It has been a while since I’ve reviewed a book about Paris/France in general on my list and I was excited to read something a little different after being spellbound to the Chaos Walking trilogy. Down and Out in Paris and London was George Orwell’s first published novel and it details, with some embellishment, his experiences being broke and trying to make it on the streets of Paris and then later in London. Orwell’s writing is both entertaining and enlightening, a perfect combination for the subject material. As the book opens, Orwell finds himself completely broke in Paris with no prospects for work anytime soon. During this period, the number of unemployed upon the urban streets was vast and it was incredibly difficult to find work that paid a livable income. After several weeks of scrimping, Orwell finds himself a dishwasher at the very prestigious Hotel X. Orwell is well fed and moderately well paid for a time but describes the appalling state of the kitchen hygiene in a very expensive establishment. Orwell then travels back to London on the prospect of a well-paying job but finds that he needs to make his way upon the streets for another month until the employer returns from vacation. Orwell proceeds to adopt a state of homelessness and wanders the streets with other tramps such as Paddy and Bozo.
While Orwell did have access to funding through various friends and family, for reasons unknown, he chose not to take it. While I don’t love the fact that he viewed his experience with those in abject poverty as entertaining “research”, he does provide a critique towards the way that society treats those on the lowest part of the social ladder. Orwell mostly critiques this in London as he finds the aid provided by secular and ecclesiastical authorities to be both inadequate and humiliating towards the impoverished. Orwell’s writing about poverty in Paris is more revealing of the daily struggles of the impoverished Parisian migrant and the horrific conditions in which he worked. I liked the tenor of the book but there are several obvious issues. While casual anti-semitism was a norm of Orwell’s time, it’s jarring to read. I found it a upsetting but didn’t find that it was so pervasive that I couldn’t finish the book. Orwell’s racial and ethnic attitudes are reflective of a time with very different social norms and should be read with such a perspective. Orwell’s book is a good read but perhaps for the more mature reader who can contextualize his narrative.