Friday, December 12, 2008

Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell

First of all, I'm really happy I told myself to look for more Orwell books once I'd exhausted "1984" and "Animal Farm". Coming out of "1984" slightly disappointed (as compared to the superb "Animal Farm"), I picked this thin, tightly printed novel up. A few hours later, I set it down and leaned my head back to think.

First off, a slight shake of my head at Mr. Orwell. It cannot possibly be that every single Jewish person in the world is a sneaky, cunning, manipulative crook. The book isn't anti-Semitic, exactly, but it certainly shows the culture-deep dislike of Jews. It got a bit frustrating, that the two or three Jews mentioned were all fairly... evil. So seriously.

Other than that, basically, the book is pretty great. "Down and Out in Paris and London" reminded me a bit of Somerset Maugham's great "Of Human Bondage" (but with a better name) in that I felt like I was being told an honest, true story about the at times crappiness that a young poor man in these cities faces. There are clear differences between the two - very different styles, different time periods, different points, different messages - but I left both books with the similar feeling that I had just learned something very important about this world.

Orwell describes in a manner that is impeccable and frighteningly honest what it meant to be poor - down and out - in the two great cities of Europe. One can imagine the wealthy all they want. Orwell gives us the lowest possible scenario, the starvation, the humiliation, the difficulties (mentally and physically), and does so clearly. Anyone else coming from "Animal Farm" will find a similarly readable style that makes this an easy book to read in one, albeit long, sitting. It's honestly two books and can even be read as such - the Paris part (totally awesome) and the completely different, slightly less interesting but still fascinating London part. Together, however, "Down and Out" paints a bleak picture of the working world. It's not pleasant to think of.

Other than just making you reflect on your own life (how pleasant it is, that is), "Down and Out" will present you with a new way to look at things. I don't think I've ever quite thought of bums (tramps) the same way. I similarly gained a whole new level of respect for anyone forced to work in devastating conditions for minimal pay (Orwell's description of a Paris kitchen). Clearly portraying the difficulties and problems of the lowest social class in two large, great cities, Orwell once again created a novel (semi-autobiographical, perhaps, but novel-like nonetheless) that is at once enjoyable, engrossing, enlightening and thought-provoking.

Statements such as these are not outdated even today, provide readers with perspective, relevant observations, and important ideas. There are amusing edits, meant, I assume, to maintain the original feel, but it's a bit silly to see lines instead of swears... All in all, "Down and Out in Paris in London" rose above and beyond my standards. Very different yet so similar to numerous other books out there (Orwell's own "1984" and "Animal Farm", "Of Human Bondage", some Zola novels as well...), "Down and Out" stands firm as an excellent book that just about everyone should read.

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