I’m half way through George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London (wait for the review) and I was disappointed when I found out that the factual accuracy of the book was under doubt. According to some, Orwell exaggerated his impoverished situation in Paris and that he willingly lived with tramps in London for experience.
As soon as I came across it I stopped reading it. The article, I mean. I couldn’t stop reading Orwell, obviously! It brought to mind a particular part of the preface from Graham Greene’s collection of short stories. What he said about writers writing short story has stuck to me. Although I can’t repeat it verbatim I’m sure I can give the gist.
What Greene basically says is that writing a short story is like a task set by the author to test his strength. He sketches different characters and tests the tensile strength and the effulgence of his writing. It’s like he tries various character strengths in potentially incapable shells and crosses them in unlikely situations to see just how far can he push himself.
So, after this do I think that Orwell did wrong in exaggerating his situations for a better story?
No. And I’m surprised at my own reaction frankly. Usually, a blemish, no matter how ineffectual, over the expected ruins my mood and I force myself, literally, to not like it anymore. I’ll forget the fact that I initially loved it. The only thing I would keep telling myself is the damage done to the apparent relationship I shared with the author.
It’s like a stab in the back. It’s like the author cheated me into reading a story that was never meant to be.
Of course, in this case, the comparison between Greene’s take on short story writing and the alleged exaggeration of Orwell is not along a linear path. Orwell’s essay is mostly fact based. He himself mentions it that certain scenes from Down and out in Paris and London did take place but to others. He merely usurped the protagonist role as his own.
In my books that’s a totally legitimate thing to do. After all, anyone reading his memoirs will agree that it doesn’t make for a page turning and exhilarating read and is mostly about the conditions rather than him or his writing.
Even if I get myself to believe that Orwell did not go through the pains as mentioned in the book, my respect for the author and love for his works will not diminish.
Greats like Orwell and Greene need not bother about the acceptability of their work by sundry and every riff raff. It is myself that I’m cajoling into an easier acceptance of the departure from my usual rigidity!