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.”

November 1, 2010

Read This: George Orwell’s Wigan Pier, Michael Pollan’s In Defense Of Food

Remember learning about coal mining and other natural resources back in grade school social studies?

Pretty boring, wasn’t it?  Sadly, that’s what I remember best:  how deadly dull social studies was.  I retained the difference between anthracite and bitumen, and not much else.

Now I realize WHY my grade school social studies texts and classes were so dull: we didn’t get to read very many stories.

Stories make everything and everyone more interesting.  Think something (like coal mining) is really dull?  It doesn’t have to be.  Tell a story about it, and the subject will come alive.  Same with any person:  Nobody is really dull.  Everyone has a story to tell.  Told in the right way, everyone’s story is interesting.

Any teacher wanting students to pay attention to and learn about industry, labor, or coal mining should include George Orwell’s “The Road To Wigan Pier,” reportage from the town of Wigan and other industrial communities in the north of England in the 1930s.  Why?  Because Orwell tells great stories about the daily life and work of coal miners that capture the attention and stay in the memory of any reader.

In the first part of the book, Orwell describes the work of coal miners in great detail, beginning with traveling a mile or two or three underground, stooped or on hands and knees, just to get from the pit bottom to the coal face.  In Orwell’s day, that miserable journey was all unpaid: only once the miners got to the coal face, where the work of hacking the coal out of the seams began, did their 7-1/2 hours of paid labor begin.  After describing the latter in equal detail, Orwell says “At a pinch I could be a tolerable road-sweeper or an inefficient gardener or even a tenth-rate farm-hand.  But by no conceivable amount of effort or training could I become a coal-miner; the work would kill me in a few weeks.”

Orwell’s description of the miners’ deplorable living conditions and the myths about working class people with which he, a member of the upper class, grew up with, is equally fascinating.  His discussion of class attitudes and welfare is as current today as it was when it was published in 1937, as is his observation that, necessary though coal was to all human endeavors in his day, most would prefer to forget about the conditions under which those doing the work of producing it lived and worked.  And when he notes the irony that “a luxury [such as cheap sweets] is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity [such as a square meal],” and reviews the dreadful diets of most of the 1930s English working class, he seems to anticipate Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food.”

In telling stories about what he observed in Wigan and elsewhere, Orwell brings coal mining to life in a way that no recitation of facts or statistics possibly can.

Have you ever heard a story that made you realize that something or someone was far more interesting than you’d originally thought?

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