Writing as catharsis

Review of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London

Posted in Book review by Lachlan R. Dale on April 1, 2014

George Orwell

Down and Out in Paris and London is George Orwell’s first published book, which saw a print run in 1933.

It is a sort of memoir of the period in which Orwell returned disillusioned from his time as a police officer in Burma, and intended to make his living as a writer. He spent two years struggling with poverty across the two cities.

Down and Out is a fairly slight read at 228 pages. Orwell’s style is clean, clear and crisp, following a sort of detached, journalistic style whereby conversations and events are reported with little of Orwell’s own character or judgement bleeding into the page. We can also see at this early stage of Orwell’s career his trademark dedication to the integrity of his written work.

George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and LondonThe bulk of the book tracks Orwell’s struggle to find work, budget his meager finances, his experience with starvation, his work in a Parisian hotel kitchen, his time tramping in London, and a retelling of the conversations, attitudes and interactions along the way.

At one point he goes without food for three days. On the experience he writes:

Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and lukewarm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger…

His character-portrait of his boisterous, larger-than-life Russian friend Boris was particularly fascinating. At one point, when there were trying to find work together, Boris provides this sage advice:

It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you.

The man is a walking contradiction; starving, though of enormous appetite – bursting with enthusiasm one minute, and crushed by utter despair the next. His mind is something to behold.

As we might expect, the book closes with some thoughtful reflections on the nature of poverty; on the systems which keeps people trapped in the cycle of poverty, and on preliminary ways in which the cycle might be addressed.

Orwell meditates in particular on the absurd uselessness of a tramp’s life – the system in London effectively forces him to stay idle, waste time and continue tramping from shelter to shelter:

The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and sexually… the problem is how to turn the tramp from a bored, half-alive vagrant into a self-respecting human being.

His solution is beautifully simple – rather than have tramps spend their time either locked into soul-destroyed, stimuli-deprived shelters for hours each day, or tramping to another shelter (for they cannot stay in the same shelter twice in the same month), he proposes tramps spend their time contributing to communal shelter gardens or farms. Not only would this solve the crippling boredom and inertia, but help tramps take steps towards being productive members of society once more, and gaining crucial confidence. Of course, the food they grow can ultimately help feed them, too – and far better than the stale bread and cheese provided at such shelters.

Orwell’s final analysis of poverty is almost an afterthought to the bulk of the book; he does not spend a huge amount of time analyzing all he has experienced, which is a shame, but it keeps this book a simple, easy read that can help provide an insight into the nature of poverty. It also provides a clear indication of the great man Orwell is to become; a champion of free society, and justice.

Book review: White Noise by Don DeLillo

Posted in Book review by Lachlan R. Dale on April 22, 2013
White Noise by Don Delillo

White Noise by Don DeLillo

White Noise is my first experience with Don DeLillo’s work. Over the past 12 months I’d heard his name uttered many times – usually coupled with some recognition that he is one of the most important fiction authors in recent decades.

From the moment I began reading White Noise it was apparent that DeLillo is a supremely gifted author; his metaphors are sublime, his prose smooth and easy to read. His most commendable skill seems to be his ability to perfectly capture human frailty in simple, everyday scenes. In White Noise the narrator supplies a seemingly endless supply of observations on human behaviour; how shallow appearances and subtle symbols instill confidence in social institutions; how a family looks to each other for emotional reassurance in a million trivial games of power and dominance; how cultural identity and meaning are maintained every day through our most insignificant gestures.

As an illustration I’ll outline on passage I found particularly memorable. In this scene the narrator Jack and fellow lecturer Murray take a tourist trip to see ‘the most photographed barn in America’. The significance of this barn appears to be entirely circular; it is famous because it is so often photographed, and it is photographed because it is famous. This absurd passage follows:

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with camera left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They’re taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

There are dozens of moments like this in White Noise, where post-modern / Foucauldian concepts are bound with anthropological observation and presented in a humorous deadpan style that often reminds me of Bret Easton Ellis (it would appear as though Ellis is indebted to DeLillo’s style). Unfortunately a novel is not built on keen observation and creative metaphor alone. White Noise is divided into three parts; I almost abandoned the book towards the end of the first part, simply because nothing seemed to happen. In fact nothing of consequence seems to happen in the first 150 or so pages; we are merely subjected to a continuous stream of miniscule observations; of beautiful insights into human intimacy; of the slow and steady development of characters (DeLillo’s ability to give life to his characters is also excellent) — but there is seemingly no overarching “plot” at such.

Things certainly “happen” in the second and third parts, but at the book’s conclusion I still did not feel I had completed a novel. DeLillo’s writing stalks along at the same steady pace for over 300 pages, drawing a smile or a chuckle with regularity, but seemingly refusing to deliver a major story arc or significant plot development. The cute-ness of his style seemingly prevents any moments of heightened drama. I finished White Noise lacking a sense of closure, and with mixed feelings.

As a commentary on human frailty – particularly fear of death – this was a pleasure to read – but as a fiction novel I felt a little deflated and left wanting more. Perhaps this was DeLillo’s intention (skimming summaries of his other work certainly seems to indicate he is a man who throws off the standard convention of a linear novel), but I am left undecided and lukewarm.

DeLillo possesses piercing insight but I am still undecided as to his status as a novelist. There is a reasonable chance that I will return to more of his work in the future; perhaps that will put me in a position to better comment on his intentions and approach.