Unless you’ve lived in a quaint intellectual isolation, you’ve heard of George Orwell, though you may not have looked him up as I’ve recently done, so you don’t know that his real name was Eric Blair. Can you picture that one day someone said, “What are you working on these days, Eric?” and he replied, “It’s a novel about totalitarian governments. I might just take this year’s date and reverse the last two numbers and call it ‘1984’. What do you think?”
As it happened, of course, the dark dystopian novel 1984 became Eric’s most successful book, so that even his pleasant pseudonym (naming himself for the River Orwell in eastern England) has acquired a dark connotation, as in the adjective Orwellian. In our time, Orwell’s somewhat ominous literary reputation is augmented by the book Animal Farm, written during World War II, four years before 1984.
Long before either of those books, however, when Eric Blair was just an Englishman who had worked as a policeman in Burma as part of the British imperial world, then grown disgusted with that system, when he was just one more guy wanting to make a living as a writer, he lived in poverty, which he later wrote about in the book Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. I was drawn to read this book because the title sounded appealing. I figured it was a book about a writer on hard times.
If we take the book as autobiography, which it appears to be, it will raise some questions. To begin with, it is written to show that his time in Paris was followed by a period of poverty in London, but in fact, the events happened in London first, followed by Paris. A question may also be raised, when reading the accounts of extreme poverty, to know that young Eric had friends in London, and his aunt was living in Paris, and he probably did not need to live as he did.
However, if we discount the work as pure biography, does it still have value? Yes. Orwell’s intention was to write about the type of life (or lives) he described, rather than specifically about himself. Even if he experienced the down-and-out life in both cities intentionally in order to describe it, that does not negate the fact that thousands of people were living such lives in England and France (and everywhere on earth) out of necessity. Using himself as an example, Orwell describes lives that, for me at least, seem incredible for their destitution and hardship.
In the past I have described my own life as having been to the bottom, but that is not literally true. There is no bottom. As long as breath is rattling in your body, no matter how bad things are, there is a way for them to be worse. For whatever hardships I may have experienced in my life, or have now, I have never ceased to live like a prince in luxury compared to people Orwell describes, and I know he is describing a reality that is still with us. Unless you have a repellent belief in your own entitlement, some sense of perspective has to result from contemplating the human condition.
Down and Out in Paris and London provides a detailed look at how people have gone hungry living in two capital cities of the rich western world. If you are even reading this blog, you’ve probably never experienced such a life. The Paris section of the book might be seen as having two parts. In the first part, Orwell loses his source of income, teaching English occasionally, and he begins trying to survive on no money, or incredibly little. He joins up with a Russian friend, and together they live a life of degradation, faint hopes of how to get through each day, and periods of starvation, when they go for several days at a time with no food. I’ll quote here part of an incident in which they try to sneak their coats out of the place they are living (the landlord might think they were trying to leave without paying rent if he saw them taking the coats), in order to pawn them. “I went home and fetched my overcoat (that made already nine kilometres, on an empty belly) and smuggled Boris’s coat out successfully. Then a hitch occurred. The receiver at the pawnshop, a nasty, sour-faced interfering, little man—a typical French official—refused the coats on the ground that they were not wrapped up in anything.”
In the second part of the Paris section, Orwell and his Russian friend get jobs, first in a large very fancy hotel. Orwell is employed as a dishwasher, deep in the bowels of the hotel. He is a very observant dish washer, carefully describing the work, the workers, the social hierarchy, and the hopeless hard life of doing such work. “The plongeurs [dish washers], again, have a different outlook. Theirs is a job which offers no prospects, is intensely exhausting, and at the same time has not a trace of skill or interest; the sort of job that would always be done by women if women were strong enough.”
When the action moves to London, the type of life Orwell describes is quite different, though still stark and meaningless. In London there is no fixed location, as he joins a small army of destitute men who move daily from place to place, staying in special houses that will put them up for the night. The stays are usually uncomfortable and even degrading. The reason the men keep moving is that British law at that time would not allow them to spend two nights in a row in one of these types of houses.
Orwell shows his skill and ambition as a writer in the book, as he includes stories, sometimes long stories, about characters he meets. At times such descriptions are very detailed, with stories that other characters tell, such as a man who wound up praying to a picture of a prostitute on the wall, thinking it was a picture of a saint. At times, especially in the last few pages of the book, Orwell comments more overtly on society, as he leaves the narrative to move into a more abstract third-person discussion. Then he talks about why people are living in such ways, and how these patterns fit into the society of the time. Most of the book, however, lets the readers draw their own conclusions about society, if they are so inclined.