Jesse's Reviews > Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
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's review
Jan 27, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: for-class, left-bank-excursions, read-in-2011

Much like Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, Orwell's heavily autobiographical journalistic novel makes me vaguely uncomfortable—I just can never quite bring myself to fully embrace depictions of "playing poverty" by young white men from bourgeois (or better) backgrounds. Granted, the comparison is a bit unfair, as Hemingway was clearly indulging in a project of retroactive self-mythification and intentionally fudging details while Orwell was attempting something akin to a social exposé, using his experiences to expose the European middle class readership of the realities of menial labor and begging. It's not that I intrinsically have a problem with these men's social privilege, it's the fact that it's never explicitly accounted for, which quickly leads to an untruthful romanticization of the disempowerment and disenfranchisement that is legitimately experienced by many people (who I'm quite sure don't find it a bit glamorous or romantic).

The narrative (if it can be accurately described as such) is an often awkward blend of colorful picaresque storytelling and stern Marxist-influenced polemics, but Orwell is at his best when relishing in the detailed minutia of the social microcosms he often finds himself enmeshed in, ranging from a posh French hotel to the British vagrant community. Because I have worked in the hospitality industry I was fascinated by the rigid workplace hierarchies of Parisian hotels and restaurants, and I thoroughly enjoyed the depictions of the countless creative ways that the sparking facades presented to paying tourists are undermined behind every kitchen and closet door ("roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it"). Things might be much more sanitary now, but the behind-the-scene subversions and resentments were on occasion remarkably familiar.

Once Orwell transfers from Paris to London, however, things get progressively more dull—the witty, stylistic flourishes and the vibrant characterizations and anecdotes Orwell employs in his presentation of Paris gives way to a serious, plodding social-realist depiction of British street people, and the diatribes also become more frequent. At which point I had to force myself to finish the last few chapters, which unfortunately means I ended on a more sour note, which isn't very indicative of my experience with the majority of the text. C'est la vie.

[Read for ENG630:02 - Expatriate Writers in Paris: 1930's, 1940's and Beyond]

"Poverty is what I am writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. The slum, with its dirt and queer lives, was first an object-lesson in poverty, and then the background for my own experiences. It is for that reason that I try to give some idea of what life was like there."

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Reading Progress

January 27, 2011 – Started Reading
January 27, 2011 – Shelved
January 27, 2011 – Shelved as: for-class
January 27, 2011 – Shelved as: left-bank-excursions
January 27, 2011 –
page 87
February 1, 2011 –
page 133
62.44% ""England is a good country when you are not poor..." Lol, so, so true."
February 5, 2011 – Finished Reading
February 6, 2011 –
page 213
February 6, 2011 – Shelved as: read-in-2011

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Jesse Yeah, I took the class focusing on the 20's last semester, and it was one of the best lit classes I've ever taken. This is shaping up to be a great one too. Reading list:

Baldwin - Giovanni's Room
Barnes - Nightwood (overlap from last semester)
Beckett - Murphy
Miller - Tropic of Cancer
Nin - Henry and June
Stein - Picasso
Wright - The Outsider

As well as Orwell, and selected essays by Janet Flanner and Nancy Cunard.

message 2: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Well, Orwell wasn't exactly "playing poverty" a la Hemingway in Paris -- Hemingway had his first wife's money and a favourable exchange rate. At least Orwell was actually washing dishes and tramping around, and he admits he didn't really see more than the "fringe" of poverty. It's sort of a forerunner to Nickel and Dimed. Journalists going undercover to expose poverty, abuse, &c (think Nellie Bly) have necessarily always been from a higher economic class than the people whose exploitation they're reporting on.

Jesse You're absolutely right, which is why I admitted the comparison is a bit unfair, even if they did both give me a similar type of vague uneasiness. Orwell could have avoided this all by saying straight out that this was an investigative job, which would have mitigated a lot of my misgivings. But he never does that; really the only hint within the text itself come in the second half that he had a good education (and thus comes from a certain class).

Honestly though, even though I a lot more misgivings with it, A Movable Feast was just a lot more interesting to read. I found the second half of Down & Out exceedingly dull (which is why it got two stars instead of three like Movable Feast).

message 4: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Moveable Feast is beautifully readable! Even if he does pillory all his friends in it.

message 5: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jesse wrote: "Stein - Picasso"

Also, must get this somehow.

message 6: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell No idea.

Aimee I remember really enjoying this book. It fascinated and repulsed me at the same time especially with his descriptions of the restaurants. I also found it comical at times. I respect your review though and found it well written.

Jesse Isn't it fawning? I heard that somewhere but I can't remember where.

Oh, it is--Picasso was one of the close friends that Stein was able to maintain (likely because they worked in different mediums, reducing the competitive edge that killed most of Stein's literary friendships). I started it today... it's much more readable than I expected.

I remember really enjoying this book. It fascinated and repulsed me at the same time especially with his descriptions of the restaurants. I also found it comical at times. I respect your review though and found it well written.

I saw your star rating, and I really can see why one would enjoy it (I'm expecting it to be quite popular in class tomorrow). I also found the first half very funny, and I think the book as a whole would have been significantly improved if he had been able to maintain more of that tone the whole way through (instead of getting so serious/polemical in the second half).

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