Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell’

Like a rolling stone

May 25, 2011 25 comments

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. 1936. (230p)

Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.

I wanted to read Down and Out in Paris and London after reading Lisa’s review. I discovered in the introduction that I was actually reading an English version reconstituted from the first English version published and the French translation approved by Orwell himself. Indeed, the first English edition was bowdlerized (tut tut tut: no swear words allowed!) whereas the French one was not. So here I am, French native, reading a book in English and discovering that reading the French version would have been easier and better. How ironic. Things became even more ironic when I came across foot notes added to the text and translated back from the French edition. That’s what happens when you buy books online. *Sigh*

Apart from this slight inconvenience, I really liked this book.

In the first part, Orwell is in Paris, working as a plongeur (the one who washes dishes) in a fancy hotel. Before finding this job, he had started to experience poverty and hunger, both appalling and weakening body and mind:

You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs. (…)

You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future.

He details the rush in the hotel when it is breakfast, lunch or diner time. He works from “seven in the morning till quarter past nine a night”. He gives a vivid picture of the heat (110°F), the dirt, the noise. In the hotel, hierarchy is as important as in the army. The plongeur is on the lowest part of the scale. Orwell relates how people insult each other in their hurry but also how the hierarchy disappears during breaks, allowing friendly discussions. His work is stupid but requires attention. He is exhausted at the end of the day, sleep is a delight. I was disgusted when he recounts the dirtiness of the hotel cuisines:

Everywhere in the service quarters dirt festered – a secret vein of dirt, running through the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man’s body.

He relates the dirt, the insults in the kitchen and the luxury and politeness to clients, just on the other side of a slim door. Some issues seemed still accurate or brought comparisons to mind.

Despite the dreadful working conditions, employees of the hotel take pride in what they do. The management is not as inhuman as it seems at first sight. After reading Underground Time and Company, I noticed that these were terrible working conditions and thankfully laws were passed to change them. But they were hard for bodies but not soul-destroying. However, they have no life besides work and the week-end drinks.

Nothing is quite real to him [plongeur] but the boulot, drinks and sleep; and of these sleep is the most important.

In France, we have a phrase to sum up life in Paris: “Métro, boulot, dodo”. (literally: Métro, work, beddy-byes). Some things have not changed, I see.  

Orwell also tries to analyse the situation of what we call now poor workers, ie people who have a job but with such a low income that they only survive. He questions the necessity to maintain such jobs as plongeur as fancy restaurants are not indispensable to the society and states that:

This instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.

Now it is safer to keep them too entertained to think. The president of TF1 (French TV channel) once said in an interview “The spectator’s brain must be available. Our programs aim at entertaining them, unwind them to prepare them between two commercials” It was a scandal inFrance. But then, he had just said aloud what all these upper-classes representatives think about the working class. 

This part is also enjoyable for the description of life in Paris. Orwell portrays all kinds of colourful characters from work and his local bistro. It is full of French phrases such as « Tu t’es bien saoulé la gueule, pas vrai ? » or « foutre le camp ». And I loved the neologism « we were tutoied », sure I’m going to use this one. All the French words gave a real flavour of Paris but I wonder how an English speaking reader perceives it. 

Then Orwell crosses the channel and lives as a tramp in London and my reading became less fluent with phrases as these:

A can o’ hot water wid some bloody oatmeal at de bottom; dat’s skilly. De skilly spikes is always de worst.

It’s hell bein’ on de road, eh? It breaks yer heart goin’ to dem bloody spikes.

Now I knew what the English speaking reader had felt in the first part with the French words… 

The part in England is different as Orwell lived as a tramp. He describes the spikes (workhouses) and their terrible rules: no smoking, no keeping money, no privacy, no beds. Tramps are treated like animals. They wash in terrible conditions and can hardly sleep because of the cold, the promiscuity, the absence of beds. It stinks.

Orwell denounces the absurdity of laws against tramps: they can’t sleep twice in a month in the same spike, so they keep moving from one spike to another. Sometimes, tramps are locked in a room for the whole day and boredom is awful. It’s inefficient because tramps spend their time looking for a shelter for the night instead of looking for a job.

A tramp tramps, not because he likes it, but for the same reason as a car keeps on the left; because there happens to be a law compelling him to do so.

As begging is against the law, they sell matches to be considered as sellers. The police would catch them if they sit on the ground.  

Orwell depicts different characters; the most likable one is Bozo the screever – the pavement artist. Despite his living condition, he keeps his humanity alive.

He might be ragged and cold, or even starving, but so long as he could read, think and watch for meteors, he was, as he said, free in his own mind.

How remarquable. He fights against poverty. He doesn’t want poverty to invade his brain and destroy his dignity.

There is also a fascinating chapter about the evolution of London’s slang and how bloody became middle-class and fuck had to replace it in the working-class.

 I could write pages about Down and Out in Paris and London. Why is this book so good? Because Orwell is compassionate and tolerant. Because he gave a voice to these second-class citizens and immigrants. Because he never lost his sense of humour.  

There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry a publisher’s daughter.

 Poor Orwell, if he heard of Dan Browns and Marc Levis, he would be devastated.

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