical irony.
On the subject of Jo Jugashvili the Georgian, it has been said many times but it’s still worth repeating: Orwell was dead right about Stalin, a fact that only the almost unanimous acceptance of which keeps the modern reader from understanding how difficult a position this was to take for a writer on the left in the late 1930’s. As for Orwell’s book, Homage to Catalonia is the author’s very best piece of long form non-fiction. The Spanish Civil War, in all its shabbiness, its labyrinthine intricacies, was made for Orwell. It is easily the best book I’ve read on the topic and I’ve been through a few. You feel a constant overwhelming sadness about the fact that the various factions who all wished to keep Franco from power could simply not help themselves from fighting with each other. The result was a victory for Generalissimo, and his holding Spain in his grip for the next thirty-six years.
Of course, the description of the most famous event from the book, Orwell getting shot in the neck, is wonderfully described. He spares us any self-pity and simply tells as objectively as possible what he experienced in the moment when the bullet pierced his skin. He has subsequently been sainted for this unfortunate occurrence, the experience of which Orwell himself was at pains to deprecate. But he should be commended for having thrown himself headlong into such a messy conflict in the name of trying to keep a European country free of a fascist dictatorship. If there were no other reasons apart from his stance on Stalin and his volunteering in Spain at the close of 1936, he would still be worthy of high praise.