Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell
How many novelists have had their name turned into an adjective? Although there may be more, at the moment I can only think of three: Proust, Dickens and Orwell. The adjective “Orwellian”, of course, refers to the kind of totalitarian state Orwell depicted so brilliantly in [b:1984|5470|1984|George Orwell||153313]. Maybe there should also be an adjective to refer to the kind of poverty Orwell described equally brilliantly in this, his first published novel. In writing it, Orwell drew on his experiences working as a dishwasher in a Paris hotel and the time he spent living rough in England, researching what life was like for the homeless and unemployed. This is powerful stuff and it's confronting and disturbing to realise that so much of what Orwell describes remains true today for people marginalised by extreme poverty.

There are two scenes in the work which are confronting in a different way. These scenes contain negative descriptions of Jewish characters. Had the characters been, say, Polish, Armenian or Australian, the descriptions would not be controversial. But the linking of the characters' negative traits with their Jewishness reflects the anti-semitism rampant in England in the pre-war period from which Orwell was clearly not immune. A casual internet seach indicates that much has been written about the anti-semitism in Orwell's early works, as well as about his strong denunciation of anti-semitism in later years. The scenes are unfortunate and will make any modern reader cringe. However, they do not detract from the power of what Orwell had to say about the treatment of the poor. This is not an enjoyable book to read, but it's powerful, memorable and extremely well-written. It makes me want to read a lot more of Orwell's writing.