Thursday, March 16, 2017

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

(Book Review)

Why I Read This Book
So, after our book club finished The Brothers Karamazov, we talked about which book we would read next.
This was one of my suggestions.
I've read several of George Orwell's books now:
Keep the Aspidistra Flying: review here
Homage to Catalonia: review here
Essays: review here
Burmese days: review here
1984: (before I started blogging, so no review)
and Animal Farm (also before I started blogging, so no review).

But there are still several George Orwell books left to read, and this was one of the remaining ones.
To my pleasant surprise, the other book club members reacted very well to this suggestion.  (George Orwell is one of those authors that just about everyone likes).  And so this was decided as our next book.

The Review
You've really got to give Orwell credit--the man could write extremely readable prose.

A comment I made when I reviewed Orwell's collection of essays was that he could make anything interesting to read about.  He just had a talent for very clearly explaining everything.

I have yet to read anything by Orwell that I didn't like, but my expectations for this book were initially slightly lower.  This was, after all Orwell's first book.  (He had published essays before this, but this was his first book.)  It might be expected that his writing style was still developing.
But nope.  This book was just as readable as everything else.

It is the mark of every good writer that their actual subject matter becomes less important than their skill at telling it.  So it was with this book.  There are descriptions of any numbers of things that I wouldn't normally have been particularly interested in, but I was captivated by Orwell's description.

An example mentioned by several people in the book club was Orwell's description of what life was like working in the kitchen of a big fancy hotel in Paris.  All of us agreed that we would never have thought that this would be interesting, but there was something about Orwell's writing style that just made us keep turning the pages.

There's a ton more to discuss in this book (and I'll get around to nitpicking it to death down below), but the basic review probably can stand with just this simple recommendation: It's very readable, so I'd recommend it.

The Plot and Background Information
A good book should be entirely self-contained.  And this one is, kind of.   But it raises so many questions about Orwell's biography that it's bound to cause speculation on the part of the reader.

The book starts out with Orwell in poverty in Paris.
When the book starts out, Orwell is hovering around the poverty line.  After he has his meager savings robbed from him, and then loses his job, he goes quickly into absolute starving poverty.

But what is Orwell, an Englishman, doing in Paris? And how did Orwell end up in such a bad state of affairs to begin with?  Didn't he come from a middle-class family?  Didn't he go to a good school?  Didn't he have prospects?  Didn't he have friends and family he could have telegrammed?  How did he end up starving on the streets of Paris?

At our first book-club meeting, we debated this, and suggested various possibilities.
Then I did my research on Wikipedia.
Apparently the realism of the book has been in debate ever since its publication.  And likely will continue to be.  But there is at least some indication that Orwell's descent into poverty may have been more of a choice than a matter of circumstances.  (Apparently Orwell was really interested in writing about poverty for some time before this book came out, and he wanted to gain the experience.  So the fact that he got the experience might not have been a coincidence.)
This may rankle some as "poverty tourism", but in my book club, we agreed that books like this need to be written.  (After all, Someone needs to document what happens to the poor on a daily basis).  So we were willing to forgive Orwell's choice to go poor.  Although Orwell definitely could have been more honest about it.
(It also raises the question of who is writing these kind of books now.  Is anyone out there documenting what is happening to the people on the streets of London and Paris nowadays?)

Other Notes
At my bookclub, we got a lot of discussion out of this book--about 2 hours of discussion out of the Paris section, and then about another 2 hours when we met up to discuss the London section.  [The book club has expanded since The Brothers Karamazov.  We now have about 10 people showing up for the discussions, which gets a lot more opinions into the mix.]

There's a lot in here to discuss.  On just about every page, Orwell is making some sort of comment about politics, or society, or human nature.  And these comments can be remarked upon.  Sometimes we just highlighted them as particularly insightful, other times we debated their truth value.

I'm not going to try to comment on absolutely everything in this book.  And really, there's no point in me re-writing what Orwell already wrote so well.  I'll just jot down a some brief notes on a few things, and then call it a day.

* One of the main themes in Keep the Aspidistra Flying  is that, despite some people's tendency to romanticize the adventures of the poor, poverty in actuality is just really dull and boring.  This is also a theme in Down and Out.  The enforced idleness of being poor, plus the way being perpetually hungry robs you of your energy, just makes the life of poor people more boring than anything else.

* There appears to be some anti-semitism and racial prejudice on display in this book.  It's not a main theme, but there are a few casual comments which are disturbing.
However having read Orwell's Essays, I remembered that Orwell had written on the problem of antisemitism in Britain.  [LINK HERE].  So what was going on?  How could the same man who wrote about the problems of casual antisemitism in one essay write casual antisemitic remarks in another essay?
We debated this at bookclub, without reaching a satisfactory conclusion.  My best guess is that Orwell evolved over the years, and that the Holocaust probably went a long way to changing attitudes in Britain.  But that's just guesswork on my part.  Another interesting article on the subject is here.
As for Orwell's racial prejudice, there are a couple of lines in this book that could be interpreted as looking down upon non-white people.
But then again, in Burmese Days, Orwell appeared to be critical of the racial-prejudice of the English colonials.  So it's difficult to reconcile those two books.

* There are also some sexist remarks in the book.
I think this is something the women in the bookclub picked up on more than the men.  I noticed the remarks when I was reading, but I was more quick to forgive them as just harmless, and just forget about them.

* So it turns out I had already read some of this book.  Orwell integrated into this book portions of an essay which he had previously published separately: "The Spike", and I had previously read The Spike when I read Orwell's collection of essays.

* Connections with other books I've read:  In the Paris section, Orwell makes a comment that ever since the Siege of Paris, it was impossible to catch fish in the Seine.  (Orwell says that during the Siege, the fish grew too cunning and learned how to escape fishing nets).
I remember this line because one of the books I'd read on the Paris Commune (if memory serves, it was Alistair Horne) had quoted this line when describing the Siege, using this line as indication that even by Orwell's time, the fish stocks in the Seine had not recovered from the Siege.

* Orwell devotes chapter 32 to talking about the slang of the London Tramps, and then he goes on to reflect on how strange and seemingly arbitrary it is that some words are regarded as taboo in middle-class society, while other words are not.
I agree with his thoughts on this completely, and have written up my own thoughts on this before here and here.

* Orwell will occasionally break from his narrative to offer his opinions, and these are interesting as well.
The problem of poverty is, Orwell acknowledges, a complex one.  And one that there is not a quick fix to.
However, in the short term there are any number of things that could be done to make life less miserable for the tramps.
One of the big problems, according to Orwell, is that people believe that the homeless tramps have become homeless because they're lazy or because they drink.  Therefore most of England's laws are based on making life for tramps as uncomfortable as possible.  The theory is that if tramps got too comfortable, they would never be motivated to find work.
Orwell argues that these laws actually have the opposite effect--by needlessly making the tramp's life so difficult, they actually make it harder for the tramps to get out of poverty.
For example, one law in England at the time Orwell was writing was that tramps couldn't re-enter the same shelter twice.  This was done to discourage tramps from becoming too dependent on these shelters, but the result was that the tramps had to be always on the move walking from one town to the next.  And the result of this was that they never could establish a stable life or income for themselves, and so by necessity could only live off of charity.

I assume the law has changed now in Britain--although I asked the British members of the book club about  this, and they told me to the best of their knowledge the law hasn't changed.  But either way, I think the larger point remains the same.  I suspect although the specifics change, the generally principle remains the same-- lot of the government programs in place to address poverty have a lot  of onerous restrictions on them meant to discourage people from becoming too dependent on the government, but making life more difficult for poor people only makes it harder for them to move out of poverty.

* I'm going to try to resist the urge to requote the whole book.  (You should just read the book instead of reading my summary of it).  But I'll indulge myself in just one last point here before I wrap up.

I thought Orwell made a really good point on chapter 31, when discussing how people despised beggars.  Orwell said that most people will tell you they despise beggars because beggars are parasites, bringing nothing of value to society.  But, Orwell said, if you examine any number of "respectable" jobs, you will see that they also bring nothing of value to society.  So why don't we despise those jobs as well?
The reason, Orwell says, is that we respect money and despise poverty.  If beggars were able to make a middle-class income by begging, we wouldn't despise them.
I thought that was a really good point, and in fact to Orwell's own examples, I think I can add several examples of my own.
For example, anyone involved in the production of soda (Pepsi, Coca-cola, etc) is contributing nothing of value to society, and is actively making society worse.  And yet thousands of people employed by the soda companies live respectable middle-class lifestyles.
Anyone involved in the production or sale of tobacco or alcohol is a parasite on society.
Arguably a lot of the jobs in the stock market or finance sector  do not create anything of value for society.
And yet all these people live respectable middle class lifestyles while we despise the poor.

Book Club Notes:

For whatever it may or may not be worth, here are some of the posts I put on our bookclub Facebook page.
February 17, 2017
Okay, so here's the plan moving forward. (Correct me if I'm remembering.)
The next book is "Down and Out in Paris in London" by George Orwell.
Bookstores in Vietnam don't carry it, so we're going to use on-line copies.
Some people prefer to read it off of their kindles or other devices, but I'm going to print out a physical copy for myself on Monday. Anyone who wants me to make a copy for them, let me know before Monday.

We're going to meet to discuss the first half of the book (Paris, chapters I–XXIII) in two weeks time on Friday March 3.

February 19, 2017
Okay, so I will go to the printers shop tomorrow. I will make 3 copies: one for myself, One for XXXX, and one for XXXXXXX. Did I miss anyone?
I think I will use this PDF. Unless anyone finds any better copies somewhere.

February 25, 2017
Tom and I were discussing some of the anti-Semitic remarks in "Down and Out" this morning.
I mentioned an essay of Orwell I had previously read (in a collection) in which Orwell appears to be aware of the problem of antisemitism.
As for what this means for how we interpret his remarks in "Down and Out" , your guess is as good as mine. (Do we forgive him because he said the right thing in another place?) But the essay is at least worth reading, if for nothing else than to show Orwell wasn't a total asshole.

March 3, 2017
Great discussion guys.

We agreed to meet up again in 10 days on Wednesday March 15th, with a goal to having finished the book by then. Time and place to be decided.

March 5, 2017
Chapter 32:
I really enjoyed Orwell's chapter on swearing, because it so well expresses what I have long thought.
A couple times at school workshops now I've gotten into this debate.
It was during a workshop on classroom management (both times, if memory serves), and the question was asked what to do if a junior or teen said a bad word.
I said (and still say) that I wouldn't reprimand the kid.
I said that I didn't believe there was anything such thing as a bad word, and that it was ridiculous to assign moral qualities to a certain set of phonemic utterances.
Besides which, most "swear" words don't really have any sort of meaning (whatever the dictionary says) because they're just used as interchangeable expletives.
Besides which, to the extent that any "swear" word has the power to offend, it is only offensive because of the cultural taboos in its own language. So there is no such thing as "swearing" in a foreign language.
The only reason we English speakers are offended by the word "Fuck" is because we've been conditioned to be offended by it. Based on the word alone, the phonemic utterance itself is inoffensive, and it's almost always used in a delexicalized way in which it has no meaning other than simply as an expletive. Therefore, a Vietnamese person couldn't be expected to be offended by the word.
Not everyone was of my opinion, and we got into a long debate.
But I was pleased to find Orwell articulating what I had previously thought.
On how swear words are essentially meaningless, Orwell writes:
The whole business of swearing, especially English swearing, is mysterious. Of its very nature swearing is as irrational as magic—indeed, it is a species of magic. But there is also a paradox about it, namely this: Our intention in swearing is to shock and wound, which we do by mentioning something that should be kept secret—usually something to do with the sexual functions. But the strange thing is that when a word is well established as a swear word, it seems to lose its original meaning; that is, it loses the thing that made it into a swear word. A word becomes an oath because it means a certain thing, and, because it has become an oath, it ceases to mean that thing. For example ——. The Londoners do not now use, or very seldom use, this word in its original meaning; it is on their lips from morning till night, but it is a mere expletive and means nothing. Similarly with —— which is rapidly losing its original sense. One can think of similar instances in French—for example —— which is now a quite meaningless expletive.
And on the way foreign swear words become instantly inoffensive the moment they cross cultural boundaries, Orwell writes:
Words used as insults seem to be governed by the same paradox as swear words. A word becomes an insult, one would suppose, because it means something bad; but m practice its insult-value has little to do with its actual meaning. For example, the most bitter insult one can offer to a Londoner is ‘bastard’—which, taken for what it means, is hardly an insult at all. And the worst insult to a woman, either in London or Paris, is ‘cow’; a name which might even be a compliment, for cows are among the most likeable of animals. Evidently a word is an insult simply because it is meant as an insult, without reference to its dictionary meaning; words, especially swear words, being what public opinion chooses to make them. In this connexion it is interesting to see how a swear word can change character by crossing a frontier. In England you can print ‘je m’en foils’ without protest from anybody. In France you have to print it ‘je m’en f——’. Or, as another example, take the word ‘barnshoot’—a corruption of the Hindustani word bahinchut. A vile and unforgivable insult in India, this word is a piece of gentle badinage in England. I have even seen it in a school text-book; it was in one of Aristophanes’ plays, and the annotator suggested it as a rendering of some gibberish spoken by a Persian ambassador. Presumably the annotator knew what bahinchut meant. But, because it was a foreign word, it had lost its magical swear-word quality and could be printed.

What do you guys think? Agree with Orwell or disagree?

Video Review

Video here and embedded below

Link of the Day
Chomsky UCL2017 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals' 50 years on'

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