Bar Orwell, all the books I have read this month are from authors that I have not read previously. Three of these books are non-fiction and I am part ways through another [non-fiction]. At the beginning of the month I introduced myself to Claire Tomalin who is a prolific biographer of many interesting people. It helps that these people are interesting but it would not matter if Claire Tomalin wrote a biography about a lizard who eats cabbage everyday; she would still find a way to entertain succinctly through facts alone.
Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin
My love affair with Jane Austen continues but not through one of her novels. When you have read her six main works you have a few choices on where to proceed. The most obvious one being Love and Freindship which contains her juvenilia, some unfinished stories and probably some letters (I don’t know, I haven’t read it yet, but I soon will). Another option is to read all her letters (i.e what we have from Cassandra that she did not burn), but it is something that I am hesitant about. I feel that I would be snooping about in the private quarters of someone who was indeed a very private person. So, the next option is to read about her, and here you are usually told of two options, Carol Shields or Claire Tomalin and I found a copy of the latter.
The book begins as a novel would, and it took me quite by surprise, I did not know whether I liked it to begin this way and after I thought about it for a time, I found that I did not like it. Luckily, it takes about a page and a half for this scheme to evaporate and what is left is entirely wonderful. This biography was excellent, true and did not romanticise anything about Jane Austen’s character as a woman and as a writer. Jane Austen was kind, but she was also bitter to people whom she did not like. She was funny and witty, but she also suffered from depression, and during this time she did not write any novels.
Claire Tomalin expresses her life, where she lived, every one whom she would have met or interacted with and her artistic, open upbringing which was allowed in the family by both her mother and her father, the former being talented at verse and the latter being a clergyman who maintained a library worthy of founding a Jane Austen. For instance, she had the chance to read Burney and Fielding.
This biography is about Jane. It is also an accurate account of the Austens and their politics as a family in a small village in Hampshire in the late 18th century. In short, it tells the story of the greatest writer who ever lived. A woman who changed the game of the novel as a form. A woman who understood all that was happening around her. And I applaud Claire Tomalin for capturing this fact and being able to sustain it as much as I despise Becoming Jane for not saying it enough.
The Outsider by Albert Camus
I liked this novel about as much as I like a punch in the face by a person who has a cactus wrapped round their knuckles. It’s horrible. Don’t read it, you don’t need to read it! And I will try to explain why.
My copy is translated from the French by Joseph Laredo and is called The Outsider. This novel has also been published as The Stranger (or L’Etranger) but all tell the same story. It is hard to judge whether it has been a successful translation, quite probably not, but all I can do is comment on the novel that I have read.
The premise of the The Outsider is this; Meursault is an utter husk of a being who does not feel anything, yeah, he has no feelings what so ever, apart from things like ‘This room is hot’, ‘I like white coffee’, ‘I do not care whether I live, breathe or die so long as I can spend 120 pages describing how I did not know the age of my own mother and could not even work it out mathematically because I care not for such things nor anything really.’ (He didn’t really say this, but you get the point).
Meursault kills a man and when he is put on trial for this crime, he is found guilty in the eyes of the law on the grounds that he does not show any emotion over the death of his own mother. Meursault is equally guilty for both these crimes. They are as important as each other because society claims them to be. It is such an interesting premise. I am being sincere; it is an absolutely remarkable one. The problem is that I have just described the narrative in three lines, and these three lines are more powerful, succinct and thought provoking than anything Camus has managed to write in 120 pages.
I am not finished with Camus yet, after all, he is a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. But I think I would be more suited to his essays. I know everyone likes, raves about and sleeps with The Outsider tucked next to them under the sheet, but I thought it was a waste of time and frankly, talent.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
‘WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!’
It is marvellous. Now go and read it. May the tears of the bourgeoisie fill you with hope.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
Oh Orwell, how divine you are!
I remember almost buying this book from Shakespeare and Company in Paris when I visited there at the beginning of the year. I did not buy it from there, but it would have been extraordinarily fitting, in fact, they must sell this book tens of times over a day and for a price of 12 euro! (about 18 AUD). Instead of this I bought Much Ado About Nothing (Yes, good. A Shakespeare from S&C, well done me!) but ironically the second novel I bought was Dubliners by James Joyce (which was fantastic but an enormously stupid title to purchase if one is in Paris! Home to so many wonderful French writers! Well, excepting Camus of course..)
Orwell is meticulous in detail. In 215 pages we witness what it is to be penniless in two great big dirty cities and it is horrible. For me, it is Paris that he renders best, it is a true depiction and utterly visceral. Orwell takes you on a long exhausting walk, your pockets are as empty as his, you are having to pawn your clothing, sleep with bed bugs, maybe you’ll have to borrow a fishing line to try for what can only be caught with nets in the polluted Seine. You watch as the head chef of Hôtel X tests yet another steak with the fingers that have been in his mouth already a hundred times today. You watch as the cook in the Auberge sits on top of the rubbish bin sobbing, Orwell is cleaning the dishes even with the grime that has built up on the sink and floor. It is so enlightening and atmospheric that you can feel the heat of the kitchen coming through the page. Perhaps the most interesting thing that Orwell recounts is when he and Boris are slighted by the men above the laundry who pretend to commission him for their Communist publication.
All these experiences accumulate and render a technicolour landscape of Paris that is so dirty, but verdant with life both human and insect like. It is a true city where greatness arises from penury.
My edition has an introduction by Dervla Murphy who picks and chooses information very deliberately to market the book, making for a better reading, but not an entirely truthful one. For instance, it does not do a good job of saying in what context Orwell experiences his tramping in London. In these chapters there is a decided shift of urgency; Orwell is perhaps not in the same penniless ways as he was in Paris. In actuality, on his return from Paris, Orwell stays with his family and deliberately goes on tramping expeditions. On one occasion, he even tried to get arrested so that he may be imprisoned over Christmas to experience what it was like. He could call on his family to support him at any time and so the second half is something more like an anthropological study. The tone has shifted, it is a little less colourful but still informative.
Down and Out is such a greasy but oddly pleasing account of Paris and London, however, this book isn’t for tourists, and I am glad that I bought it when I got back home in a second hand charity sale. The money goes to homeless children, which is even more fitting than if one was to purchase this from (the delightful) S&C.