Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell – Reviewed by Guy Portman
George Orwell’s first published novel, Down and Out in Paris and London, is an account of the author’s time spent living in abject poverty, first in Paris and later in London. Having spent his savings and with tutoring work having come to an end, Orwell is nearing destitution. Teaming up with a resourceful and resolutely proud Russian ex army officer, by the name of Boris; the famished duo struggle ceaselessly to find work, finally gaining employment in the kitchens of the upmarket Hotel Lotti on the Rue de Rivoli. Plunged into its foul, fetid and hectic kitchens, Orwell outlines in intricate detail the workings of the hotel, the hierarchy of its staff; chefs, waiters and the lowest of all, the dish washers or plongeurs as they are known in French, the position in which he himself is employed.
The second part of the novel sees the author returned to his native land, existing in squalid conditions, reduced to the status of a tramp. An existence spent travelling from one bug infested doss house to another, whilst surviving on the diet of London’s poor at that time, the ubiquitous tea and two-slices. Orwell’s compassion, understanding and empathy towards his fellow man is in evidence throughout, both in his observations and the relationships that he forms with a number of poverty stricken characters, including Paddy, a continually complaining yet generous Irish itinerant, and Bozo, a street artist, who despite calamitous circumstances has retained a positivity in his outlook on life. This compassion for the plight of the poor is enduring and there is never even the slightest hint of derision or disdain for the unfortunate people that he comes across.
The captivating prose and vivid descriptions allows the reader an appreciation of the nature of urban poverty during the early twentieth century, as the evolving young author successfully demonstrates the skills that would later be refined, most notably in his best known works, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.