According to Gordon Bowker, this is one of the novels Orwell wanted his literary executor to suppress after his death. That’s a clear indication of how Orwell felt about the novel and it’s fair to say that it’s not his strongest work. However, it still has a lot going for it, in particular black humour, sharp satire and a window into Orwell’s own life.
Having recently read Bowker’s biography of Orwell, I particularly appreciated the autobiographical elements of the novel, which otherwise would have been lost on me. The novel is Orwell at his most autobiographical. The main protagonist, Gordon Comstock, has a similar “lower upper middle class” background to Orwell. Like Orwell, Gordon rejects the values of his family and social class, turning against what he describes as “the money-god”. He forsakes a hated “good job” in order to pursue a writing career, just as Orwell gave up a career in the Imperial Police Force in Burma to become a writer. Gordon works in a secondhand bookstore - as did Orwell - and his descent into poverty is based on Orwell’s experiences living among the unemployed and the destitute.
For me, one of the major weaknesses of the work is that Gordon’s rage against middle class values becomes rather tedious (although to be fair, that may have been part of the point Orwell wanted to make). Another is that it’s hard to believe that Gordon’s long-suffering girlfriend, Rosemary, would persist in her devotion to someone so determinedly unattractive. On balance, though, the strengths of the work outweigh the weaknesses. When you get down to it, Orwell’s wonderful prose makes everything he wrote worth reading.
I listened to an audiobook edition narrated by Richard E Grant. His narration could not be faulted and I’d probably listen to him reading the bus timetable.
*Orwell's description of what good prose should be like.