JANUARY 2, 2014
GEORGE ORWELL’S FIRST BOOK Down and Out in Paris and London, now 80 years old, is almost entirely about money. Or rather the lack of it. In most chapters Orwell struggles to add a couple of francs or pounds to his fortune. That struggle is the subject of the book. And it is a great subject. I love reading about writers experiencing poverty. Who doesn’t? Those cautionary tales are even better if they end well and turn into tales of triumph, with their narrators metamorphosing into famous authors (or, as in Orwell’s case, the most influential essayist of his time). Books like Down and Out show us that the line between deprivation and success can be a very thin one. The latter is often achieved through learning how to love the former.
Being down and out is a universal, timeless story. It can happen to anyone, even to a Penguin Classics author (Morrissey included). It can even be fun. “It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out,” Orwell wrote. “You have talked so often of going to the dogs — and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”
Anyone can watch a down and out author starve as long as (s)he stands at a safe distance. If there is improvement in the author’s financial situation, all the better. Poverty is a theme that needs gentle handling. It hardly offers the best environment for describing the lives of the poor. Banknotes help one describe them more vividly; otherwise the theme can turn excessively emotional. Starving in Paris as a twentysomething has all the makings of a melodrama, so one needs to watch out for the pitfall of bad writing.
Orwell does watch out. What makes Down and Out fantastic is his lucid prose, not the transformation of his moth-like, destitute self to a wealthier butterfly. Most impressive is the complete lack of BS. The narrator shows no interest in the intellectual “fashions,” ideological “schools,” or political issues contemporaneous with his Paris existence. There are no Franzen-esque footnotes, no fistfights with intellectual heavyweights, no love letters to dead white men.
Orwell’s thoroughgoing lack of interest in -isms and -ists is refreshing, and his lack of intellectual pretensions reminds us why we like Orwell in the first place: he is genuinely interested in society and genuinely uninterested in the theories that describe it. He would rather wash the dishes of the rich than write for their newspapers or educate their children. It is as if Orwell is there for the experience of being down and out, rather than to read Gide or Proust. So, in one sense, Orwell is a familiar creature (a poor, struggling writer), but on the other hand he is profoundly unlike our own poor, struggling writers, whose sole object in life seems to be to make an impression on the moneyed classes. (Apologies for that Franzen-esque digression. Who can resist it nowadays?)
Orwell could easily have lived in Paris as an aspiring intellectual and enjoyed the fruits of his labors at Eton, where he studied until he was 18. Though he was not a good student, he had the necessary ingredients of an intellectual. Yet rather than pursue some artistic ideal, he chose to wash other people’s dishes. Why?
The many studies on Orwell (a new book, George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls, was published in the UK last month) remind us that when he moved to Paris in the spring of 1928, Orwell was already a failed novelist. But he never complains about his failure in Down and Out — in fact, he never mentions “writing” in general, or his own writing in particular, as topics worthy of observation. There are more important details: sleeping on a bench on the Embankment, for instance, is more interesting than discussing the proofs of an article with a magazine editor. There is but one scene where Orwell comes close to representing his experience as a writer. A secret communist group approaches him and commissions articles for their English newspaper. He is offered 150 francs per piece, which he happily accepts, but the next day the project gets abruptly shelved. It turns out that the group’s communism is a façade and that they are ordinary swindlers. Orwell goes back to the kitchen where he does some more dishwashing.
So Down and Out does not chronicle a novelist’s struggle to support his writing, but rather recounts the adventures of an author for whom the struggle seems to be its own end. Orwell merely wants edible food, a good night’s sleep, and a roof above his head — a little bit more of what he presently has, or rather, what he is presently failing to have.
Money is a central theme in Orwell’s career. In The Road to Wigan Pier he calculates the living expenses of Lancashire miners; in Books v. Cigarettes he compares his expenditure on books to that of smoking. Here, at this early point in his career, money offers him a crucial thing — experience. The lack of money brings experience, too: in some cases even more of it.
In Paris, Orwell lived in a hotel in the Latin Quarter for almost a year and a half. During this time he wrote numerous books (all of them rejected by London publishers). No mention of those attempts at establishing himself as a published author is made in Down and Out. But his biographers inform us that in March 1929, the British literary agent L. I. Bailey had agreed to work with Orwell. Bailey visited him in Paris the following month. At around the same time Orwell began his career as a plongeur (what a nice, passionate and French word that is — the distant and cold and English “dishwasher” pales dramatically in comparison).
Lest we forget, Orwell was merely 25 years old when he hired Bailey and became a Parisian plongeur. It seems difficult to compare his earlier career in the imperial police force in Burma (a career which he had abandoned to become a writer) to the tedious office jobs abandoned by the aspiring writers of our own era. But like many authors who choose to lead down and out lives rather than settle for a middle class existence, Orwell, too, refused the comfortable life offered by his parents and chose to become a freelance. He spent the Christmas of 1929 with his family in England, where his relatives were worried by his impoverished state. (I recalled that Christmas scene when I read this tweet sent by The Millions last week: “Shout out to all the freelancers who will be repeatedly asked by relatives this Thanksgiving to explain what they do for a living.” Again, apologies for the Franzen-esque digression.) Orwell then went back to his pauper life in London, which he describes in the second part of the book.
In his experiences in Paris and in London, in his attempts to escape the boredom of a settled life, in his willingness to accept the difficulties that come with a life of poverty, Orwell was one of us.
On a rainy Tuesday last November, I checked my account balance and discovered that I had only 100 liras left in the bank. Since no payment from publishing houses, magazines, or newspapers was due in the following week, 100 liras was the only money I could spend in the upcoming days. Admittedly, there were pounds and dollars stacked somewhere in the house; some more money slept in a savings account; and around a thousand quids waited for me in a separate foreign currency account. I wasn’t exactly starving. My financial difficulties were more akin to Hannah’s in the HBO series Girls — the pilot episode of which may be dubbed Down and Out in Brooklyn and Manhattan, although in later episodes Hannah’s money problem loses precedence. Like Hannah, I was experiencing a cash flow problem rather than an episode in a genuinely down and out life.
Alternately, I could compare my situation to Jesse Pinkman, my favorite character in the AMC series Breaking Bad. Jesse leads a tragically down and out life, especially in the first episodes of season 2 after he loses the support of his parents, as well as his house and RV. The protagonist of the series, Walter White, is surely more miserable since he is diagnosed with cancer. But Walter uses his chemical expertise to improve his financial situation and we are less concerned for him because he is, in essence, a middle class creature. The fate of Jesse, on the other hand, is delightfully unpredictable.
We care for Hannah and Jesse because we witness with our own eyes the exact moments in which they start having financial difficulties (The dinner at the restaurant! The meeting at the lawyer’s office!). The level of their poverty is surely different from Orwell’s, but their situation is similar. And yet it may seem presumptuous to some to compare those figures to a writer who sells his coat, scarf, cloth cap, and even his trousers in order to live another few hours in early 20th-century Paris. Orwell is left only with his boots, shirt, and socks: no iPhone, no MacBook, no close friend’s apartment to crash at for a few days. No wonder he feels like a tramp:
An hour later, in Lambeth, I saw a hang-dog man, obviously a tramp, coming towards me, and when I looked again it was myself, reflected in a shop window. The dirt was plastering my face already. Dirt is a great respecter of persons; it lets you alone when you are well dressed, but as soon as your collar is gone it flies towards you from all directions.
Orwell stays in the streets. He is continually afraid that police will arrest him as a vagabond. He dare not speak to anyone. His change of clothes instantly puts him in a new world where a hawker calls him a “mate,” and women’s reactions to him as they pass him on the street have changed. “When a badly dressed man passes them they shudder away from him with a quite frank movement of disgust,” he writes, “as though he were a dead cat. Clothes are powerful things.”
How does one spend his last 100 liras? The experience has the potential to completely change one’s approach to life, especially if it happens to you for the first time in your 30s. I have never been out of money in my life. I have worked at office jobs from the early age of 16 and made it a rule to never take money from my parents and relatives. And because I have often been employed by media companies and publishers, I never ran out of money until that November day.
This is how Orwell’s poverty begins:
One day, in summer, I found that I had just four hundred and fifty francs left, and beyond this nothing but thirty-six francs a week, which I earned by giving English lessons. Hitherto I had not thought about the future, but I now realised that I must do something at once.
What an amazing way to begin a tale. Money is running out and the clock is ticking. If Orwell had to sell this story to HBO, this would have been his elevator pitch. But Orwell does not begin his tale this way. The episode occurs in the third chapter. Instead he begins with anecdotes about Hôtel des Trois Moineaux, the bug-infested, squalid hotel where he lived before running out of money.
Unlike the painfully lucid opening sentence of 1984 (“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”) Down and Out has an ungrammatical opening: “The Rue Du Coq d’Or, Paris, seven in the morning. A succession of furious, choking yells from the street.” The un-Englishness of the sentences immediately places us into the Parisian world. He then sets up his theme: “Poverty is what I am writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. The slum, with its dirt and its queer lives, was first an object-lesson in poverty…”
Orwell has to live at the rate of six francs a day. He stops sending his clothes to the laundry. He can’t afford to buy cigarettes anymore. He learns how to satisfy his appetite only with bread and margarine. He runs out of soap and blades. He stops paying for the hairdresser and performs terrible haircuts on himself. A bug falls into his liter of milk, and he can’t drink it. After spending three weeks like this, he decides to sell his clothes to a second-hand shop.
I don’t think I could work as a dishwasher. I can’t imagine myself sleeping on a bench in a public park for days on end. I did wash dishes of other people during my military service and slept on the pavement a couple of times during my teenage years, but I can’t see those things happening to me in the near future. Which is, of course, the result of my failure of imagination. If I could imagine myself sleeping on a bench in a public park tonight, I would become a much freer person. This release from the fear of poverty is a liberating thing. But it takes time and courage to “go to the dogs” and see that you can survive the experience. To fight the fear you need to succumb to it and become poor, but who wants to be poor when it is not at all certain that you can get out of it?
It wasn’t difficult to find restaurants where I could buy lunch for eight liras instead of 20. There was no need to buy newspapers: I could find them in all cafes for free. The same cafes allowed me to spend time in their premises for free. As long as I had reading or viewing material in my MacBook Air I could sit in their comfy chairs for hours on end.
As I spent more time on streets I became more aware of Istanbul’s new inhabitants: the Syrian refugees whose population in Turkey recently exceeded 600,000. You see them everywhere in the city nowadays: they show you their identity cards and swear that they are genuine Syrians who have escaped the civil war in fear of their lives. They inhabit Istanbul’s benches and bus stops. A little Syrian boy asked me for money that week, but he was so shy and inexperienced at begging that before I could even say a word he left. When I headed to Gezi Park near Taksim Square to spend a few hours among trees and flowers that same day, I saw Syrians sitting on the grass. According to Turkish newspapers most refugees come to Istanbul with a few hundred dollars and spend their money in a week or so before becoming penniless and starting to sleep in parks.
In the course of Down and Out, Orwell regularly finds himself in this situation — with a franc or two, the spending of which becomes the most important thing in life. The meticulously prepared spending plan for those last francs serves to make life’s priorities clearer. Every transaction gathers a fundamental importance. Where should you spend your last banknote? On a metro ticket? On the rent? On a piece of meat? The cheapest thing, Orwell reminds us, is (or was) a newspaper; books are out of the question, and so are the magazines. Cigarettes, yes; meat, yes; books on existentialism, no.
On the last day of my poverty I started reading Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure and adored this chronicle of poverty. Auster had met Samuel Beckett in a Paris cafe and worked as a sailor and an editor in an arts publisher and lived hand to mouth in a foreign country. I think I like Orwell’s and Auster’s “poverty theme” more than James’s “international theme.” There is pleasure in imagining yourself sleeping among bugs, working 16 hours a day, spending days without eating a piece of bread, not affording a metro ride, and then becoming a writer. Orwell’s book was written under the heat of experience: a fresh story, freshly baked and served. Auster wrote his book decades after the experience, and his account has the coolness that comes through careful reflection.
When I checked my account balance on Friday, I realized that I was no longer poor: an author’s organization that I completely forgot about had wired some money for a speech I did for them and brought my brief bout of poverty to an end. Although it lasted merely a few days, the experience gave me a clue about why Orwell had condemned himself to such an extreme level of destitution in Paris. I think lack of money strengthens one’s instinct for survival. You desperately want to write something good and succeed enough to make money for your words. Perhaps Orwell embraced poverty so that he could rise from it through his writing. Writing about my own poverty makes me feel mildly ashamed, but then I realize that only a few things make better writing material than poverty. It is a treasure chest that contains many things — a book, even. Or so the poor writers choose to believe.