Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Down and Out in Paris and London [1933]

Eric Blair, better known by his pseudonym George Orwell, attained his most lasting legacy through his last 2 works, viz. Animal Farm and 1984 – one a scathingly satirical novella, the other a bleak dystopian novel, and both powerful indictments against power and totalitarianism. The seeds for his great political books, and the associated social consciousness, however, were clearly discernible in his first full-length literary work Down and Out in Paris and London, even if, at that point, he was still some way off from reaching his crescendo as a writer. Written in workmanlike prose, with a distinctively left-leaning stance of an author who was transitioning from being an essayist to a novelist, it chronicled in vivid details of poverty, deprivation, hardship and social injustice. In a rare and classic elucidation of the clich├ęd phrase ‘walking the talk’, Orwell spent considerable time living the bohemian life of a tramp in London and that of a lowly dish-washer in Paris, before jotting down his experiences – first into a volume of essays which was rejected by multiple editors (including T.S. Eliot), and then into this episodic non-fiction. The book, therefore, was part memoir and part social experiment, as, even though the events recounted here were true, he was essentially living a life of penury and hand-to-mouth existence by choice rather than by compulsion or bad luck. It was filled to brim with idiosyncratic characters of divergent nationalities, backgrounds and personality traits – cooks, waiters, mendicants, street artists, misers, fellow travelers and so forth; affecting pictures of blue-collar life with all their small joys and ever persistent struggles; and fine depictions of the two titular metropolises – juxtaposing the lively chaos of Paris with the wan discipline of London. But, more than that, it stood out for its lucid yet deep commentaries on slave-like existences of casual laborers on one hand, and the oppression and humiliation that marks the lives of the beggars and the jobless on the other, along with humorous asides like what a typical day in a Parisian back-alley looks like or the evolving slang vocabulary among London’s working-class.

Author: George Orwell
Genre: Memoir/Non-Fiction
Language: English
Country: UK

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