Shows promise, for a plongeur

Down and Out in Paris and London

"Orwellian" is an adjective much overused. On the basis of 1984 and Animal Farm, arguably his most famous works, Orwell's name has become adjectival for the machinations of sinister, privacy-stealing organizations, especially the state in its most nannying moments. Like "Kafkaesque", however, it's possible the word has been misapplied by the majority, acquainted only with the great works of the man.

What should something be, then, if it is Orwellian? Concise, certainly. Journalistic, if that too is not a loaded qualifier, intimations of the middle- or lowbrow. Readable and companionable, like a long conversation with someone who always thinks right, even if they do not always conclude right. Not necessarily well written (whatever that means), but written with clarity and care.

Hints of all of these skills are evident in Orwell's first novel(la), Down and Out in Paris and London. Clearly the rock on which such better formed works as Keep the Aspidistra Flying were built, Down and Out... provides an account of Orwell's penury in the two great cities. Reportage to its core, in writing it Orwell has ditched thesaurus and ornamental language to provide a flawed---count how many times something is described as "queer"---but engaging commentary.

Not in itself a classic, then, but nonetheless unputdownable. Reading the whole book takes less than a few hours and leaves the reader with enormous insight into poverty, hunger, debasement: big topics dealt with by a tiny book, rich in grimy, dirty facts about the lifestyle that Orwell longed to understand, and knew in his middle-class heart that he never truly would. Perhaps, ultimately, this is the description of an Orwellian text: an economy of prose that nobody before or since has attained.