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2007-11-04

Book Review - Down and Out in Paris and London

SEATTLE, Washington - Lately, I have been finding fascination in reading the details of poverty, indigence, and bohemianism in bygone eras. I just finished Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell's semi-autobiographical account of life at the bottom rungs of the ladder.

This book provides piles of the minutiae that I love. Orwell starts out in Paris, where he loses his (already meager) living of tutoring English and has to scrape about before finding two long-hours, low-pay plongeur (dishwasher and kitchen assistant) gigs, first in a swanky hotel, then in a small restaurant. Copious detail is given on various fleabag Paris lodging arrangements, scam-artists, and the gory details of hotel and restaurant operations at that time.

Eventually he heads back to England, where a friend has arranged work for him - to be the nursemaid for a "tame imbecile". Good work if you can get it, but the imbecile leaves the country for a month. The penniless Orwell has to fend for himself, crashing at spikes or free lodging houses, tramping about, living on bread & margarine, the whole nine yards. Couldn't he just have holed up for a month with the guy that arranged the job?

There is some unintentional humor in Chapter XXXII. Orwell devotes this chapter to a discussion of London slang and swear words. It may have been helpful as he originally wrote it, but it seems that when published, most of the expletives were removed. This is true in both my printed version, and at the link above (which contains the entire text of the book.) A discussion of profanity ends up reading like satire:


No born Londoner (it is different with people of Scotch or Irish origin) now says ‘bloody’, unless he is a man of some education... The current London adjective, now tacked on to every noun, is —. No doubt in time —, like ‘bloody’, will find its way into the drawing-room and be replaced by some other word....

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.

Orwell nods off into some tired socialist critiques of what he has seen in Chapters XXII and XXXVI. He feels the hard work of the plongeur and other hotel workers is all wasted labor, essentially because the wealthy that stay there are essentially being hoodwinked, spending money on fake luxury instead of genuine value - with all the profit, of course, going to the greedy proprietor. The tramps of London are characterized as simply needing work, can't some be provided?

Perhaps, if Orwell have lived much longer (he died in 1950) he would have seen that the cheery redistributionist socialism he favored, and the totalitarianism he skewered in Animal Farm and 1984, have more in common than not.

2 comments:

Christine said...

The bohemianism of bygone eras intrigues me. One place I was just talking about last weekend that I wouldn't mind living for a year or two is New Orleans in the French Quarter, but I haven't been there since Katrina so I wasn't serious and have nothing to go on anymore. But aside from the architecture and culture which I adored there, there was something appealing about the rather, crazy, indigent, borderline Bohemian/mystical people I met. Back to Orwell of course nothing will top "1984". I first read that book in school as a child and recognized the significance of it to our current world then. I wondered why almost no one else did or cared. I came to the conclusion I must be in a coma. Years later of course I am still stuck in the same coma. ;-) I try to think really hard to come out of it, but damn it, it never works!

Christine said...

So did you know there was going to be a little Orwell tribute coming out in "Reason" or are you just always a few days ahead of the game? ;-)