Writers Reading: Down and Out in Paris and London

Before I go into my love affair with Orwell, I have to mention another lover. There’s a collection of works by Hunter S. Thompson titled Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone over five hundred pages long. Books that long tend to take it out of me. I immerse myself in hundreds of pages of a single mind, and it gets to a point where, if I like being in this person’s head, I will purposely prolong my reading of the book simply because I don’t want it to end. Well, I finally finished it a couple days back, stretching the last hundred or so pages over three weeks, but I was at a loss as to what I should read next. Should I whittle down my list of books further or stall it with more Thompson? In the end I thought a break from good ole HST was in order, though not a break from nonfiction (or, mostly nonfiction).

There are conflicting opinions on how to view Down and Out in Paris and London. Some say it’s straight nonfiction. Others say memoir. Others claim it to be semi-autobiographical in the vein of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Orwell himself has stated that while the events may not have happened in the exact order in which they were written, they all happened one way or the other, and that explanation is good enough for me.

As of writing this, I am a quarter of my way into the book. Orwell’s narrator and protagonist, a British writer in Paris, has drawn clear images of the dire straits he and others suffered under poverty, such as a two-day stretch of no food, almost going homeless, pawning off most of his possessions sans the clothes on his back, trying to get jobs (and failing), and spending some days stretched out on his bed, too numbed by hunger and hopelessness to do anything.

It sounds terrifying, but the reflective, somewhat humorous nature of the narration lightens up the seriousness of the situations presented – the so-far-nameless narrator will say what happens before delving into the details of how it happened, like mentioning a job he acquired, then telling the reader the full journey from unemployment to underemployment. I had a short love affair with Orwell in high school, and I may have to shelve HST for longer than intended to see where this goes.