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Friday, March 29, 2013

White-Jacket, Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Razor's Edge: Masterpices of the Roman à clef

by Jamie Lutton
On any average day, I sell one copy of Moby Dick, and one or two copies of 1984, if I have them in stock. Classic literature are the last books people will sell to me.   I often tell people that I sell the same  100 or 200 'classic'  titles over and over.  
What I try to do (when asked)   is suggest lesser known titles by well known authors.  There are some fantastic books by these  authors that are not well known and are rarely read. 

George Orwell's book Down and Out in Paris and London is an account of the author's  own decidedly unromantic adventures in Paris, sliding down into filthy poverty, and becoming a down and out impoverished dishwasher in Paris. Living in a cockroach filled slum in the inner city, Orwell documents the underside of Paris, not Hemingway's cafe society of the Lost Generation. This is the Paris of La Boheme, a generation or two later, but not much changed.

Living in a slum "packed with Arabs, Italians and and Poles,"  the residents drank heavily, smoked furiously, fought duels with knives.   The bohemians were students, stonemasons, prostitutes, rag-pickers, construction workers (called "navvies") consumptive people down on their luck and dying by inches The neighborhood was also home to respectable middle class bakers and laundresses, keeping to themselves - so typical of a Paris slum, according to Orwell. The residents were packed in like sardines into filthy five story  apartments, in narrow, unending streets,  which had had cheap thin walled divides, to make tiny rooms so as to pack in more residents.
The best part of this book is the description of how he ended up starving, in desperate poverty. Robbed, losing his job teaching English, having to pawn his clothes to eat, Orwell sinks fast. His account of racking semi- starvation, of living on bread and cheap margarine, the boredom, till through a dissolute ex-Russian officer friend he gets a job as a plongeur, (what a great word for it) a dishwasher, after many travails. 

They  struggled together to get work, any work, wandering in rags in the streets of Paris.

This is a book that lends itself to being read aloud; the book starts with a resident being screamed at by his landlord for crushing cockroaches with his shoes. It is a believable life as a  slum-dweller, and of the poor dishwasher and server.. For those who want to read descriptions of life in Paris, this is one of the best, and it is a world that has vanished there. It is frightening to read about how bad it could get, and while reading this book I was thankful for modern medicine which has cured 'consumption' (tuberculosis), and having food and rent subsidies for the very poor.  The poor in this book literally drank themselves to death, to avoid thought,  or starved to death living on scraps of bread, if the consumption or knife fights or being mugged did not get them first. These people, the 'proles' turn up in 1984, written 14 years later; Orwell's affection for them had remained.
The second half of the book documenting the life of a homeless man on the move in the London streets. tramps were not allowed to stay in a shelter by law more than one night, so they had to "tramp" to the next shelter. These characters might be more familiar to Capitol Hill residents, as we trip over street beggars every day when walking down Broadway. This is their lives from the inside, in the London of the 1930's.

This book is a  Roman à clef, as Orwell probably cobbled narratives of several people as well as his own, to create this book, though it has the stink of reality to it.    This is not evident on the surface, however, the book has the ring of truth:
          
But it doe not matter very much .  This book is relevant to the modern reader. This is what life could be like for any of us, if not for the safety net of social services - and our own wits.

Those readers who hold "such people" in disdain would well read this book.  Reading Owell's path to abject poverty in Paris is a must read, especially if the reader has read Orwell's more famous books.   Orwell's distinctive voice as heard in 1984 can be seen here in nascent form.
 I also would recommend Orwells unabridged 4 volume collection of essays, instead of the selected essays.   The complete works are somewhat hard to find, but  are worth hunting down. His political voice, not filtered by his novels, can be found here, and is indispensable reading.

White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War, by Herman Melville, like Down and out in Paris and London, is a personal narrative.   Melville adventures as a poor sailor making his way in the world,  signing up for a fourteen month  'hitch' in the American Navy of the 1843, to get home from the South Seas back to the states.

The ships voyage on  the Neversink, is brilliantly narrated, as are the characters of the hundreds of sailors on board, and the perilous trip around the tip of South America. Ships called frigates, warships of moderate size, needed that many men on board, as this was the age of sail when it took many men to handle the sails and man the guns on ships of this era.    This account, which is semi-autobiographical is   credited with stopping the indiscriminate and brutal flogging of sailors in the American Navy. 

 This book is Melville's most politically strident work, as it is severely critical of American Navy life. documents the horrible life of sailors in the American Navy, as they lived in wretched, cramped conditions. He also depicted the captain, who he called ''Captain Claret'' as a severe alcoholic with a violent temper.  The 'white jacket' refers to the jacket Melville made from discarded canvas and insulated with rags. The quartermaster on the ship refused to give him paint to waterproof his coat, and he nearly froze to death in his wet cotton jacket, while being mocked as 'white jacket'.

It is generally believed White Jacket was directly responsible for ending flogging in the American Navy, a full generation before this ceased in the British Navy.  Members of Congress received copies of the novel during the Congressional debate over the issue in the late 1840's, and flogging in the U.S. Navy was abolished that year. The real captain Melville had served under, Catsby Jones, was later brought up on charges a few years later and court-marshaled, though he returned to duty years later, after receiving a presidential pardon.

For fans of Billy Bud, this book is a mirror of that book, and resembles it to a large degree, but is a rather better book, as it is only a thinly veiled fiction of Melville's own experiences. I had a enthusiastic  Marxist recommend it to me nearly 30 years ago, and I have been recommending it to my customers ever since.

The Razor's Edge, published in 1944,  is also a fictionalized personal account.     Somerset Maugham may have based the main character, Larry Darrell, on Christopher Isherwood, who he knew well, and who helped him translate the quote  from a verse from  the Katha Upanishad; "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard," Isherwood would later go out of his way in later writings to state 'he was not Larry Darrell" as he was annoyed that Maugham based 'Larry' on his life and travels.
 
Larry is a World War One veteran who is devastated by the death of a close friend in the war. He leaves for Paris 'to loaf' , living on a small inheritance, while his friends chase after status and money in the America of the early 1920's. Larry turns his back as a young man on any plans for a comfortable middle class life, abandoning his fiancee, wanting instead to 'work and think' in Paris, and to travel.  This is a telegraphed reference to the flight of intellectuals to Paris of in the 1920's.

This novel follows the parallel lives of Larry and several of his friends over the next 25 years, as Larry ends up studying spirituality in India, then returning to England. Larry's life is contrasted by Maugham with the deeply unhappy lives of his friends, in brilliant thumbnail sketches. The choices they made to seek a material life of money, power and security; happiness slip from their hands.   They age, sicken or fall into the horrors of drug use and debauched living .
  
This is a vivid brief tale life, and choosing security over the lure of the road. This author, who writes himself into the book, wandering in and out of the text, seems to have based all the characters on people he knew. One modern reviewer said it comes off as a 'collaboration between Henry James and Herman Hesse'. It is brilliant, and it was written generation before the 'Beats' such as Kerouac and Ginsberg wrote about the East and living unconventional lives in pursuit of knowledge. . .

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