Tuesday, February 26, 2008

With his journalist’s eye and sense of adventure, George Orwell went to Paris in the early 1930s to become one of Paris’ many “down and out,” what today we might call the working or nearly-working poor. His intellectually sophisticated and emotionally engaging chronicle of those months changes how we view a seemingly familiar city by showing us places that even frequent visitors have never encountered. Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) gives readers a living vision of Paris’ darker side complete with criminals, beggars, and thieves -- something which might shock those so accustomed to clichés about the city’s beauty, harmony, and grandeur. Orwell’s story is far too complex to be a typical tourist’s travelogue.

But in spite of his intimate knowledge of the city, Orwell was clearly an outsider when he wrote about Paris because he though about it in ways which set him apart from the Parisians. In particular, Orwell’s sense of the city’s past is different from that of the Parisians amongst whom he lived. When Orwell arrived, Parisians had been struggling to adapt to their changing city for decades. But he was not concerned with urban transformation. Instead, his sense of the city’s history was grounded in a belief in its continuity. Orwell may have revealed Paris’ seamy underbelly and in the process shown us something new. But at some level, in his eyes Paris was as it had always been: a city of mystery, romance, beauty, and contemplation. Old stereotypes about the city get retold in his book, albeit in new ways. Reading about George Orwell’s experiences in Paris against the backdrop of other stories that emphasize dramatic transformation in the early 1900s reminds us of a series of persistent myths about Paris and how those myths failed to die even as the physical space of the city was changing. Unlike Montmartre’s bohemians or Les Amis de Paris’ historic preservationists, for Orwell Paris does not seem to be caught up in seismic urban renewal. Instead, it is unchanging, unwavering, and constant.

People and Place

In many ways, the section on the City of Light in Down and Out in Paris and London is not really about Paris at all. Rather, it is about Parisians, or the subset of Parisians who find themselves a few sous away from going hungry for yet another day. Orwell’s descriptions by and large are not of city streets, buildings, Métro stations, or monuments, but of dishwashers, waiters, hustlers, and chambermaids: the “down and out” in all their downness and outness. This Paris, not surprisingly, is divided by wealth between a rich and a poor city. A remark about one of the places where he worked could summarize the entire book: “The Hotel X. was a vast, grandiose place with a classical façade, and at one side a little, dark doorway like a rat-hole, which was the service entrance.” (55) This was a city with two faces for two classes. The focus on class distinction should be no surprise given Orwell’s politics. A committed socialist, many of his works confront readers with the separation between the wealthy and the impoverished and argue why it should matter.

More remarkable, perhaps, is how ordinary this poverty was in Paris and how people coped with it. In his classic account of the depression in Britain, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Orwell evoked a deep and divisive misery which had become ordinary over time, but only because of a series of economic crises in the years after World War I. Wigan’s coal miners had always lived a hard life, but those lives were darker in the 1920s because of forces outside their control. By contrast, the hotel workers, with whom Orwell spent much of his time in Paris, always seemed to have lived on the edge of starvation.

It would be unfair to say that Orwell merely used the city as a backdrop in order to write a book about poverty, first because Orwell genuinely cared about Paris’ poor. More importantly, the city was not just the stage setting for a heart-tugging tale but an active agent in his story of those in Paris who were often forgotten. Although Orwell wrote more directly about such people than the places in the city where they lived or worked, the city’s physical space clearly played a crucial role in the stories, powerfully told, of their lives of hardship. Indeed, sometimes the city itself contributed to Orwell’s upkeep, even though such moments were infused with ironic turns of despair. The city gave, and it took away. For instance, when he could not go back to his apartment Orwell slept on a park bench, but poorly and with great discomfort. He took the Métro from a small apartment to his work, but it was always overcrowded at rush hour. The city’s poor water quality made his labor as a dishwasher all the more difficult: hard water meant harder work. Once he fished in the Seine, but the river refused give up any food that day. He and his friends walked endlessly when hungry and looking for work, but the streets hardly relieved their emptiness. “[W]alking everywhere made us slow,” he wrote, “and we seemed to miss every job by half an hour.” (33) Paris as a city was not always kind to Orwell, or to the down and out.

In those moments of the city’s meanness -- when the river would not provide fish or when the hard water increased Orwell’s workload -- he could always retreat to the kindness of the quartier (the neighborhood) where the lives of Parisians became most intimately intertwined with the city itself. The quartier served as the center of life for the poor outside their workplaces. Of course, the it was as much about the people as the place: people made the neighborhood. But it was the space and the physical organization of the city that had gathered Parisians so closely together and made a friendly neighborhood possible.

Nowhere was that more clear than in the bistro, often the hub of the neighborhood’s life. “Our bistro, for instance,” Orwell wrote near the very beginning of the book, “at the foot of the Hôtel des Trois Moineaux. A tiny brick-floored room, half underground, with wine-sodden tables, and a photograph of a funeral inscribed ‘Crédit est mort”…. Half the hotel used to meet in the bistro in the evening. I wish one could find a pub in London a quarter as cheery.” (9-10) The bistro itself reflected something of the people who inhabited it: a bit warn and dingy with a skeptical eye (“credit is dead”). But it provided safe-haven from the world of work and a cast of colorful cast of characters: “red-sashed workmen carving sausage with big jack-knives; and Madame F., a splendid Auvergnat peasant woman with the face of a strong-minded cow….” (9-10) It was the place where the down and out gathered to tell their stories, share their lives, get drunk, and connect with others; Orwell mentioned the “extraordinarily public love-making” that one might find there, for example. (10) The bistro could even be the great social equalizer among workers. In the hotel where he served as a plongeur (the lowest of the dishwashers), Orwell was caught at the bottom of a rigid social hierarchy with cooks, waiters, and other dishwashers as his superiors. But in the bistro, all the politics of the workplace fell away. “Sometimes we met some of our cooks and waiters in the bistros,” he put it, “and they were friendly and stood us drinks. Indoors we were their slaves, but it is an etiquette in hotel life that between hours, everyone is equal….” (64) Orwell’s Paris was a city of such cozy neighborhoods: dozens of small communities woven into a larger urban expression.

Sociability -- for good or for ill -- frequently occurred in public throughout the city. The bistro was one such public place, but not the only one. Down and Out opened with shouts from the road up to a window which Orwell described as “A succession of furious, choking yells from the street.” (5) Two women shrieked at one another, trading insults of “salope” (bitch) and “vache” (cow) in the early morning. “Thereupon a whole variegated chorus of yells, as windows were flung open on every side and half the street joined in the quarrel,” Orwell recounted. (5) Here were lives being lived not behind closed doors but openly and publicly for all to see and hear -- and to join in. A Parisian’s own days and nights were mixed with those of their neighbor’s. “Quarrels,” Orwell wrote, “and the desolate cries of street-hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing orange-peel over the cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse-carts, made up the atmosphere of the streets.” (5) The city itself was the venue in which so many of the episodes of people’s lives played out. Although in Orwell’s story private spaces are clearly important, Paris was, as it still is, a very public place.

A Timeless Paris

But for all the ways in which the physical space of Paris is a part of his story, it is not always clear that he has written of Paris in the 1930s. Instead, Orwell sketched the portrait of a timeless city. Indeed, he echoed many of the common images that people have long believed about this place. Paris may have been a city of the “down and out” in the early twentieth century, but it was also a city for the ages.

For example, Orwell wrote about the city’s physical character lyrically in two passages, each only a page apart. In them, he abandoned the gritty realism of his tales about the sweat and dirt of hotel kitchens and their inhabitants to offer instead an almost poeticized prose that evokes Paris as an eternally beautiful world, despite its poverty. The first takes place at daybreak, after a day of hard work and night of deep sleep:

It was dawn, and the windows were dark except for the workmen’s cafés. The sky was like a vast flat wall of cobalt, with roofs and spires of black paper pasted upon it. Drowsy men were sweeping the pavements with ten-foot besoms, and ragged families picking over the dustbins. Workmen, and girls with a piece of chocolate in one hand and a croissant in the other, were pouring into the Metro stations. Trams, filled with more workmen, boomed gloomily past.… (89)

With his words, Orwell carefully placed the city’s skyline on the canvas of a deep blue morning as though he were an painter. Then, tilting his gaze back down to the street, Parisians of all ages traversed the cobblestones in a morning routine which -- except for the Métro and the trams -- might have taken place in another century. Croissants and chocolate, street-sweepers and dour workers off to labor were just as much a part of Paris’ history as they were a part of life in the 1930s. The image is classic Paris. A few lines later, Orwell picked up his description again, this time at the day’s end:

For another four hours one was in the cellars, and then one emerged, sweating into the cool street. It was lamplight -- that strange purplish gleam of Paris lamps -- and beyond the river the Eiffel Tower flashed from top to bottom with zigzag skysigns, like enormous snakes of fire. Streams of cars glided silently to and fro, and women, exquisite-looking in the dim light, strolled up and down the arcade. (90)

Here again, Orwell’s words became highly visual as he added more color and texture to the image he painted in the reader’s mind. And while the technology modernized the immediate scenery -- from the Eiffel Tower to the cars on the street -- it was surrounded by the mysterious gleam of “lamplight” and “dim light” that seemed much older. Even the machine age could not completely pierce the romance of this description: cars glided “silently,” as if they were motionless, not noisy. Orwell saw through the Paris of the 1930s to days gone by.

The “dim light” in Orwell’s description pointed to one of the many common images of the city that Orwell’s book perpetuates: Paris as a city of mystery. For a long time, people have understood Paris in this way -- think of Hugo’s city in Les Misérables. Orwell followed this trend too when he repeated a story told to him by an acquaintance at the bistro. The man began by recounting a caper in which he stole money from his own brother. He then headed to a local brothel. His next description evoked a scene worthy of gothic fiction -- or a detective novel:

The taxi stopped in a narrow, solitary street with a single gas-lamp flaring at the end. There were dark puddles among the stones. Down one side ran the high, blank wall of a convent. My guide led me to a tall, ruinous house with shuttered windows, and knocked several times at the door. Presently there was a sound of footsteps and a shooting of bolts, and the door opened a little. A hand came round the edge of it; it was a large, crooked hand, that held itself palm upwards under our noses, demanding money. (12)

Orwell’s storyteller was then led by an old woman through a dark house to the cellar where a prostitute awaited him. Mystery and adventure are common images of Paris.

The story of a shadowy rendez-vous in the cellar speaks not only to mystery but to another common image of Paris: a city of physical pleasure. Following the spooky walk through the house, the man telling the story to Orwell arrived in a bedroom. The old woman who had guided him there proclaimed: “‘ Voilà!’…. ‘go down into the cellar there and do what you like. I shall see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing. You are free, you understand -- perfectly free.” (13) At this point, the man entered a room, sensually decorated in red where “a young girl was lying, dressed in a frock of red velvet.” (13) He then described his rape of the woman, but characterized it as “true love”: “There is the true love, there is the only thing in the world worth striving for; there is the thing beside which all your arts and ideals, all your philosophies and creeds, all your fine words and high attitudes, are as pale and profitless as ashes.” (14) Whether sex or love, this was a story of how life in the city satisfied the desires of the flesh and of the heart.

These tales of mystery and pleasure are not Orwell’s, of course, but those of a Parisian who recounted them to Orwell in a bar, undoubtedly with plenty of embellishment and fantasy. No one can verify their truth, and Orwell didn’t seem to try. That they were told at all suggests how powerful they were as a set of myths in the Parisian mind. But more importantly, the fact that Orwell retold them to us indicates that he saw them as powerful tales of life in this city. And they fulfilled what his readers might expect of a book about Paris.

Pleasure was not only to be found in the bordellos, but also in the quest for a mistress. More than once, Orwell’s Russian immigrant friend Boris, with whom he spendt so much of his time, longed for the day when he would have enough money to keep a woman. “To think that in only three weeks I shall have my mistress!” he exclaimed when he thought that work was imminent. “Will she be dark or fair, I wonder? I don’t mind, so long as she is not too thin.” (53) The quest and the hope for love always seemed to be possible in Paris. But one must have work in order to get it. This is one of the few places where Orwell’s story intersects with and reshapes the myth about Paris. He places the universal images of the city drawn from the past into his present day 1930s. But the story makes sense in both ways: as a story of the moment (the need for money) and as a timeless tale of Paris (the quest for love).

Orwell also told tales of crime. Such stories about Paris have always cut against the notion of the city as a home of beauty and artistry, but they have been persistent and important. For instance, Louis Chevalier’s classic historical account Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes (1958) shows how in the first half of the nineteenth century, Parisian worries about urban order led to numerous understandings of the city as dangerous or troublesome. According to Chevalier, crime “was one of the major themes in all writing in Paris and on Paris” from the 1820s through the 1840s. (1) It appeared in books by Balzac and Hugo, and in the stories told by Montmartre’s bohemians about the apaches, or young hoodlums, who stalked and attacked cabaret goers. And those kinds of characters reappeared in Orwell’s stories. Some of his descriptions were quick: “I heard queer tales in the hotel,” he wrote. “There were tales of dope fiends, of old debauchees who frequented hotels in search of pretty page boys, of thefts and blackmail.” (83) But at least one was a bit longer. He described a murder which took place “just beneath my window.” (91) Again the public arena of the street played a major role: “I was woken by a fearful uproar, and, going to the window, saw a man lying flat on the stones below….” (91) The neighborhood turned out to find the body, but quickly returned to bed. Murder was not the concern of the down and out, Orwell explained, because they had other things to worry about, like survival. However, the casual attitude of the quartier also suggests that the occurrence was probably something rather common.

Orwell also reminded readers that Paris had long been seen as a city of revolution. Such an image was surely not uncommon to his readers. Throughout the nineteenth century, France had undergone revolution or war nearly every 20 years or so, and the city had long attracted political radicals and professional rabble rousers. Here again Orwell’s depiction of this myth about Paris did become specific to the 1930s even while depicting a universal theme. Many of the revolutionaries that he encounters were connected to Russian Bolsheviks. Sympathetic Parisians might have looked for ways to bolster communism and found common cause with Russians pursuing the same goal -- appropriate, perhaps, since Marx spent time in Paris in the 1840s. But people’s political idealism was sometimes taken advantage of by a scam which Orwell described. A revolutionary society claiming to work on behalf of the Bolsheviks welcomed new members, for a small fee of course. When Orwell and his Russian companion Boris went there -- not in search of revolution but for work writing essays about British politics solely for the money -- the society had packed up and left. Orwell and Boris were without a job, and others lost their membership fee. (50) Revolution could become a tricky business, but not an entirely surprising one. Playing on politically revolutionary sympathies in this old home of radical politics provided a good con because Parisians understood the impulse to revolution. Orwell also told of a French World War I veteran and communist sympathizer who “though he was a Communist when sober, he turned violently patriotic when drunk.” (93) The man sang La Marseillaise and spouted nationalist rhetoric from the French Revolution. Whether communist or French, the idea of revolutionary politics still made sense in the streets of Paris during Orwell’s visit.

Eventually, Orwell left Paris and went back to London where he continued his exploration of the down and out. There were many similarities between the two cities, of course, but the differences mattered more to Orwell. London was more personal because it was home. And the poverty there was more familiar. But when he first arrived back in London, he took a few moments to adjust as if returning from a strange journey:

It was queer after Paris; everything was so much cleaner and quieter and drearier. One missed the scream of the trams, and the noisy, festering life of the back streets, and the armed men clattering through the squares. The crowds were better dressed and the faces comelier and milder and more alike, without that fierce individuality and malice of the French. There was less drunkenness, and less dirt, and less quarrelling, and more idling. (134)

The people and the place of Paris seemed almost exotic, described as if he had returned as an adventurer from a strange land far away. Paris always held a certain exoticism for visitors, and Orwell was no different.

Romanticizing Paris

Orwell struggled against himself, at once painting the city in a romantic glow and the refused to do so when he talked about poverty. He recycled old, seductive myths about Paris even while he attacked it as a larger part of the “civilization” which he saw transforming people’s lives. As in The Road to Wigan Pier, civilization -- by which, in short, Orwell meant industrial capitalism -- had created a society where rich and poor waged class warfare over the limited means of survival. Paris was, in some ways for Orwell, complicit in that civilization. Its institutions and its physical spaces perpetuated class difference by segregating rich from poor.

But as important as they were for Orwell, those differences often seemed to be muted by his understanding of the city’s continuities. As Orwell described it, “civilization” was really not the same as the urban transformation that others in Paris were debating. Instead, it was something much bigger than the city. Civilization required dishwashers to provide a luxurious service to others, but he argued that it was a meaningless luxury. “I think one should start by saying that a plongeuris one of the slaves of the modern world,” he proclaimed, and that slavery -- economic, political, social -- shaped the lives of Parisian workers in horrific ways. (116) In reality, the forces which he labeled as civilization may in fact have been the underlying reasons for why Paris was changing: real estate developers, car manufacturers, and others trying to “civilize” the city by modernizing it. But Orwell didn’t seem to see the connection. Instead, for him civilization caused class struggle, but not urban change. People and place were linked together for him, but only up to a point. He looked past civilization, to see a city which remained just as it had been for a very long time, even while its people were changing and sometimes suffering for it.

This tension in Orwell’s story between timelessness and the challenges of civilization becomes even clearer when compared with that of Ernest Hemingway who immortalized Paris for Americans in his classic memoir A Moveable Feast (1960). For Hemingway, there was no such tension at all. Remembering his younger days in the city in the years after World War I from a distance of nearly 40 years, Hemingway’s image of Paris could hardly be anything but wide-eyed as he looked back longingly to youth, love, and his earliest works. He even alerts his readers that “this book may be regarded as fiction.” (Preface) The Great War loomed over the stories that he recounted and so did dour words like “hunger” and “loss” -- Hemingway was, of course, writing of a supposedly “Lost Generation.” But for all the sadness that touched his life in the book, the city of Paris always helped to sustain him. Indeed, Hemingway received much more from the city than from its people as he made few references to the Parisians who surrounded him; unlike Orwell, Hemingway did not seem to interact much with people. Orwell was sustained by the city, but it made his life harder -- hence the tension between romanticizing Paris and presenting its bitter reality. By contrast, Hemingway’s hunger was relieved by the “feast” that was Paris: the cafés, the racetrack, the bookstores, the city streets. It served to heal the psychic wounds he had received in the war in Europe but which Americans could not fully understand. When Hemingway walked the streets of Paris, he received inspiration. When Orwell did it, he just got tired. Despite the differences, like Orwell’s city Hemingway’s Paris was also timeless and unchanged. He loved the quaintness and the stillness of it all. But that was a far cry from the upheaval which Parisians were living through. Whereas Parisians felt their city denuded by the uproar of modernization and change, Orwell and Hemingway felt the city’s history still wrapped firmly around their shoulders.

In the end, Orwell (and Hemingway) saw the city differently than Parisians because he had a different conception of Paris’ history. Montmartre’s bohemians or Les Amis de Paris lived with the city day in and day out for years. And their sense of the present was measured against a very real experience of what Paris used to be like before the changes that they lamented in the early 1900s. Orwell’s sense of the past was rooted in myth and fantasy, so that’s what he saw when he arrived. Paris’ present for him was defined by class conflict, not by urban change because that’s the part of the city in which he lived. Like many Parisians, Orwell romanticized the city, however, he did so much differently. For Montmartre’s bohemians, for example, the romance of Paris was really a hopefulness about the future even though it was rooted in a powerful nostalgia. But both hope and nostalgia came from a sense of loss about a changing city. For Orwell, by contrast, Paris was a city of the past, even as its people struggled to live in the problems of the present.