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.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

from seat 26F at 30,000 feet

Above a sea of clouds, Monday afternoon.

Mighty Reader and I have been away, to Our Nation's Capitol and to The City That Never Sleeps. I finished Treasure Island in a studio apartment in beautiful Capitol Heights and began reading a collection of Abraham Lincoln's letters. In beautiful Brooklyn I purchased a copy of Clarice Lispector's Near to the Wild Heart, which I have not begun to read yet. There were a number of Lispector novels on the shelf at Greenlight Bookstore, and of course I bought the one with the James Joyce reference in the title. My attorney, Salvatore, had read the novel long ago and could not vouch for it, which I also took as a sign. Salvatore and I bonded over the complete stories of John Cheever a million-and-a-half years ago.

While in DC and NYC, Mighty Reader and I gazed long at several Vermeers and Turners. I appreciate a Vermeer, but I find that I am increasingly smitten with the works of Mr Turner, especially his later paintings when he moved away from figurative art and focused on light and color. Though I am a sucker for his maritime subjects once he got past the Dutch influence of ships tossed by a storm. The thing about Mr Turner, though (and I've said this before), is that he teaches the viewer that the sky is the largest part of any landscape, that the works of Nature and of Man are tiny things at the feet of the heavens, nearly invisible from the great heights of the clouds.

We took in a show in Brooklyn: the Anbessa Orchestra in concert (a gig in the tiny tiny tiny backroom of Barbes, a sweet little club that Mr and Mrs Salvatore could vouch for). The Anbessa Orchestra plays a sort of 1960-70s Ethiopian horn-based pop music. Very nice indeed.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Published by Erasmus in Belgium

If you do not find a remedy to these evils it is a vain thing to boast of your severity in punishing theft, which, though it may have the appearance of justice, yet in itself is neither just nor convenient; for if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this but that you first make thieves and then punish them?
2016 is, in case you were unaware, the 500th anniversary of the first publication of Thomas More's Utopia. I have an interest in utopian literature. There's quite a bit of good scholarship around utopian literature, it turns out. There is a slight possibility that one day I'll write a novel called An Atlas of Utopias (the title is stolen from George Woodcock's 1980 review of the book Utopian Thought in the Western World by Frank and Fritzie Manuel; Woodcock notes that "The utopia is in fact the literary genre in which the difference between creative imagination and plausible invention is most clearly exemplified," which seems true enough).