I overheard a conversation once where a colleague of mine was trying to impress a girl with his literary knowledge. She asked him what kind of books he read and he told her, ‘These days I’m into the classics.’
‘Oh right,’ she said with interest. ‘Which classics in particular?’
‘Oh all of them, you know – 1984, Brave New World…’
At this point his list of classics stalled, as did his attempts to woo her, but his choice of books was interesting. It shows that in the English-speaking world, Orwell’s dystopian novel is perhaps the most well-known ‘proper’ book, the book that anyone with even a hint of pretension to literary knowledge will have read, or claim to have read, or intend to read, or claim to intend to read – you get my point. It was one of the first books that I felt I should read when I was a teenager, and I secretly felt a little smug and superior when I had read it. I read Animal Farm soon after, and his essays (see yesterday’s post) at university. He seemed to me a terribly serious and important writer.
For some reason, at that time I never found the time to read his more autobiographical books. I read them as a somewhat less earnest, significantly less idealistic adult. It’s a particular pleasure, I think, to read a more personal narrative by a serious novelist that one read in one’s formative years and to get to know the person behind the writer. The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia are great reads, but my personal favourite is Down and Out in Paris and London. This book recounts Orwell’s experiences as a young man in the slums, bedsits and bunkhouses of the two capital cities. These experiences range from bunking with proud Russian aristocrats fallen on hard times to washing dishes in Paris Hotels, to sitting through evangelising church services in London suburbs in order to be fed at the end.
It’s a great book for secondary school age pupils, by the way. I would recommend it for older secondary school (high school) pupils, as much as for adults. I once read it with a precocious twelve year old I was tutoring, and he enjoyed it a lot. As a teacher, I used extracts with two different classes – one of whom were most amused, the other less so (you can’t please everyone – I think it was the smatterings of French that put them off). It’s a great text for exploring the difference between appearance and reality – those fabulous facades and the rotten back rooms of the hotels, for example. Orwell wrote it in part to see how the experience of the poor measured up to his preconceptions.
The extracts we’ll be using this week come from Chapter 10 of the book. Orwell has been given a job at the famous Hotel X and is given a short induction into his new job. Here’s a taster:
The Hotel X was a vast, grandiose place with a classical facade, and at one side a little, dark doorway like a rat-hole, which was the service entrance. I arrived at a quarter to seven in the morning. A stream of men with greasy trousers were hurrying in and being checked by a doorkeeper who sat in a tiny office. I waited, and presently the chef du personnel, a sort of assistant manager, arrived and began to question me. He was an Italian, with a round, pale face, haggard from overwork. He asked whether I was an experienced dishwasher, and I said that I was; he glanced at my hands and saw that I was lying, but on hearing that I was an Englishman he changed his tone and engaged me.
Describe the entrance of your place of work/study. Draw a contrast, as Orwell here does, between two different entrances, and describe some of the people coming and going with brisk detail.