Down and Out in Paris and London

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Click for availability and more information Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell

While this book is generally classified as a work of fiction, it strikes me more as a memoir or travel guide with a dash of fiction thrown in. In his '20's Orwell spent time in France, writing books and trying to get published. Shortly afterward, back in England, he spent time with "tramps" in order to witness how England treated it's less fortunate population. It's these experiences that mold Down and Out in Paris and London. In Paris, after extended spells of joblessness and poverty, he eventually finds work as a plongeur (a dishwasher and kitchen assistant) in a high-end hotel. Despite the insanely long hours (usually 15-17 hour workdays) and the hectic pace of the work he develops a respect and admiration for his co-workers. It was hard work but at least he wasn't idle. It is idleness he finds when he returns to England. While awaiting a new job to start, he's penniless and ends up filling in with a group of homeless men. What's striking is the complete lack of employment prospects available to these men. The absurdity of British law at the time, which didn't allow people to stay at the same "casual ward" (homeless shelter) for more than one night at a time, kept these men wandering the countryside in search of their next bed, did not allow them to follow though on any prospects or gain any sort of footing in the community. It was a dreadful existence which lacked the flair of Orwell's experiences in Paris. The details that Orwell puts forth about his Paris co-workers and his British cohorts; the humorous asides that he offers, are what makes this book so rewarding. Despite immersing himself in this morass, he manages to comment on it with wry detachment. This detachment may have something to do with the fact that, even though he was living and working among them, he was really not one of them. He had his education and talent to fall back upon when things got rough. But, despite that, Orwell never judges them. He merely observes, then reports back with great wit. He describes the fetid hotels and boardinghouses where he stays. The "bread and marg" diet that English tramps subsist upon. Orwell wrote with great economy and a lack of bombast. The natural way he could turn a phrase and his comfort with language is what makes him, for me, one my favorite writers.

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This page contains a single entry published on January 8, 2008 5:09 PM.

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