Tuesday, April 19, 2016

the empty belly of Paris

It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty--it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it, is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.

You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a sudden stroke you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But of course you dare not admit it--you have got to pretend that you are living quite as usual. From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it. You stop sending clothes to the laundry, and the laundress catches you in the street and asks you why; you mumble something, and she, thinking you are sending the clothes elsewhere, is your enemy for life. The tobacconist keeps asking why you have cut down your smoking. There are letters you want to answer, and cannot, because stamps are too expensive. And then there are your meals--meals are the worst difficulty of all. Every day at meal-times you go out, ostensibly to a restaurant, and loaf an hour in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching the pigeons. Afterwards you smuggle your food home in your pockets. Your food is bread and margarine, or bread and wine, and even the nature of the food is governed by lies. You have to buy rye bread instead of household bread, because the rye loaves, though dearer, are round and can be smuggled in your pockets. This wastes you a franc a day. Sometimes, to keep up appearances, you have to spend sixty centimes on a drink, and go correspondingly short of food. Your linen gets filthy, and you run out of soap and razor-blades. Your hair wants cutting, and you try to cut it yourself, with such fearful results that you have to go to the barber after all, and spend the equivalent of a day's food. All day you are telling lies, and expensive lies.

You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyère cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you; and you refrain, from pure funk.

This--one could describe it further, but it is all in the same style--is life on six francs a day. Thousands of people in Paris live it--struggling artists and students, prostitutes when their luck is out, out-of-work people of all kinds. It is the suburbs, as it were, of poverty.
from Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

The suburbs of poverty, that's good. Orwell is observant enough to know that he's not enduring real poverty. His rent, after all, is paid. He has a small income and--most days--something to eat. Eventually he gets a job in the kitchen of a Parisian restaurant, a job paying 750 francs a month. That's a bit over ‎£6 a month, in 1930s English money. I have no idea what that would be today. Orwell's rent is 200 francs a month. He eats for free at the restaurant (including two liters of wine each shift). Things are looking up. Those suburbs are receding into the distance. I continue, I see, to read non-fiction. I don't quite know why I'm avoiding fiction right now, but I am.

9 comments:

  1. good selection from DOPL. welcome back. suffering occurs when persons lack something. REAL suffering happens when they are starving or exposed to dire environments. maybe Orwell is trying to convey a state of mind rather than his physical difficulties; or maybe both... anyway, Orwell was a wonderful writer; i've read most of his work and have experienced illumination therefrom... I'm listening to M. giving me a lecture on why the current state of society is drifting toward a oil and water status. the 1% + automation is and will eliminate the need for workers and the bottom 90% is going to sink lower, into REAL suffering. except for health workers and such. maybe she's right... "the future's not ours to see..." (doris day)

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    1. I keep hearing that about automation, but it looks like the first world moves toward a service economy while the third world gets the low-paying manufacturing/agro jobs. I don't know what the second world is doing.

      I have been broke, but never poor. Orwell has some interesting theories about why the middle classes despise the poor and align themselves with the wealthy.

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    2. he was a little bitter about the class thing, i believe, and maybe it influenced his writing somewhat... do ya think....? actually he was very bitter about the human race. try "Shooting an Elephant", one of his short stories. depicts the worst characteristics of us...

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    3. Bitter? The man who wrote Animal Farm and 1984? You're kidding me!

      The class thing is raising its head in Down and Out, surely. Though his strongest complaints are against England's "poor laws" and the administration of charity with the expectation of subservience in return, as if a free cup of tea entitles one to the recipient's soul.

      I've read none of Orwell's short stories. I didn't know he'd written any! I haven't decided if I'm going to move on to Aspidistra next. I might go back to Chekhov. Yes, if it rains today, I'll go back to Chekhov. The National Weather Service gives a 30% chance of my reading Chekhov this evening.

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  2. This is the one I haven't read, but it brings to mind "Keep the Aspidistra Flying," which I loved and need to re-read (my copy recently miraculously returned to me!). IIRC the protagonist decides to give up and go down and out, and indeed finds that it's squalid and boring and not at all like he thought it would be.

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    1. I've never read Aspidistra, though we have it on the shelf. Maybe I'll go after it next. The protagonist is a writer, who'd have guessed? Down and Out is good. You should pick it up. If nothing else, it has the virtue of being quite short, like Aspidistra.

      Lately I've run into a lot of comments on the web about how cheerless Orwell was. I've always thought of him as funny. Down and Out has a lot of humor in it. A certain type of humor, certainly. Animal Farm is a riot.

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    2. when i was very young i read Aspidistra THREE times and now i don't remember it at all. i remember reading it because it was one of only five books in the house...

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    3. What were the other four books? I like the idea of a house with five books, one of which is an obscure Orwell novella.

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    4. well, i don't actually remember how many books were there, but it wasn't very many, and Aspidistra was the only one that caught my interest at all. a lot of the others were math and physics, i think(my dad was a physicist...).

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