10 February, 2014. My life is deteriorating all around me. I’m desperately reading everything I can get my hands on in a last-ditch effort to save my mind and my soul — better to look for answers in the words of an author than the bottom of a bottle, even if a lot of those words may have been found at the bottom of a bottle.
I’ve been reading (and living} stories of the human struggle against the system, against man, and against the self.
The journey started with a moth-eaten copy of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Finding a typo on page 229 of this Penguin copy brought expletives against the publisher, editor and printer, but if you consider how this thing came together between the years 1946 and its publication, it is perhaps not surprising. Orwell started writing it in 1946 as his health was once again starting to deteriorate, he spends most of 1947 in a hospital near Glasgow, and then in 1948, unable to find a typist, he types it himself all while his health continued to deteriorate. Finally, after entering a sanatorium in Gloucestershire at the beginning of 1947, Secker and Warburg publish Nineteen Eighty-Four. I guess after all that, I can overlook one typo.
Two titles that hit hardest were Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936).
Without a doubt, the most powerful of these is The Grapes of Wrath. I was captivated from the outset by the struggle of the old tortoise to cross the road in Chapter 2, instantly related to Uncle John’s and Tom Joad’s struggles against their inner demons, was fascinated by mysterious significance of former preacher Jim Casy, and blown away by the final breathtaking scene with Rose of Sharon (“Rosasharn”) in the barn. This novel spoke to me like no other in a very, very long time.
Orwell’s Aspidistra spoke to me in a very different way — as the defiant one. It’s writing was very raw and powerful, driving home the desperate lives of the characters that inhabit London’s down and out world – a “ghost-kingdom”, below ambition, beyond the money-code. His former Eton classmate, Cyril Connolly, called it ‘A completely harrowing and stark account of poverty … written in clear and violent language.” He was commissioned by the Left Book Club to write a book about unemployment and proletarian life in Lancashire. He had spent two months in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield, living with ordinary people. Connolly described Orwell in this way: “I was a stage rebel, Orwell a true one.” What was once a little raw in his Down and Out in London and Paris (1933) gained refinement in Aspidistra. Anyone who has lived a life of defiance, as many adoptees do, will see themselves in the irrational self-destructiveness of Gordon Comstock.
Other books read include Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle (1936), Cannery Row (1945), and The Moon is Down (1942), Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). All disappointed slightly, but were still interesting reads. That easily happens when you hear only the hype of the myth makers without taking a bite and judging for yourself.
Little did I know what was about to happen.