Re-reading Orwell

‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ is one of my favourite books. I first encountered it when I was about 14 or 15 years old, a pretentious teenager who liked to wander around with books that I thought would show how clever I was, without actually going to the bother of reading them. (In my first year at secondary school I spent several weeks walking around with a copy of ‘Crime and Punishment’ under my arm. Nobody noticed.)

But I did read this book. I loved its straightforward language, the insight it gave into working people’s lives in London and Paris in the early twentieth century, and the interesting way in which Orwell, as writer, is both present and not-present. He’s reporting on his life, but the reader discovers very little about him. (For example, at one point he casually mentions that the French police are ‘interested’ in him, but doesn’t tell us any more.)

I must have re-read this book tens of times. But unlike other favourite re-reads, not all aspects of it are a comfortable experience because it’s difficult nowadays to read the following sentences:

‘In the corner a Jew, muzzle down in the plate, was guiltily wolfing bacon.’

‘The shopman was a red-haired Jew, an extraordinary disagreeable man, who used to fall into furious rages at the sight of a client…It would have been a pleasure to flatten the Jew’s nose, if only one could have afforded it.’

And on and on throughout the book. Orwell’s portrayal of Jewish people lumps them all together into some collective category with identical characteristics, every aspect of their behaviour and appearance is due to their being Jewish. He seems to divine this fact without any obvious evidence (at least none that he tells us) and often treats them as less-than-human.

I can’t remember exactly how I felt when I first encountered these and many other sentences, that now feel blatantly anti-Semitic. When you read something so obviously prejudiced about an aspect of yourself written by someone who is so widely admired, you have to accept it as a lump in the mattress. Orwell can’t be right, but everybody treats him as a sort of secular saint, so he can’t be wrong either. When I was younger it set up an infinite loop in my mind;

  1. Everyone says Orwell is a brilliant thinker.
  2. Orwell is clearly prejudiced against Jewish people
  3. I am Jewish and this makes me uncomfortable.
  4. But he’s brilliant.

And the only way I could resolve this was to deny a little bit of myself in order to continue to read him. But I wasn’t even particularly Jewish. I didn’t define myself in this way, but Orwell (and perhaps others?) were happy to identify me as a ‘Jewess’. The ‘Jews’ in his text may not have defined themselves as such either.

Really, my only answer to this is to deny such reductive labels and actually insist on an identity that can’t be easily rendered into single words. An identity that is self-contradictory may be a defence against prejudice. I may be Jew-ish but I spent yesterday helping out at my friend’s Catholic Church. I’m English but am often considered to be a Scottish writer. I’m straight but I often write from a lesbian point of view. And so on.

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