Down and Out in Paris and London
I think there’s a good chance I would find Orwell’s account of paint-drying compelling as literature, as long as it was filled with the same sort of humble, incisive, clear-headed and well-spoken observations as the rest of his writing. If pressed to name one favorite writer of all-time, it would probably be Mr. Blair, so it’s no surprise that I gobbled up this his first book just as eagerly as I have his others (and finding it equally tasty in the process).
The book is broken up roughly in half, first Paris and then London. I found the French half more interesting, mainly because it was newer to me. The British half, though seeming like a vague echo of Dickens at his most downtrodden, included more sociological observations and theorizing, which increase the importance of the work in my eyes.
Throughout the book Orwell displays a tremendous sensitivity to the plight of the poor. It’s impressive to see his somewhat liberal sensibilities already forming so early in life. And while there is probably something contrived about the book — you get the feeling he’s slumming it in certain ways; he even admits as much with his “Eton accent” — the contrivance affords him a unique opportunity to document a criminally overlooked facet of not just French or British society, but of Western Civilization and capitalism in general. I’m not aware of similar analyses written this early in the 20th century, which would make this one downright groundbreaking. In fact, if I were teaching a Social Work course I would make this book required reading.
At times he’s also hilarious, in that dry British way. I especially loved his ironic examination of the dirtiness in nice French restaurants (“Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.” 80), or the common ways in which foreigners are swindled with their hotel and culinary services (“. . . mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English — no French — and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. . . Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.” 82-3). Also, he early on discusses hunger:
We went several days on dry bread, and then I was two and a half days with nothing to eat whatever. This was an ugly experience. There are people who do fasting cures of three weeks or more, and they say that fasting is quite pleasant after the fourth day; I do not know, never having gone beyond the third day. Probably it seems different when one is doing it voluntarily and is not underfed at the start. 37
His thoughts on the dehumanizing effects of hunger are poignant, that its most evil quality is that it precludes thinking of anything else, completely sapping one’s motivation. It’s a frightful glimpse into the hopelessness of an impoverished person’s situation: too poor to get enough to eat and then too diminished to worry about how to get something to eat.
He is none too forgiving of our society (“I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob.” 119) nor charity (“They can’t even give you a twopenny cup of tea without you go down on you. . . knees for it.” 142), and he isolates English law as the chief culprit behind the “tramp” phenomenon (“A tramp tramps. . . for the same reason as a car keeps to the left; because there happens to be a law compelling him to do so.” 201).
I could keep quoting passages for hours (and pages). At bottom Orwell and this work are alternately funny, poignant, surprising, insightful and even poetic. But above all the book is deeply humanizing and timeless; it’s impossible to read this without feeling more compassionate toward the poor, no matter which era you’re from.
The more I read over the quotes I marked, the more I love this book. It’s an impressive first publishing, and you can’t fault Orwell for not producing something as majestic as Homage to Catalonia on his first try (see my review). Well you could, I guess, but you’d be unfair to do so. In any case, I’m just glad I now have another Orwell book I can recommend to people. I look forward to next reading The Road to Wigan Pier.