Law and Conversation

April 30, 2012

There but for the grace of God: Homelessness in literature and real life

Challenge Button

Over the weekend, I posted a review over at the Europa Challenge Blog. For the 2012 challenge, my modest goal was to achieve the Espresso level by reading four books published by Europa Editions. I’ve now achieved that, so I’m taking this opportunity to crow a little 🙂 . My first 2012 review, discussing Jean-Claude Izzo’s “A Sun for the Dying,” is below. In the near term future, I hope to post on Alexander Maksik’s “You Deserve Nothing,” Laurence Cosse’s “An Accident in August, and Elena Ferrante’s “The Lost Daughter.” I have several more as-yet unread Europas on my shelf and one or two checked out from the library, so the Cappuccino level (6 Europas) is clearly in view. With so much else on my plate, I can’t commit to the demanding Caffe Luongo level (read and review 12 Europas), but I’m not ruling it out, either–after all, there are still seven months left in the year! Hope you’ll enjoy my thoughts on Izzo below and check out my other reviews, as well as those of my co-bloggers, on the Europa Challenge Blog as well.

Reading Jean-Claude Izzo’s “A Sun for the Dying” in tandem with George Orwell’s “Down and Out in London and Paris” gave me a double dose of insight into the plight of the homeless people I see every day on my way to and from work. In this time of mortgage foreclosures, crushing student loan debt, and an extraordinarily difficult job market, it also made me think of how close so many people are to the edge.

Izzo’s novel shows how a person’s bad decisions, coupled with family’s and associates’ equally bad behavior and a stroke or two of bad fortune, can leave someone homeless, penniless, and in ill health, with no chance of climbing back to the upper middle class from which he came. Orwell’s nonfiction account of his own temporary experience with homelessness and poverty in Paris and London during the 1930s contains many similar elements.

If the title alone of “A Sun for the Dying” weren’t enough to clue you in, by the time you read the prologue, which recounts the last few hours of Titi, a homeless man, on a wintry Paris metro platform, you know the story is not going to lift up your spirits.

For Rico, Izzo’s chief protagonist, Titi’s death is a turning point. The two depended on each other not only to share any slight windfalls either might encounter but also, at least as important, to buck up each other’s spirits. Their companionship provided each with a reason to keep going. Though Rico was the stronger of the two, once Titi, his best and only friend, is gone, he spirals downward even more rapidly.

Though Rico wasn’t a likeable character for me, he’s not an unusual person. As the narrative progresses, we learn that not too long before Titi’s death he had a good job, a beautiful wife, a son, a really nice house, and a similarly upscale social circle. But nothing and no one stays the same. A chain of unfortunate events ends with Rico losing everything he has and ending up homeless on the streets of Paris.

You might think that a person in Rico’s position should go to his family, if he has one, for support and a place to stay while he gets back on his feet. Indeed, Rico’s father is alive and clearly well able to offer his son a helping hand. But he’s not a likeable character, either. He’s been out of Rico’s life for many years and, on reencountering his son, seems completely uninterested in his condition or in reestablishing any sort of relationship, let alone helping him out.

You might also think that France’s socialized institutions would provide Rico with support. Not in Izzo’s book; whatever services or organizations there are in France that help the poor are largely absent from the story.

Orwell, whose real-life descent into living on the edge was precipitated by a theft, describes exactly how it feels. From chapter 3: “You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a sudden stroke you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But of course you dare not admit it – you have got to pretend that you are living quite as usual. From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it.” He continues to describe the precariousness of life on the edge, how just staying alive consumes him, and how any deviation from his strict centime-pinching regimen throws his entire life off. Eighty years later, his description of a homeless person’s daily life on another continent is as vivid and about as accurate, I don’t doubt, as it was then.

Izzo doesn’t attempt to propose any solutions for homelessness in his gritty novel, which simply tells a realistic and very depressing story. Though Orwell does present some reasoned suggestions in his book, for me, his most effective message is the benefit of understanding, compassion, and a sense that there, but for the grace of God, could go any of us. As he says in his concluding chapter: “I can point to one or two things that I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy….That is a beginning.”

Advertisements

2 Comments »

  1. Bravo, Helen! Your voracious reading puts this librarian to shame, but I appreciate learning new authors through you columns. And isn’t it encouraging that in France, England and every corner of our world, people are writing thoughtfully about the dignity of the working poor. Thank you.

    Comment by Pat — April 30, 2012 @ 12:38 am | Reply

    • I’m always so glad to see you stop by, Pat, but your posts clearly show that you’re not exactly a slouch when it comes to reading! The opportunity to read is the best thing about the two hours I spend on the train every day.

      Comment by Helen Gunnarsson — April 30, 2012 @ 7:08 pm | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: