It's been decades since I read a work of George Orwell's, and I think that I probably did not appreciate just how fine a wordsmith he was when I last read him, as a teenager. Back then, within about one year, I read 1984, Animal Farm, and Coming Up for Air, caring only for the first and rather surprised I didn't much like the second. That was back in the mid-1980s.
Down and Out has been on my list for a while, perhaps since reading Jack London's People of the Abyss or Ehrlich's Nickel and Dimed. I'd say this work is probably on par with London's classic, and it covers much the same territory. There's one difference, however. Orwell, at least as the work is narrated, isn't going out and living among the poor for some journalistic cause. He is poor--he's a down-and-out writer. Unable to find enough work, he finds himself scraping by in a Paris apartment. He takes up working poor jobs, as he can find them. This means working in a restaurant as a dishwasher for seventeen hours a day, seven days a week.
During this time, he falls in with a Russian guy who supposedly can get him a good restaurant job. But the Russian is out on his luck too, having sustained a work injury that keeps people from wanting to hire him as a waiter. They get a coup when a friend of the Russian decides to open a restaurant himself--only, the problem is that the restaurant takes much longer to open than planned. Months pass. They go to work in a hotel restaurant. When the newer restaurant finally does open, Orwell finds that this promised new job is actually worse than the hotel he was working at (seven days on, instead of six). Eventually, wiped out, he writes to a friend back in London about a job and is promised one.
When he shows up in London, however, he finds his friend is gone and the promised job delayed accordingly. With little to his name, he is forced again to do as he can to get by. This time, there aren't any other jobs in the offing, however, so he spends time on the street and in various shelters. Along the way, Orwell offers advice on the best type of shelters, who the poor really are, and how to pawn clothes. He also compares poverty in Paris to that in London; the latter nation does a better job of forcing the poor off the street, which isn't to say that that is actually the better system, as it essentially means their more persecuted. I rather enjoyed the Paris section a bit more, for what can be said about homelessness as Orwell describes it is that there's a certain redundancy to it. At least, with a job or the prospect of better possibilities to come, there was something to cheer for.