Rich Book, Poor World

Down and Out in Paris and London
by George Orwell

I was happy with this find: first because I came across it in a lovely bookstore, the kind of shop I want to own someday, a little storefront with ten-foot-high shelves, with only enough space between for one person to pass, and yet a bright and sunny atmosphere, warm and welcoming — the proprietor had read both books I bought, and praised them both, so I felt both accompanied and intelligent; second because it is an old copy, with genuine cover art (The image above) and a 35-cent price printed at the top (Yeah, that’s right — mine was even cheaper than this image!), and a sweet, soft smell to the pages; third because everything I read by George Orwell makes me admire the man more, and fills me with the desire both to read and to write.

It was an excellent read. Orwell has a journalist’s eye and a journalist’s pen; the prose is clear and straightforward, the detail precise and thorough and fascinating. He creates characters among his acquaintances mostly through simple description of their appearance and actions and words; within the first ten pages you meet one of the more appalling people Orwell knew in Paris, and you know why, based merely on the drunken speech Orwell relates from the man. He makes himself a character, as well, though he creates his own character similarly, through speech and action and description; there is never any explanation given for how he ended up in Paris, so close to destitute, but he quickly joins the ranks of the poorest, being forced to sell his clothing in order to buy food, and spending days at a time starving before he finds employment again.

Orwell also creates a graphic picture of the two great cities at the time, in the 1930’s, between the World Wars when the greatest threat to Western society was socialism; there is a constant theme of intolerance running through his interactions with authorities, and though he is frequently harassed for his poverty and the corresponding assumption of lawlessness, he comments that it would be much worse were he suspected of being a Socialist — which, of course, he was, though not a politically active one at the time. He tells of the slums of Paris and the workhouses of London, and creates an expose of Paris restaurants and hotels worthy of Upton Sinclair.

There are some moments I would change: Orwell reveals his own prejudices, against some races and nationalities and particularly against Jews; there is a presumption that the reader knows French, which I do not; and in this edition, at least, the curse words were blanked out — which wasn’t a problem when Orwell wrote things like “Shut yer ______ mouth and get on with yer bath!” because even if I don’t know what he meant (almost certainly “damn”), I can fill it in with my own imagination and be no worse off for it. But then there was a passage when Orwell was expounding on why curse words become curse words, and how they lose their original meaning as soon as they reach common use; and it read like “But ________ is no worse than _______, which was once used less often than _________.” Which was obnoxious.

It was also quite disgusting at times, and quite sad; but then, so is the subject. It’s a short and largely simple read, and Orwell’s insights, offered at the end, are sharp and precise, and leave one with some very interesting thoughts.

Highly recommended.

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