Literature: orwell’s down and out

Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is the source of this blog’s name, so I thought it fitting for his book to be the focus of my first “Literature” entry—

“It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.” –George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)  

George OrwellFor the past three years, my participation in the paid workforce has been spotty. The idea has been to do some contract work in Antarctica, and then live on the savings while writing, climbing, and cycling. This plan has been somewhat successful—until recently when I found myself in England, slogging through the rain to buy groceries on my credit card. I had run out of money ten weeks before my next work contract would start.

During that time, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London read like a textbook, his characters like companions. “My money oozed away…” Orwell says. I knew the feeling. And I felt reassured when one of his scrounging friends proclaims: “‘Tomorrow we shall find something, mon ami, I know it in my bones. The luck always changes…’” And it did.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell—a young, struggling writer—takes readers into society’s underworld and exposes the poverty there as he tries to eek out a living, first as a plongeur (a restaurant slave) in the basement of Paris’ “Hotel X.” From Paris he returns to England, where he thinks that a job will be waiting for him, but he arrives to find that his employer has moved abroad. Instead of getting work in London, Orwell moves from spike to spike along with the other tramps who are allowed to stay for free at these poorhouses but are obligated to move on each day.

The Sister shoots ParisAt times, the narrative may feel a bit disjointed, but Orwell has an amazing ability to bring alive the people he encounters on his journey: Boris—the Russian waiter, Valenti—the Italian, Charlie—an educated runaway, Paddy—an Irish tramp, and Bozo—the pavement artist. Orwell’s hodgepodge crew keeps the story alive until the end, and “That,” he says in his book’s last line, “…is a beginning.”

Still want more? Then keep reading… Orwell, who is better known for his novels Animal Farm and 1984, wrote Down and Out in 1930. His first book, it was promptly rejected for publication by Jonathan Cape in London, and later T.S. Eliot also refused it for Faber and Faber. Orwell continued to scrape by and had moved on to his next project—Burmese Days—by the time that the new Gollancz picked it up as “Confessions of a Down and Out” and published it in 1933. Orwell was 30.

Some might like to debate whether the book is autobiographical, semi-autobiographical, or fiction. Penguin Classics calls it a “vivid memoir,” and Orwell says “I have exaggerated nothing except in so far as all writers exaggerate by selecting.” He admits that some of his characters are “intended more as representative types than as individuals.”

Orwell's Down and OutDown and Out in Paris and London is a good book to read when:

you’re broke. you’re feeling down and out but you know that you’ve got back-up plans a, b, c, and d. you might like to pawn your clothes. you’re sick of your slave-wage day job.

The details: George Orwell. Down and Out in Paris and London. Originally published by Gollancz in 1933. Now available as a Penguin Classic.

Literary Trivia: Anyone out there know what George Orwell’s real name was?? Yep, “George Orwell” is a pseudonym.

Post your answer as a comment, and please include your name so that you may be acknowledged and revered. NO INTERNET SURFING allowed. You may use life-lines or consult real, live BOOKS.


5 responses to “Literature: orwell’s down and out

  1. I believe Orwell’s name was Eric something.

    /Goes to check at Wikipedia

    Yes it is, but someone else will have to reveal the something or I’d be breaking the rules. It’s a topical name too.

    I read Down and Out 10 or more years ago so am a bit sketchy on the content, but I believe it’s what we would now call ‘reportage’ ie true but Orwell put himself in the situation somewhat intentionally.

    For the real relentless squalor, and some angry social commentary, see ‘Road to Wigan Pier’

    There is a degree of humour in Down and Out (as Traci’s comments shows), but I don’t recall Wigan Pier being anything but grim. (caveat: that also was several years ago. This is like being in a desynchronised book club).

  2. It was Eric Blair. In identifying with the “down and out,” he apparently thought his real name sounded too tony. The pen name was supposed to suggest common Englishness–from the river named Orwell. I had imagined that the first name came from St. George, the nation’s patron, but one of his biographers says that it probably came from a favorite novelist, George Gissing.

  3. Hi Traci Joan:

  4. Hi Traci Joan:
    I was about to tell you that it was Arthur Blair, but I think Kevin is right–it’s Eric Arthur Blair.
    I think it’s well (No pun intended) that he changed it. Somehow, speaking of, say, the Bush administration as “Blairian” would not have the ring of “Orwellian”–although it would properly link Crawford’s Village Idiot with Tony Blair!

  5. I have just posted on Orwell’s book at Silver Threads: I have read most of Orwell’s novels and disgust is a common theme of his, used very effectively in 1984.

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