Thursday, December 1, 2016
I've been looking forward to reading this book for a long time. This and "Homage to Catalonia" are two of Orwell's books I've never gotten around to, so it was good to get my hands on this volume. After 1984, Animal Farm, and many of his essays my expectations for this wok were very high and Down and Out... didn't let me down. Down and Out... falls a little short compared to his later great classics, particularly 1984. Still, his prose is exceptionally clear in this work. I love Orwell's prose style for it's clarity and concision and in this book I can feel him developing the themes that were later the foundation of his genius - his great concern for human welfare and a fascination with society in it's relation to the individual. This was one of the attractions of this book - seeing a genius at work on the development of his absorbing themes.
"Down and Out..." is an observation of life in the Parisian and London barrios of the early twentieth century that also conveys many of the cultural difference between Paris and London themselves, and I found that fascinating. In the opening of the book Orwell sketches the Parisian barrios so well that (for better or worse) you feel you've been there, and for all the filth, hardship, and desperation, it seems that in Paris life under these conditions more than endures, in its peculiar way even flourishes. So many great artists have emerged from the Parisian barrios one sees them as almost an asset to the society. Yet Orwell does not in any glorify such an existence. He's upfront about it's suffering and its great risk to even one's survival.
The overall theme of the book, which is a work of fiction that reads like autobiography, contrasts these lives in Paris and London is that if one were poor in Europe at the time it would have been for one's chances of survival to have been stricken by poverty in London, but that such a live in Paris was not so utterly without purpose or hope. In London one would have probably had less chance of dying outright from deprivation, but also (without an extraordinary stamina and imagination, as exhibited by one particularly clever character in the novel, a street artist) life would have been drudgery beyond endurance.
Orwell clearly makes the point that lives of such hardship and hopelessness are unnecessary, and he even addresses a little of that question directly, but as in his later genius for social criticism, his best work is fictitious revelation rather than direct explanation. The virtue of this book is its direct and detailed observation of life at the margins, its empathy for its subjects, and its manner of allowing you to live that life vicariously - a life that, like it or not, is an enduring condition of the great multitudes of mankind. It's virtue is in giving a window onto a tragic and pervasive aspect of existence and allowing you to experience it without having to pay the terrible price inherent in actually living it.
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower