I read and loved Nineteen Eighty-Four , and there’s no denying the lasting influence it has had on our culture. (A-hem!) I’ve also read Animal Farm , and came away convinced that it, too, was an “important” book to have in one’s arsenal of cultural touchpoints. But man, I don’t know that I enjoyed either one of them as much as I enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and London , Orwell’s very first book. DaOiPaL is a hilarious, instructive and captivating read.
It’s a non fiction account of the days Orwell nearly starved as homeless vagabond in London, and as a lowly dishwasher in Paris’s seedy underbelly, and even though there’s some controversy over how faithfully it records his actual personal history, it’s a book that had me laughing out loud and cringing with disgust pretty regularly.
You can get a lot out of this book. There’s the “back-of-the-house” exposé of the luxurious Hotel “X” (later identified by his wife as the famous Hotel Crillon) where Orwell goes all Upton Sinclair on the filthy working conditions in Fancy French restaurants- a section that may just have you dry-heaving by the time you’re through. There’s his political commentary and ideas on how to improve England’s convoluted ‘Casual Workhouse’ laws, which kept men constantly on the move and of no real use to anyone. But if I recommend it for one reason, it’s for the vivid descriptions of the various characters he meets along the way: Boris, the former Russian military officer he’s attached to in Paris, Paddy the tramp he befriends while exploring London’s underworld, but also the landlords, pawn brokers, scheisters and criminals that add color to the narrative.
Check it out: