Thursday, October 15, 2009

Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell

Imagine what A Tale of Two Cities would be like if it had been written by Debbie Downer. That's sort of what this book is like. The main character teeters on the edge of existence in Paris as a dishwasher, then in England as a tramp. The amount of work involved in being out of work is startling. The narrator makes the point that tramping is only a belittled profession because it doesn't pay well. "If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately" (174). Or is it Orwell making the point? It's hard to tell how much of this book is fiction and how much non-fiction. The back of the book tells booksellers to stock it in the fiction section, but some summations of Orwell's work includes this book as a work of non-fiction. Orwell did spend some time as a dishwasher, but was that the basis for the story, or research for the essay?

Given that confusion, the narrator's tendency to blame Jews for many things makes the modern reader uneasy. Is this a narrator, or the author? Part of the unease comes from subsequent history. It's not Orwell's fault that the Holocaust happened. Poor white people are always the most racist because they are always the most threatened by advancing minorities. A borderline-subsistence dishwasher and tramp would easily be anti-semitic, but the blurring between author and narrator leaves the reader uncomfortable with all the hatred of Jewish pawn brokers and landlords.

One chapter is all about tramp slang and tramp swearing. However, the publisher bowlderized the entire section, leaving paragraphs such as this:

A word becomes an oath because it means a certain thing, and, because it has become an oath, it ceases to mean that thing. For example, -------. The Londoners do not now use, or very seldom use, this word in its original meaning; it is on their lips from morning till night, but it is a mere expletive and means nothing. Similarly with -------, which is rapidly losing its original sense. One can think of similar instances in French, for example, ------, which is now a quite meaningless expletive. The word -----, also, is still used occasionally in Paris, but the people who use it, or most of them, have no idea of what it once meant. (177)

One word that made it past the sensors, is when the narrator tells us that two tramps fought because of "one saying to the other, 'Bull shit,' which was taken for Bolshevik--a deadly insult" (192). This fits with the way the English tramps are paradoxically anti-socialist. In one bunkhouse for tramps the narrator works an afternoon in the kitchen of the neighboring poor house, where he throws away five pailfuls of leftover food. He mentions to another tramp that the food could have been given to the bunkhouse, but "I saw that I had awakened the pew-renter who sleeps in every English workman. Though he had been famished along with the others, he at once saw reasons why the food should have been thrown away rather than given to the tramps" (198). The homeless French were affected with a lazy socialism that came more from the expectation of their station in life than from conviction, but the British tramps were rabid loyalists.

Ultimately, I liked this book. Maybe I liked it because it's about being poor, and I'm becoming poorer and poorer.

And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs--and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety. (20-1)

For a while I thought I might give it my first 7-monkey rating. I'm not sure about that, though. It's good, but it wasn't the Nadia Comăneci of books. But it was better than the two books I've rated at 6.5 monkeys, so I guess my rating should reflect that. After all, there is only one Nadia Comăneci of books, and it's Moby-Dick.

Rating: 7 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

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