Sunday, May 23, 2010

Down for the Count

I really dig Orwell.  Typically, when I dig an author, that's shorthand for saying that I enjoy their books.  When it comes to George Orwell (nee Eric Blair), I like his writing, but also am impressed by his life journey.  In high school I went so far as to dress up as him as part of a convoluted English project, and enjoyed getting people to guess who I was.  (Why, yes, I AM a literature nerd, thanks for asking!)

During the Cold War, many people pointed at 1984 as a warning against the absolutist communist state being erected by the Soviet Union.  In modern times, people decry Big Brother in the form of the "nanny state" enacted by Tony Blair in Britain, or the hyperpowered FBI supported by both the Bush and Obama administrations.  These accusations become all the more interesting when you reflect on the fact that Orwell was a devout socialist, and had a lifetime history of actively participating in leftist causes, including fighting alongside the Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War.

His best-known books, 1984 and Animal Farm, come from late in his life, when he felt the need to warn against the authoritarianism of Stalin's regime.  These warnings, though, came from "the inside," from someone who genuinely wanted the socialist project to succeed, and so felt especially devastated at its betrayal.  I think that, as a result, these works are more powerful than they would be if written by someone on the right, who despised the very idea of collectivism.

Still, it's hard to find Orwell's leftist leanings in his masterpieces if you don't already know that they're there.  In contrast, it's much easier to find them in his earlier works.  "Homage to Catalonia" is one of my favorite works of his, showing a warm, human voice that rationally but effectively conveys the horror and madness of civil war.  I've just finished reading another similar bit of non-fiction first-person reportage, "Down and Out in Paris and London."

In some ways, this book seems like it could have been written today; it's perfectly in keeping with the recent fad for books about "X days of Y-ing" or "One year without B".  In these books, an "ordinary" person chooses to change their circumstances for a set amount of time, and then documents the results.  In Orwell's case, the change was from a respectable (if not wealthy) man to poverty; however, he didn't deliberately choose this course.  The problems start in Paris, where he has a certain amount of money to live on; after a large portion is stolen from his room, he goes about finding work, and then leads a hand-to-mouth existence working a minimum-wage, go-nowhere job that keeps him occupied 18 hours a day, 6 days a week.  He has an absolutely amazing eye for detail, and a great way of recreating characters on the page.  I'd never read this book before, but I recognized certain characters who had been described in other commentary, such as the out-of-work waiter who painted his ankles black with shoe-polish so that others couldn't see the holes in his socks.  Details like this are kind of funny, touching, and ultimately sad.  In this way, Orwell manages the herculean task of humanizing a class of people that many of us (myself included) have trained ourselves to ignore.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is its specificity.  He pays as much attention to money as Thoreau does in On Walden Pond, carefully documenting how much money a "screever" (pavement artist) can earn in a day, how much two slices of toast spread with margarine costs in a coffee-shop, the price of tobacco, and so on.  I was pretty baffled by much of it - I'm still unclear on how many shillings are in a pound, how many pence in a crown, and so on - but the mere fact that they pay so much attention to this stuff conveys a lot.  Similarly, I would be tempted to describe some of these experiences by saying, "It was really boring," but Orwell describes in detail just why and how they were so boring.  He describes the work of a plongeur (basically a dishwasher-cum-slave in a French restaurant) with preciseness, documenting how long it takes to scrub a copper pot, why they don't have time to empty the waste basket, the incentives to just brush off a piece of meat that has fallen to the floor, etc.

The book is divided into many chapters, and as a whole could be sensibly divided into two sections, one in Paris and one on London.  The Paris section is mainly about the working poor, while the London section is mainly about indigent tramps.  Each section is primarily narrative, but also concludes with some direct talk from Orwell about his overall impressions and, most interestingly, conclusions for how specific social programs could benefit the underclass.  There's a lot to be said for these sections, as they combine Orwell's intelligent mind with the authority one gains from direct experience.  Which makes one think - just how many people today who are in a position to make decisions affecting the poor have actually experienced what it's like to spend months in poverty?

In all, this is a great book.  It's surprisingly funny, considering the subject matter.  It's touching and effective, and manages to promote some social ideas while never seeming to be preachy.  Despite the changes in economy and society since the 1930's, this book continues to feel timeless, just as important in its own way as 1984 and Animal Farm are in theirs.

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