Down And Out In Paris And London by George Orwell (1933) 240 p.

I read both 1984 and Animal Farm in high school and found the first to be quite tedious while the second was quite good, and I read a number of Orwell’s essays in university which led me to believe that he’s one of those writers who is better at producing non-fiction than fiction. This belief was confirmed in Down And Out In Paris And London, which is both “an excellent book and a valuable social document,” as one 1930s reviewer put it.

Obviously Orwell was no slouch when it came to writing fiction, either, but his non-fiction is such a rare and beautiful thing: articulate, readable, intelligent and witty. He writes about his time spent as a dishwasher in Paris and his time as a homeless tramp in London. Neither of these experiences sounds particularly interesting, yet Orwell makes them so, drawing them in clear and precise terms with his remarkable command of English and sprinkling the text with his comments on the injustice, cruelty and pointlessness of the things he witnesses. In England, for example, the state provides what tramps call ‘spikes’ – free but prison-like boarding houses – but tramps are not provided with any useful work there, and are not permitted to stay in the same one each night, which sends them trekking across the countryside to the next spike like “so many Wandering Jews.” In Paris, he marvels at the fact that kitchen workers essentially live a life of slavery: they work sixteen or seventeen hours a day, and barely have enough time to sleep, let alone find another job or educate themselves, so they are forced to work as kitchen hands for the rest of their lives. It’s easy to see Orwell’s socialist beliefs in their crucible, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a world that no longer exists (although I suppose the extent to which our society has improved is up for debate).

Down And Out In Paris And London is a brilliant piece of writing, and I now intend to seek out the rest of Orwell’s other non-fiction works.

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