George Orwell is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He was a soothsayer and a genius. Read Inside the Whale (a must read for all Orwell fans), Animal Farm, and 1984, and you will understand why the man has a reputation. However, Down and Out in Paris And London is not one of his better works. The book is decent at best (I give it three stars), and if the book was written by some random schmuck, my rating would be much more brutal.
Orwell has consistently proven his worth as a great writer, something rare even amongst the great writers who can only produce one masterpiece after a lifetime of striving to create a memorable piece of literature (e.g. John Kennedy O’Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces and Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night). Unfortunately, Down and Out in Paris And London is not a masterpiece. It is the one disappointing exception to an otherwise undisputed collection of great novels that champion the individual.
This book is an autobiography about his life “in the slums” and is Orwell’s earlier work when he was trying to make a name for himself as a writer (another reason I was light on the rating). Though I believe he chose this life, instead of actually being “down and out,” Orwell glamorizes poverty and the “interesting” bums he meets. Take for example the interesting and super intellectual bum named “Bozo.” That is his real name…Bozo. I guess this Bozo character is extremely “authentic” and is idolized by Orwell, who won’t shut up about him.
Jean Paul Sartre (great writer in his own right, but a nut in his politics) is popular for glamorizing this idea of the “authentic” which consisted of being a drunk, poor asshole that was unemployed and was supposedly “sticking it to the man” by resorting to petty crime. We know now this is just celebrated perpetual adolescent behavior the hippies later would adopt and never seem to grow out of, even today. Grow up and start acting like an adult male. Luckily Orwell did later on.
Mr. Orwell could have left this “life of poverty” at any time, but rather enjoyed pretentiously pretending to be downtrodden, as if being poor was something to hold in high regard and something to strive for. As if rising out of poverty was not the goal of the poor, but smugly accepting your life was. In this book, Orwell wanted to be victimized to get a sensationalize story and exploiting his so-called poverty (just like that prick Jack Kerouac; pseudo-poverty is as transparent as a half-eaten greasy bag of fries found in a dumpster).
Orwell wanted a romanticized story and wanted to experience something “real” and “authentic.” This “authentic life” consisted of being smelly and having lice while homeless homosexual men tried to penetrate his butt in his sleep on the floor of the disease infested Salvation Army (this is actually in the book). What a fun time and quite the amazing experience!
Down and Out in Paris And London is a testament of a masochist. This is common among some of Orwell’s other pieces. Another piece where he so cleverly attempts this glamorization is the short story “Down the Mine” from Inside the Whale. It is another oversaturated sentimental propaganda piece to show empathy with the working class coal miners of the day. It is so overtly propaganda-like, one would question if it was done intentionally. There is no doubt the working class is an honorable class, but the way he writes about it borders on sappy romanticism. Orwell thinks he is almost suffering with them. I am surprised a miner didn’t call him a whiny pussy and kicked him out of the mine for getting in his way.
The book does contain some interesting points, such as Orwell’s commentary on the food industry. He talks about how sweat gets in the food from the cooks and other rather frivolous, but thought provoking ideas. Besides this, the book left me wishing it was packed with more interesting terms and phrases that we have all come to love (four legs good, two bad; Thought Police, Big Brother, etc). You won’t find any great terms or memorable phrases in Down and Out in Paris And London. The story is very redundant and the book could have ended a lot sooner, though this was one of the closest things to gems in the book:
Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work.
Below are some vague and sporadic interesting quotes:
Without another word I pulled her off the bed and threw her on to the floor. And then I fell upon her like a tiger! Ah, the joy, the incomparable rapture of that time! There, Messieurs et dames, is what I would expound to you; voila l’amour! There is the true love, there is the only thing in the world worth striving for; there is the thing beside which all your arts and ideals, all your philosophies and creeds, all your fine words and high attitudes, are as pale and profitless as ashes. When one has experienced love- the true love- what is there in the world that seems more than a mere ghost of joy?
You are strong, eh?’ he said.
‘Very strong,’ I said untruly.
Down and Out in Paris And London is simple, well-written, and was a quick easy read. The content just didn’t grab me nearly as much as his later works. In the end, the only thing I really appreciated about the book was not working 14-hour days, 6 days a week, only to crawl into a bed of bugs while eating watery bread for every meal.
If you thought you invented “Bolsheviks” instead of saying “Bullshit,” you did not, because George Orwell did in this book. With this said, I would say this book is mostly “Bolsheviks,” so if you’re only a casual Orwell fan stick to his later works when he was seasoned with life experience and possessed a less idealistic view of the world. It was this very view that allowed him to see the Thought Police just over the horizon.
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