The Paris of my imagination was no match for the Paris of my twenty-first birthday. I wasn’t expecting to visit the city at all, due to my dire lack of funds, but I was studying at Cambridge, and my parents bought the Chunnel ticket as a birthday present. I expected excitement, good wine, maybe a two-day love affair with a dark and handsome painter; instead, I found contentment, and I found George Orwell.
Specifically, I found Orwell’s book Down and Out in Paris and London in Shakespeare & Company, which might be the most famous bookshop in the world. The first version was shut down during the German occupation in the Second World War, but before that, it was a pivotal place in Jazz Age literary history. During the 1920s, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce gathered here; in fact, it was featured in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But I bypassed Ulysses and A Farewell to Arms to buy the lesser-known Down and Out. It seemed appropriate. I was in Paris, after all, my budget consisted of pocket change, and I hadn’t showered for almost three days because my cheap hostel shower room was suspiciously missing its door: down and out, indeed.
Orwell lived in Paris from spring 1928 to December 1929, but he certainly wasn’t featured alongside the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway and Dali and Picasso in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. As you may have deduced from the book’s title, he was dirt poor. He earned his money by teaching English and then washing dishes in grimy restaurants. Just as Paris represented two different places for me–one physical, one fancied–during the Jazz Age, it was a different city for those coming from privilege, and writers who sold the clothes on their back for a loaf of bread.
The book is divided into three parts: first, Paris; second, London; and third, a brief outline on the British laws concerning the poor and homeless.* The book seems as though it was written in scraps, with stories about different characters lasting either a page or several chapters. It’s almost more journal-like then a memoir, but Orwell’s descriptions of the places and people that he encountered during this time actually assigns Paris a living, breathing personality:
Life in the quarter. Our bistro, for instance, at the foot of the Hôtel des Trois Moineaux. A tiny brick-floored room, half underground, with wine-sodden tables, and a photograph of a funeral inscribed ‘Crédit est mort’; and red-sashed workmen carving sausage with big jack-knives;… and extraordinarily public love-making. Half the hotel used to meet in the bistro in the evenings. I wish one could find a pub in London a quarter as cheery.
This isn’t a book about glamorous parties, it’s about how the other half lives. It offers vivid descriptions of hunger from several days without food, and the foul conditions of writers that get by as dishwashers in restaurants that would be considered bastions for disease today. It does not romanticize the bohemian artist lifestyle, nor does it sentimentalize poverty. It is a matter of fact account, but (always) sincerely and (mostly) beautifully written.
Down and Out reminds us that the debauchery and irresponsibility of the privileged comes at a cost, and that cost is largely the exploitation of the poor.
“There exists in our minds a sort of ideal or typical tramp – a repulsive, rather dangerous creature, who would die rather than work or wash, and wants nothing but to beg, drink and rob hen-houses… I am not saying, of course, that most tramps are ideal characters; I am only saying that they are ordinary human beings, and that if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of their way of life.” (my emphasis)
I loved reading the book a second time just as much as the first, even if I finished it over several lunch breaks instead of the Chunnel ride back to London. It reminded me that Paris is a signifier. Paris might be one geographical point on a map–but it is a different place, a totally different character–for different people. Quelle ville, quel livre!
*I didn’t reread the last part, since all of these laws are specific to the book’s publication date in 1933.