Monday, February 18, 2013

Down and Out in Paris and London

I had never really read this book, only sections of it quoted at length in other works. These are the notes I made during and after reading, slightly edited (the purpose of this series of posts is to give someone who only know 1984 and Animal Farm a reason to read his other works, which are, despite their deficiencies, much more human in the sense that you learn much about Orwell the man, more than he realized, I imagine, and also a sense of what they might find):

It is much better than The Road to Wigan Pier, much livelier, more characterful, more a collection of good stories than a tedious political tract as that is. I shall read it to the end, it is certainly worth it, but it suffers from the same problems as his other autobiographical works- a lack of self-awareness and of genuine insight.

He is not working class and he never could be. He works hard at the restaurants in Paris, very hard indeed when he can get a job, and he suffers hardship when he can't. But it's all a game to Orwell. It's a bit of fun to placate his existential boredom and his bourgeois guilt. At the very most it's a kind of research. When he decides he can take no more he writes to England and asks someone to find him a comfortable job as a private secretary to someone or other. And that's it. He's bored with the game and goes back to his real life. Just like in Spain when after a few months he's had enough of the war and just goes back to England and gets on with his life.

He deals almost entirely with people like himself, broken-down foreign bourgoisie. He never chooses the company of the French working class, who he is so despetately trying to pretend he is like and understands better than anyone else. He either sneers at them- the landlords trying to make ends meet, the cooks and waiters at the restaurant making a living, taking pride in doing their job well, are enemies in the parochial little world he doesn't realize he's retreated into- or he charicatures them through the people and behaviours he describes seeing in the bars.

I was reminded by a scene he describes in a bar on a Saturday, where a brief moment of timeless joy and power gives way to the inevitable maudlin drunkenness and hangover. He says it was probably worth it. It reminded me of a black character in Faulkner's 'The Rievers', who says, 'If you could only be a nigger one Saturday night, you wouldn't want to be a white man again as long as you live.'

He is particularly blind when wondering what the life of a plongeur is for. He compares it disfavourably with the work of a miner, whose product is needed by other people. He doesn't seem to realize that if restaurants weren't wanted they wouldn't exist (unlike coal which was mined for political reasons at public expense for decades after it had ceased to be wanted in any quantity. I wonder if Orwell would have agreed with that business, or if he would acknowledged it was happening). 

People like to eat well without having to cook or clean, when they can afford to do so. Working men need to earn a living. Competent businessmen, restaurateurs- and anyone who wants to take a chance can be one, after all- satisfy both of those needs at once, while benefitting themselves at the same time. It is silly to ask for what purpose a plongeur works 15 hours a day. The purpose is the same for which any man works, to fill his belly. It is even sillier to claim, as he does, that there is some kind of conspiracy of the wealthy to keep the poor toiling senselessly, for fear they might otherwise want to share in their wealth.

It's a good read, illuminating on many aspects of poverty that most of us have probably never known or even thought about.


Sackerson said...

Don't you think you're being a bit hard on him?

James Higham said...

for a moment I thought you'd fallen on hard times.

CIngram said...


I wasn't trying to be fair, nor to write a complete review. I'm a fan of Orwell's writing style and admire the fact that he was able to accept and analyse the effects of reality on his beliefs, and to change them accordingly. These comments focus on the negative reactions I had because I was surprised by them, whereas I wasn't surprised to find much of it very good.

The most surprising thing to me was the way he fails to become a part of the class he himself thinks he has joined. This is less clear in England, in fact it might be fair to say that he really does become one more tramp there, but in Paris he is never one of them, just as in Spain he often seems to think that the war is all about the foreign mercenaries (perhaps the wrong word, idealists, maybe) who made up a very small part of the Republican forces, rather than the Spaniards who were fighting not just for their beliefs but for their livelihoods and their identities, and would have to live with the whatever way the war ended.


Not yet, I'm glad to say ;-) And if it comes to it I'd go to Marbella rather than Paris. If you're going to live on the streets it might as well be the beach front.