Down and Out in Paris and London

Downout_paris_londonIt is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty — it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.

These are some of George Orwell’s first thoughts on his experience being very poor — being down and out, in fact — in Down and Out in Paris and London. During 1927 and 1928, Orwell lived in these two great cities as an aspiring writer and journalist. He often could not make ends meet, and once had his small savings stolen, so in Paris he took on work as a plongeur, or dishwasher in a restaurant — backbreaking labor for fourteen hours a day, leaving him no time to write and scarcely time to think. His description of the filthy kitchen work is vivid — you can almost feel the heat and smell the overflowing trash can.

Upon being offered a job in London, he scraped up the money for passage there, only to find that he had a month to wait for the job, with nothing at all to live on. Vagrancy laws did not permit men to stay in the casual ward — free lodging — more than one night in succession, so Orwell became to all intents and purposes a tramp, moving from one place to another, doing odd jobs for food, and going hungry when charity could not be found.

I enjoyed this book hugely. Orwell’s prose is vigorous and succinct, always finding exactly the right tone. Despite the fact that he’s writing about something that could range from depressing to genuinely heartbreaking — the experience of true poverty and hunger — he is honest, but still funny, finding the odd, the interesting, and the unexpected in every circumstance. I expected him to sneer at religious charity, but instead he simply observes that even when such charity is given with the kindest of intentions, few are grateful for the sermons and enforced prayers that come with the free meal.

At the end of each section, Orwell makes some brief observations about the system that makes such poverty possible. He asks why plongeurs must work fourteen hours a day — what possible luxury it can provide that could make a man a slave — and why tramps should be vilified for a vagrancy that is enforced by law. He points out that hunger makes men weak, and unfit for work, so those who do not work are more likely to be hungry than lazy. He says that his own experience was merely the fringes of poverty, but that it taught him a great deal, and that most hatred and fear (and therefore ill-treatment) of the poor comes from ignorance.

Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.

His prose is crystal clear, forceful, and fascinating. I would read this, or any other essay, by Orwell in a heartbeat. Highly recommended.

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12 Responses to Down and Out in Paris and London

  1. Jeane says:

    I thought it was such a great book. Although the parts about his work in the restaurant basement made me leery of eating out for a while!

  2. Eva says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this one for awhile, but you’re making me want to read it even more!!!

  3. Nymeth says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this ever since I read and loved The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s writing really is superb.

  4. I’m mixed on this book; I read it last year and didn’t love it. But, your review points to some of the things I really enjoyed — the description, especially. I think what I didn’t love is that it felt like Orwell hadn’t quite found his voice. He’s so clear and strong in some of his later fiction, this one comes off as a little wishy-washy to me. But maybe a second read would change that opinion :)

    Anyway, here’s my review: http://www.sophisticateddorkiness.com/2008/11/17/review-down-and-out-in-paris-and-london/

  5. Steph says:

    I’ve read 1984 and Animal Farm (both of which I’d like to re-read!), but I haven’t read any of Orwell’s nonfiction. I do remember really liking his writing, and I’ve visited both London & Paris, so I think I would enjoy his less than glamorous insights into the city. This sounds like the kind of non-fiction I can get behind!

  6. rebeccareid says:

    Sounds so wonderful! I have never read Orwell’s essays. Sounds like I need to remedy that.

  7. softdrink says:

    I’ve never even heard of this! But it sounds wonderful, so I’m adding it to the wish list. Thanks!

  8. Jenny says:

    Jeane — I know what you mean! I comforted myself with the belief that this only happened 80 years ago, not today…

    Eva — it was a real pleasure. I wished it was longer.

    Nymeth — don’t you love his writing? I can’t decide what to go for next. Maybe Burmese Days, as I love travel writing.

    Kim — thanks for the link! I didn’t find this one wishy-washy at all, but since it’s an early piece, maybe you’re the one who is more sensitive to it. In any case, his weak writing is stronger than almost anyone else’s!

    Steph — I think a big collection of his essays recently came out. I’m betting you could get it used or from the library.

    Rebecca — I read “Such, Such Were the Joys” in the Art of the Personal Essay. Marvelous. That’s what made me look for this one.

    Softdrink — Let me know what you think when you get to it!

  9. Eva says:

    Just to let you know, Burmese Days is a novel, not a travelogue! I read it earlier this year, and THEN I read an excellent travelogue by Emma Larkin called Finding George Orwell in Burma. It talks about Burmese Days, Animal Farm, & 1984, and obviously gives away a lot of plot points, so I think it’s best read after you’ve read those three Orwell novels. :)

  10. litlove says:

    Great review – I have this on my shelf and I’ve wanted to read it for ages. But after reading Henry Miller and then Gertrude Stein, I couldn’t face that exile in Paris thing for a while. I’ll certainly pick it up one of these days, though!

  11. novelinsights says:

    Really enjoyed this review. I read this a few years ago when I was going through a bit of an Orwell phase (I think at uni). It really is excellent and that last quote really sums up how I felt myself after reading it. Have you read Homage to Catalonia? If you enjoyed Down and Out I think you would enjoy that. What I like about Orwell is that his writing is actually interesting, his comments are on the mark but he doesn’t ramble.

  12. Jenny says:

    Eva — thanks for the heads-up about Burmese Days. Why did I think that was nonfiction? Anyway, I think I will try to stick to his essays and travelogues, as I seem to love his nonfiction.

    litlove — expatriates can wear on you, but I find Orwell very refreshing. He has few pretensions and his style is vigorous. I hope you’ll enjoy it when you get to it!

    novelinsights — Thank you very much for the recommendation — Homage to Catalonia sounds like just the thing I would enjoy next!

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