I haven’t read much Orwell, and as an adult had only read “Shooting an Elephant,” which I taught for a few years. I read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four in school, but that was long enough ago that I can’t think that I have anything intelligent to say about them. “Shooting an Elephant” impressed, though I know well that its perspective is limited and that regardless of Orwell’s intent it is, even if polemically anti-imperialist, ontologically imperialist. One imagines, or hopes at least, that Orwell would own up to that. Regardless, it impressed, and not just for its prose style. Orwell was a proper socialist, fundamentally humane, and himself aware of his coming-to-awareness of the absolute awfulness of capitalism, in this case in its colonialist manifestation.
Down and Out in Paris and London is a semi-autobiography or autobiographical novel, for lack of a better term. More important is that the writing has a palpable authenticity to it. Orwell did indeed know poverty, the analytical subject of the text, first-hand. He comments here and there, a few times at length, that those who don’t know poverty or poor people directly are more or less inevitably prone to misunderstand the matter. It’s very true.
The book jibed very well with the Marx we’re currently engaged with in my reading group. In particular–and I have this sense that this is more applicable to London than Paris, and possibly more to the United States than England–one sees how poverty and therefore class is, regardless of all the rhetoric about social mobility, a closed system. There is nothing in a capitalist economy that exists to faciliate social mobility upward, only down. One sees this again and again in Orwell, in concrete situations.
I came to the realization a while ago that while I get a lot out of reading history, and while therefore I’ve read a lot of it, I do well to balance historical or theoretical writings with novels. One gets a feel for things with novels that one does not get with any work of history or theory. This isn’t an original observation, but I’ve re-learned that it’s true in the last six months, when I’ve spent a lot of time with novels.
Last: I don’t need to say too much about the anti-semitism and homophobia that pop into the book every now and again. It’s a problem.