THE CLOCK struck half past two. In the little office at the back of Mr. McKechnie’s bookshop, Gordon—Gordon Comstock, last member of the Comstock family, aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already—lounged across the table, pushing a fourpenny packet of Player’s Weights open and shut with his thumb.
The ding-dong of another, remoter clock—from the Prince of Wales, the other side of the street—rippled the stagnant air. Gordon made an effort, sat upright and stowed his packet of cigarettes away in his inside pocket. He was perishing for a smoke. However, there were only four cigarettes left. To-day was Wednesday and he had no money coming to him till Friday. It would be too bloody to be without tobacco to-night as well as all to-morrow.
Bored in advance by to-morrow’s tobaccoless hours, he got up and moved towards the door—a small frail figure, with delicate bones and fretful movements. His coat was out at elbow in the right sleeve and its middle button was missing; his ready-made flannel trousers were stained and shapeless. Even from above you could see that his shoes needed re-soling.
The money clinked in his trouser pocket as he got up. He knew the precise sum that was there. Fivepence halfpenny—twopence halfpenny and a Joey. He paused, took out the miserable little threepenny-bit and looked at it. Beastly, useless thing! And bloody fool to have taken it! It had happened yesterday, when he was buying cigarettes. “Don’t mind a threepenny-bit, do you, sir?” the little bitch of a shop-girl had
chirped. And of course he had let her give it him. “Oh no, not at all!” he had said—fool, bloody fool!
His heart sickened to think that he had only fivepence halfpenny in the world, threepence of which couldn’t even be spent. Because how can you buy anything with a threepenny-bit? It isn’t a coin, it’s the answer to a riddle. You look such a fool when you take it out of your pocket, unless it’s in among a whole handful of other coins. “How much?” you say. “Threepence,” the shop-girl says. And then you feel all round your pocket and fish out that absurd little thing, all by itself, sticking on the end of your finger like a tiddleywink. The shopgirl sniffs. She spots immediately that it’s your last threepence in the world. You see her glance quickly at it—she’s wondering whether there’s a piece of Christmas pudding still sticking to it. And you stalk out with your nose in the air, and can’t ever go to that shop again. No! We won’t spend our Joey. Twopence halfpenny left—twopence halfpenny to last till Friday.
This was the lonely after-dinner hour, when few or no customers were to be expected. He was alone with seven thousand books. The small dark room, smelling of dust and decayed paper, that gave on the office, was filled to the brim with books, mostly aged and unsaleable. On the top shelves near the ceiling the quarto volumes of extinct encylopædias slumbered on their sides in piles like the tiered coffins in common graves. Gordon pushed aside the blue, dust-sodden curtains that served as a doorway to the next room. This, better lighted than the other, contained the lending library. It was one of those “twopenny no-deposit” libraries beloved of book-pinchers. No books in it except novels, of course. And what novels! But that too was a matter of course.
Eight hundred strong, the novels lined the room on three sides ceiling-high, row upon row of gaudy oblong backs, as though the walls had been built of many-coloured bricks laid upright. They were arranged alphabetically. Arlen, Burroughs, Deeping, Dell, Frankau, Galsworthy, Gibbs, Priestley, Sapper, Walpole. Gordon eyed them with inert hatred. At this moment he hated all books, and novels most of all. Horrible to think of all that soggy, half-baked trash massed together in one place.
Pudding, suet pudding. Eight hundred slabs of pudding, walling him in—a vault of puddingstone. The thought was oppressive. He moved on through the open doorway into the front part of the shop. In doing so, he smoothed his hair. It was an habitual movement. After all, there might be girls outside the glass door. Gordon was not impressive to look at. He was just five feet seven inches high, and because his hair was usually too long he gave the impression that his head was a little too big for his body. He was never quite unconscious of his small stature. When he knew that anyone was looking at him he carried himself very upright, throwing a chest, with a you-be-damned air which occasionally deceived simple people.
However, there was nobody outside. The front room, unlike the rest of the shop, was smart and expensive-looking, and it contained about two thousand books, exclusive of those in the window. On the right there was a glass show-case in which children’s books were kept. Gordon averted his eyes from a beastly Rackhamesque dust-jacket; elvish children tripping Wendily through a bluebell glade. He gazed out through the glass door. A foul day, and the wind rising. The sky was leaden, the cobbles of the street were slimy. It was St. Andrew’s day, the thirtieth of November. McKechnie’s stood on a corner, on a sort of shapeless square where four streets converged. To the left, just within sight from the door, stood a great elm-tree, leafless now, its multitudinous twigs making sepia-coloured lace against the sky. Opposite, next to the Prince of Wales, were tall hoardings covered with ads for patent foods and patent medicines. A gallery of monstrous doll-faces—pink vacuous faces, full of goofy optimism. Q.T. Sauce Truweet Breakfast Crisps (“Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps”), Kangaroo Burgundy, Vitamalt Chocolate, Bovex. Of them all, the Bovex one oppressed Gordon the most. A spectacled rat-faced clerk, with patent-leather hair, sitting at a café table grinning over a white mug of Bovex. “Corner Table enjoys his meal with Bovex,” the legend ran.
Gordon shortened the focus of his eyes. From the dust-dulled pane the reflection of his own face looked back at him. Not a
good face. Not thirty yet, but moth-eaten already. Very pale, with bitter, ineradicable lines. What people call a “good” forehead—high, that is—but a small pointed chin, so that the face as a whole was pear-shaped rather than oval. Hair mouse-coloured and unkempt, mouth unamiable, eyes hazel inclining to green. He lengthened the focus of his eyes again. He hated mirrors nowadays. Outside, all was bleak and wintry. A tram, like a raucous swan of steel, glided groaning over the cobbles, and in its wake the wind swept a debris of trampled leaves. The twigs of the elm tree were swirling, straining eastward. The poster that advertised Q.T. Sauce was torn at the edge; a ribbon of paper fluttered fitfully like a tiny pennant. In the side street too, to the right, the naked poplars that lined the pavement bowed sharply as the wind caught them. A nasty raw wind. There was a threatening note in it as it swept over; the first growl of winter’s anger. Two lines of a poem struggled for birth in Gordon’s mind:
Sharply the something wind—for instance, threatening wind? No, better, menacing wind. The menacing wind blows over—no, sweeps over, say.
The something poplars—yielding poplars? No, better, bending poplars. Assonance between bending and menacing? No matter. The bending poplars, newly bare. Good.
Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over
The bending poplars, newly bare.
Good. “Bare” is a sod to rhyme; however, there’s always “air,” which every poet since Chaucer has been struggling to find rhymes for. But the impulse died away in Gordon’s mind. He turned the money over in his pocket. Twopence halfpenny and a Joey—twopence halfpenny. His mind was sticky with boredom. He couldn’t cope with rhymes and adjectives. You can’t, with only twopence halfpenny in your pocket.
His eyes refocused themselves upon the posters opposite. He had his private reasons for hating them. Mechanically he re-read their slogans. “Kangaroo Burgundy—the wine for Britons.” “Asthma was choking her!” “Q.T. Sauce Keeps Hubby Smiling.” “Hike all day on a Slab of Vitamalt!” “Curve
Cut—the Smoke for Outdoor Men.” “Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps.” “Corner Table enjoys his meal with Bovex.”
Ha! A customer—potential, at any rate. Gordon stiffened himself. Standing by the door, you could get an oblique view out of the front window without being seen yourself. He looked the potential customer over.
A decentish middle-aged man, black suit, bowler hat, umbrella and dispatch-case—provincial solicitor or Town Clerk-peeking at the window with large pale-coloured eyes. He wore a guilty look. Gordon followed the direction of his eyes. Ah! So that was it! He had nosed out those D. H. Lawrence first editions in the far corner. Pining for a bit of smut, of course. He had heard of Lady Chatterley afar off. A bad face he had, Gordon thought. Pale, heavy, downy, with bad contours. Welsh, by the look of him—Nonconformist, anyway. He had the regular Dissenting pouches round the corners of his mouth. At home, president of the local Purity League or Seaside Vigilance Committee (rubber-soled slippers and electric torch, spotting kissing couples along the beach parade), and now up in town on the razzle. Gordon wished he would come in. Sell him a copy of Women in Love. How it would disappoint him!
But no! The Welsh solicitor had funked it. He tucked his umbrella under his arm and moved off with righteously turned backside. But doubtless to-night, when darkness hid his blushes, he’d slink into one of the rubber-shops and buy High Jinks in a Parisian Convent, by Sadie Blackeyes.
Gordon turned away from the door and back to the bookshelves. In the shelves to your left as you came out of the library the new and nearly-new books were kept—a patch of bright colour that was meant to catch the eye of anyone glancing through the glass door. Their sleek unspotted backs seemed to yearn at you from the shelves. “Buy me, buy me!” they seemed to be saying. Novels fresh from the press—still unravished brides, pining for the paperknife to deflower them—and review copies, like youthful widows, blooming still though virgin no longer, and here and there, in sets of half a dozen, those pathetic spinster-things, “remainders,” still guarding hopefully their long preserv’d virginity. Gordon turned his
eyes away from the “remainders.” They called up evil memories. The single wretched little book that he himself had published, two years ago, had sold exactly a hundred and fifty-three copies and then been “remaindered”; and even as a “remainder” it hadn’t sold. He passed the new books by and paused in front of the shelves which ran at right angles to them and which contained more second-hand books.
Over to the right were shelves of poetry. Those in front of him were prose, a miscellaneous lot. Upwards and downwards they were graded, from clean and expensive at eye-level to cheap and dingy at top and bottom. In all bookshops there goes on a savage Darwinian struggle in which the works of living men gravitate to eye-level and the works of dead men go up or down—down to Gehenna or up to the throne, but always away from any position where they will be noticed. Down in the bottom shelves the “classics,” the extinct monsters of the Victorian age, were quietly rotting. Scott, Carlyle, Meredith, Ruskin, Pater, Stevenson—you could hardly read the names upon their broad dowdy backs. In the top shelves, almost out of sight, slept the pudgy biographies of dukes. Below those, saleable still and therefore placed within reach, was “religious” literature—all sects and all creeds, lumped indiscriminately together. The World Beyond, by the author of Spirit Hands Have Touched Me. Dean Farrar’s Life of Christ. Jesus the First Rotarian. Father Hilaire Chestnut’s book of R.C. propaganda. Religion always sells provided it is soppy enough. Below, exactly at eye-level, was the contemporary stuff. Priestley’s latest. Dinky little books of reprinted “middles.” Cheer-up “humour” from Herbert and Knox and Milne. Some highbrow stuff as well. A novel or two by Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. Smart pseudo-Strachey predigested biographies. Snooty, refined books on safe painters and safe poets by those moneyed young beasts who glide so gracefully from Eton to Cambridge and from Cambridge to the literary reviews.
Dull-eyed, he gazed at the wall of books. He hated the whole lot of them, old and new, highbrow and lowbrow, snooty and chirpy. The mere sight of them brought home to him his own sterility. For here was he, supposedly a “writer,” and he
couldn’t even “write”! It wasn’t merely a question of not getting published; it was that he produced nothing, or next to nothing. And all that tripe cluttering the shelves—well, at any rate it existed; it was an achievement of sorts. Even the Dells and Deepings do at least turn out their yearly acre of print. But it was the snooty “cultured” kind of books that he hated the worst. Books of criticism and belles-lettres. The kind of thing that those moneyed young beasts from Cambridge write almost in their sleep—and that Gordon himself might have written if he had had a little more money. Money and culture! In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club. With the same instinct that makes a child waggle a loose tooth, he took out a snooty-looking volume—Some Aspects of the Italian Baroque
—opened it, read a paragraph and shoved it back with mingled loathing and envy. That devasting omniscience! That noxious, horn-spectacled refinement! And the money that such refinement means! For after all, what is there behind it, except money? Money for the right kind of education, money for influential friends, money for leisure and peace of mind, money for trips to Italy. Money writes books, money sells them. Give me not righteousness, O Lord, give me money, only money.
He jingled the coins in his pocket. He was nearly thirty and had accomplished nothing; only his miserable book of poems that had fallen flatter than any pancake. And ever since, for two whole years, he had been struggling in the labyrinth of a dreadful book that never got any further, and which, as he knew in his moments of clarity, never would get any further. It was the lack of money, simply the lack of money, that robbed him of the power to “write.” He clung to that as to an article of faith. Money, money, all is money! Could you write even a penny novelette without money to put heart in you? Invention, energy, wit, style, charm—they’ve all got to be paid for in hard cash.
Nevertheless, as he looked along the shelves he felt himself a little comforted. So many of the books were faded and unreadable. After all, we’re all in the same boat. Memento mori. For you and for me and for the snooty young men from
Cambridge, the same oblivion waits—though doubtless it’ll wait rather longer for those snooty young men from Cambridge. He looked at the time-dulled “classics” near his feet Dead, all dead. Carlyle and Ruskin and Meredith and Stevenson—all are dead, God rot them. He glanced over their faded titles. Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Ha, ha! That’s good. Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson!
Its top edge was black with dust. Dust thou art, to dust returnest. Gordon kicked Stevenson’s buckram backside. Art there, old false-penny? You’re cold meat, if ever Scotchman was.
Ping! The shop bell. Gordon turned round. Two customers, for the library.
A dejected, round-shouldered, lower-class woman, looking like a draggled duck nosing among garbage, seeped in, fumbling with a rush basket. In her wake hopped a plump little sparrow of a women, red-cheeked, middle-middle class, carrying under her arm a copy of The Forsyte Saga—title outwards, so that passers-by could spot her for a highbrow.
Gordon had taken off his sour expression. He greeted them with the homey, family-doctor geniality reserved for library-subscribers.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Weaver. Good afternoon, Mrs. Penn. What terrible weather!”
“Shocking!” said Mrs. Penn.
He stood aside to let them pass. Mrs. Weaver upset her rush basket and spilled on to the floor a much-thumbed copy of Ethel M. Dell’s Silver Wedding. Mrs. Penn’s bright bird-eye lighted upon it. Behind Mrs. Weaver’s back she smiled up at Gordon, archly, as highbrow to highbrow. Dell! The lowness of it! The books these lower classes read! Understandingly, he smiled back. They passed into the library, highbrow to highbrow smiling.
Mrs. Penn laid The Forsyte Saga on the table and turned her sparrow-bosom upon Gordon. She was always very affable to Gordon. She addressed him as Mister Comstock, shopwalker though he was, and held literary conversations ...