Saturday, October 23, 2004

Review of Down and Out in Paris and London

Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London is a good read. It is the more or less autobiographical story of Orwell's experience with the very-underclass of Paris and London.

In Paris we hear about what life is like for one who is forced to work as a plongeur or the lowest of the low in the resteraunt industry. The work, the sweat, the heat, the lack of sleep is all well described as is the life, accommodations, and frequent abuses of the individual.

The same is true of the life in London. We hear about what it is like to be a tramp. Much of the narrative is dedicated to describing the conditions in which these people were forced to endure. The final few chapters contain clear reformnist polemics about how to alleviate the plight of the tramp and the worker in England.

A few minor points. First: for those like me who speak no French, there are a few too many phrases that you will just not figure out. I hate missing the point of some line or paragraph because the author assumes I know another language. So in the first part of the book that takes place in Paris, there is a lot of local color added by throwing in many Frenchisms, there is also a bit lost because it got irritating.

Second, One sees the origins of Orwell's interest in language here. It is worth noting that Orwell has a section of Tramp Slang in the book, together with some etymological speculations.

Third, In this book, ones sees some early anti-Semitism on Orwell's part. In a 1945 anti-anti-Semitism Essay he writes that after 1934 anti-Semitism ceased alltogether to be respectable in literature and entertainment. Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, apparently just makes the cut. There are at least half-a-dozen anti-semetic remarks and statements in the book which maight make one feel uncomfortable, if those sorts of things make you uncomfortable. Orwell changed later, but the early Orwell still has certain prejudices unexamined. This is particularly queer given the liberal minded nature of the work - improving the lot of those affliced by societal prejudice.

Overall though the book was a good and quick read, and it is a good examination of poverty in England. The bookd did not have the impact of say Jacob Riis's book about poverty in New York, but it should hit a sympathetic chord with anyone who reads it.

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