Saturday, March 27, 2021

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell


I was inspired to read this book after picking up and enjoying A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway, which was a beautifully written memoir of living in Paris as a broke writer in the 1920s. I didn't even think I liked Hemingway as an author until I read that book and was totally blown away by the vivid descriptions of the "lost generation" working on many of their magna opera that would make them famous-- in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald, posthumously so. DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON is Orwell's memoir of being a broke writer in the 1930s and it is... well, vivid, yes, but not in the fun way. More like in the visceral doom-scrolling way that so many of us are accustomed to in Our Year 2021.

There are two parts to this book. It opens with Paris, which in some ways does glamorize poverty, I feel. Or maybe that's just because Paris is more livable to those in dire straits. He paints comical portraits of his landlords and fellow tenants, and of his co-workers at the hotel at which he worked as a dishwasher. This was my favorite portion of the book because it feels the most light-hearted-- he has some cunning observations on the poor versus the rich, on the hypocrisies of society, and a few cunning tips on how to even the odds as someone who has the odds stacked against them. Unfortunately, this is also the part of the book that is rife with antisemitism. Given the time at which this was published, it was not shocking to excuse it, but the zeitgeist does not excuse the fact that many of his comments would be wholly inappropriate today, even if it makes it easier to understand why he says and thinks the things he does. Apparently, Orwell came to question many of his harmful beliefs later in life in his journals (he was an ardent diarist) and if that is the case, it is glad news, because history is filled with creators who have messed up some way ethically and rather than introspect and seek to be better people, they have simply doubled-down and closed their ears.

The London portion, as others have pointed out, is much starker and far more grim. There is a description of a lodging house that is truly horrifying. The characters he meets in this portion are also interesting but I feel like they didn't have the verve of the people he met in the Paris portion, and Orwell himself seems so much more exhausted here. The work is harsher and less forgiving, people seem so much more jaded, the conditions are draconian, etc. I also found it to be more repetitive and skimmed some portions, although I did like his chapter where he lists out some of the "cant" he observed among people working the streets, and meditates on slang, appropriated words, and Cockney dialect.

Whether you like or hate Orwell (and there are reasons to feel either way), I think this is a fascinating insight into his life, and there were several events that seemed to inspire his two major works, 1984 and Animal Farm (particularly his observations on how the working class is exploited and basically worked to the bone while the rich pretend to care but don't). The first portion of the book is like hearing about that one "bro" friend of yours recount travel to a questionable location while staying in a dangerous hostel. The second portion of the book is like hearing about that same "bro" friend recounting a terrible ordeal. The tonal shift between the two portions is noticeable and even though it affected my reading, it really made the book feel raw and real in a way that some of these literary figures sometimes don't because so much time has passed that their personalities feel removed from their work.

Anyone who enjoys edgy memoirs or learning more about literary figures will enjoy this.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

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