"You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a sudden stroke, you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But of course you dare not admit it--you have got to pretend that you are living quite as usual, From the start it tangles you in a net of lies...." --George Orwell, on suddenly finding himself impoverished in Paris.
I've been teaching creative nonfiction workshops this semester at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (go Panthers), and one thing we've gone round and round on is the role and nature of truth in creative nonfiction. At what point does the adjective outweigh the noun? How much creativity is too much?
Some people call Orwell's account of spending his late 20s penniless in Paris and London fictional, but Orwell claimed it true, that the only inventions were the arrangement of some events and the combination of some characters into one. The book passes my smell test--it feels true, it seems to convey deeper truths--even as it almost fails a second test: it's so entertaining, it almost fails to convey those deeper truths.
I read this book years ago, and hesitated to pick it up again, remembering it as unremittingly bleak. But it wasn't. The Paris pages, anyway, are almost unsettlingly fun. Orwell spends almost 50 pp. giving us a colorful picture of where and how the working poor live in 1930s Paris, and then he finds his subject: that is, he finds a job as a plongeur, a dishwasher (though he winds up doing more than that--preparing vegetables and simple meals when called upon). The behind-the-scenes material of the restaurant is so vivid, it not only recalls pages of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential but also vaults past them:
The kitchen was like nothing I had ever seen or imagined--a stifling, low-ceilinged inferno of a cellar, red-lit from the fires, and deafening with oaths and the clanging of pots and pans. I twas so hot that all the metal-work except the stoves had to be covered with cloth. In the middle were furnaces, where twelve cooks skipped to and fro, their faces dripping sweat in spite of their white caps. Round that were counters where a mob of waiters and plongeurs clamored with trays. Sculliions, naked to the waist, were stoking the fires and scouring huge copper saucepans with sand. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and a rage.
Indeed, such scenes, in the kitchen and the carousing after, almost capsize the book: Orwell's having too much fun. But he seems to sense this, and suddenly the narrative swerves into a consideration of the "social significance of a plongeur's life." It sounds like a terrible rhetorical move; nothing's more sure to drive a reader away than a Message. But what follows isn't cant, and isn't that radical--why should people work for so little in such terrible conditions so that others (the diners) enjoy a life of relative ease?--and, sadly, isn't at all dated.