One of my favorite literary walks is A Band of Outsiders in the Place de la Contrescarpe/Rue Mouffetard area on the fringe of the Latin Quarter. Here were James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and other great writers, our man George Orwell included. He lived in the Rue du Pot-de-Fer, off Mouffetard, where he began writing his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London. He calls the street “the Rue du Coq d’Or”:
“It was a very ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching toward one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse. All the houses were hotels and packed to the tiles with lodgers, mostly Poles, Arabs and Italians. At the foot of the hotels were tiny bistros, where you could be drunk for the equivalent of a shilling. On Saturday about a third of the male population of the quarter was drunk. There was fighting over women, and the Arab navvies who lived in the cheapest hotels used to conduct mysterious feuds, and fight them out with chairs and occasionally revolvers.”
George Orwell was just short of twenty-six when he arrived in the spring of 1928 in the Rue du Pot-de-Fer. To the distress of his father, a retired colonial administrator of the Indian Britain Empire, his son had resigned a fine position at the Imperial Police in Burma to become a writer. He lived in a squalid hotel at No. 6 in the bug-infested Hôtel des Trois Moineaux, as he calls it, and describes it with such loving disgust in Down and Out. The spur for this book came from a sudden plunge into poverty after most of his money was stolen. In the novel “a young Italian who called himself a compositor” takes the money from his hotel room; in real life, it was a prostitute named Suzanne. Over the following three months, he went for as long as three days without eating, pawned all his clothes except what he was wearing, and scrounged for menial jobs, most unforgettably as a dishwasher in the none-too-sanitary bowels of a luxury hotel.
The poverty was largely voluntary. His Aunt Nellie lived in Paris and would gladly have come to his aid if he had asked. But he wanted to know what living in these depths was like. And though he was only a visitor, he gave a voice to those who had no escape.
When Down and Out in Paris and London was accepted for publication in 1933, he avoided embarrassing his proper father by using a pseudonym, choosing the name of a little river called the Orwell near his parents’ home in East Anglia. He intended to use the word “Orwell” only for this first book, but the reviews were so good and the sales so unexpectedly healthy that the pseudonym of George Orwell became too valuable to abandon. So then Animal Farm, 1984, and so many others went by the Orwell name.
So what was real name?
In his churchyard in Oxfordshire reads his plaque …
ERIC ARTHUR BLAIR
BORN JUNE 25TH 1903
DIED JANUARY 21ST 1950
Eye Prefer Paris Postcards
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