Dear George Orwell,
Your dystopian masterpieces haunted my transition from adolescence to adulthood. Despite my intense and lifelong passion for people, 1984 and Animal Farm made me question the good I naively thought resided in every human.
But nothing could prepare me for your self-imposed exile into poverty.
I couldn’t imagine the genius who would later become one of the world’s greatest novelists in tattered clothes, willfully morphing into a tramp on the streets of Paris and London just to get the authentic experience for his first book. I’m so grateful you did.
You dragged me through an emotional rollercoaster that left a physical aftertaste. I could feel the dirt and the sweat and the filth that covered every inch of your body as if it were mine. My skin was crawling from the verminous conditions you had to sleep and slave in.
“To slave” is a powerful verb, but it’s exactly what you did as a plongeur in the scum-infested kitchens of the hotels you labored in. “Everywhere in the service quarters dirt festered – a secret vein of dirt, running through the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man’s body.”
The scary part is that this would be the least of your troubles. Aside from the visceral reactions your putrid surroundings triggered in me, your time as a vagabond taught me about hunger. Not the I-haven’t-eaten-anything-since-last-night kind of hunger. The I’m-fortunate-to-have-stale-bread kind of hunger. Malnutrition. Borderline starvation.
“Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else.”
But through it all, you somehow managed to find charm in the backstreets of Paris slums and the chock-full lodging-houses of East London. I savored the way you described the eccentric characters in the quarter and their silly drunken quarrels, vibrant singalongs, and whimsical stories – “people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent.”
Most of all, however, I cherish the crumbs of life lessons you sprinkled along with every page. You have permanently changed the way I view poverty and homelessness, building upon the empathy that was already seeded in me. These words will stick with me for the rest of my days.
“If they [tramps] are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of their way of life.”
“The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.”
“The problem is how to turn the tramp from a bored, half-alive vagrant into a self-respecting human being.”
I could praise your groundbreaking debut work for ages, but I don’t want to deprive the people reading this of the stomach-churning, perception-shifting experience you gifted me within the pages of Down and Out in Paris and London.
It’s their turn to find out for themselves.
Forever your faithful reader,
Literary Love Letters is a series of unconventional book reviews in which I share my reading experience by addressing the main character of the novel directly. If my love letter for Orwell spoke to you, spread the word about Down and Out in Paris and London. Share this with someone who needs to read it.