Confederacy of Poverty

I’ve never been a huge fan of the picaresque novel. I enjoy their satirical elements and the style of the anti-hero, but the general lack of character development and story that are usually aspects of the picaresque I find hard to get along with. So I approached our first novel of book club, John Kennedy Toole’s The Confederacy of Dunces, with some trepidation.
But it was mostly unfounded as I enjoyed the novel quite a lot. I can see why it took a lot of effort to be published (Toole’s mother spent over a decade contacting publishers after her sons suicide) as the lack of plot make it a hard sell. The main character, Ignatius Reilly, is a tour-de-force of epic proportions. He is at once arrogant, exasperating, self-indulgent, lazy, emotionally challenged, solitary, frustrating and contradictory. But never anything less than compelling. The episodes of the novel are mostly farcical and to some Ignatius’s ridiculous reactions to anything resembling hard work would come across as annoying. The move teeters on this tightrope throughout, but for me Toole goes up to this line but never quite crosses it. I’ve certainly never read anything quite like Dunces and for that I can only recommend it.
Our second choice was something vastly different – George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris in London. Orwell is known as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and this account of his time struggling with poverty in the early 1920s was a fascinating glimpse into his life at the beginning of his career.
The book describes poverty in superb detail, always with compassion and honesty and a great deal of humour too. Orwell’s travails as a plongeur (waiter, basically) in Paris hotels is a chaotic and often very funny look at the poor underbelly of the Parisian working class. The sheer scale of the chaos and hard work of the plongeurs is almost unbelievable. The long hours and back-breaking conditions are soul-destroying and for very meagre pay. The power of Orwell’s writing brings these scenes to life in a compelling way and also have much resonance to conditions in the hospitality industry today. My partner works in hospitality and some of the scenes Orwell describes, whilst at the extreme end of the scale, are still applicable in today’s industry.
His experiences of homelessness in London are exceptionally well drawn. He underwent a constant cycle of walking between hostels, often for up to 20 miles a day, and surviving on little more than bread and margarine for days on end. The descriptions of starvation reminded me very much of another writer who lived on the poverty line for much of his life, Charles Bukowski. Orwell has that matter-of-fact, dry prose that is the antithesis of Bukowski but still a similarity remains. Whilst this section of the book is challenging and finds Orwell at a low ebb he never loses his compassionate outlook or ability to see hope in his situation. Which is something to admire.

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