Let's compare the interwar context in Paris with Simenon's, Orwell's and Hemingway's writings
SIMENON SIMENON. LETTERATURA E STORIA SOCIALE
Confrontiamo il contesto del periodo tra le due guerre a Parigi con gli scritti di Simenon, Orwell e Hemingway
SIMENON SIMENON. LITTERATURE ET HISTOIRE SOCIALE
Comparons le contexte de l'entre-deux-guerres à Paris avec les écrits de Simenon, Orwell et Hemingway
The Paris of Simenon, Hemingway and Orwell was a rapidly changing city. The economic expansion of 1904-1913 had initiated a process of social transformation which was deepened by the boom of the 1920s. Industries such as vehicle production, aeronautics and chemicals, which had been given an impulse by the war, continued to expand. Industry is largely absent from the three authors’ writings, although the Citanguette bar in La Tête d’un homme has a clientele of dockers and Citroën workers, but the hotels and restaurants of the city centre and Montparnasse are prominent as are Hemingway’s race courses and cycle tracks. Retail distribution was also subject to modernisation and this impacts on Cuchas’s mother (Le petit Saint) when the new owners of the fruit and vegetable wholesalers where she purchases her supplies ‘began by not allowing push-carts, which they considered a nuisance and unprofitable, to enter the shed.’
Economic expansion brought a rapid growth in the population of Paris, which increased by 35% between 1921 and 1931, creating pressure on housing stocks with the result that despite certain improvements (Cuchas’s studio has electricity and an inside toilet) the poorest Parisians continued to live in the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions described in Le Petit Saint and by Orwell and Hemingway.
This situation was intensified by migration from the provinces to Paris. Heurtin, Radek’s “fall-guy” in La Tête d’un homme, has moved to the capital in search of economic opportunities and Orwell’s neighbours include Madame F., ‘a splendid Auvergnat peasant woman’, Azaya, ‘a great clumping peasant girl who worked fourteen hours a day in a glass factory’, and Furex, a Limousin stonemason.
France had suffered around a million and a half fatalities in the Great War, with a further three-quarters of a million permanently injured, and the shadow of the war falls heavily across Simenon’s, Hemingway’s and Orwell’s portrait of 1920s Paris. Cuchas’s half-brother, Olivier, is killed in action, as is his brother-in-law, and another half-brother, Vladimir is wounded. The Closerie des Lilas, where Hemingway drinks, counts many wounded veterans amongst its clients and staff and the author watches ‘how well they were overcoming the handicap of the loss of limbs and saw the quality of their artificial eyes and the degree of skill with which their faces had been reconstructed.’
The combination of war casualties and economic expansion created a demand for labour which could not be met within France, provoking an influx of foreign-born workers to perform mostly menial jobs. In 1911, there were 1,160,000 foreigners in France (2.8% of the population); by 1931, the figure was 2,175,000, or 7.1% of the total. The rue Mouffetard’s immigrant community seems to be diverse: ‘mostly Poles, Arabs and Italians’, according to Orwell, although he also mentions Bulgarians, Russians, Romanians and English, while Cuchas’s neighbours include Spaniards, Italians and Africans. At Orwell’s Hôtel X, ‘different jobs were done by different races. The office employees and the cooks and sewing women were French, the waiters Italians and Germans […], the plongeurs of every race in Europe, besides Arabs and Negroes’.
The rue du Roi-de-Sicile is a less heterogeneous ghetto, ‘still half-Jewish but already half a Polish colony’ (Pietr le Letton). The Jewish and Polish inhabitants seem separated from the French by their language and customs and the racism of the latter never seems far away, spurred by native prejudices against the insalubriousness and criminality of the area. Maigret is not exempt from this charge in his dealings with the Russian Jew Anna Gorskine and the narrator’s (Simenon’s?) voice contains the same tone of contempt when he talks of the ‘sly, shameful life’ of the quartier. Orwell, too, repeats, without questioning, a series of anti-Jewish stereotypes.
Paris’s American community is, in contrast, composed of wealthy expatriates, such as Crosby in La Tête d’un homme, and the literary circles in which Hemingway moves. Moving in their own circles, speaking mostly English, the Americans constitute in some ways as much a community apart from the everyday life of Paris as the Jews and Poles of the Sentier. Their wealth may guarantee them respectful treatment from Maigret but the commissaire’s distrust of unearned riches and/or bohemianism is never far away as he follows the wealthy Crosby from La Coupole to the Hôtel George-V.
Finally, Simenon and Orwell both indicate the double oppression of working class women. In 1921, the salaries of women working in industry were 31% less than those of men. In the caféterie in the Caves du Majestic, the worst jobs are done by Prosper Donge’s ‘three fat women’ and at Orwell’s Hôtel X ‘the person who normally washed up was a woman […] She stood at the sink thirteen hours a day, six days a week, year round […] she was horribly bullied by the waiters.’ The loss of a million young men in the war made marriage impossible for an equal number of women and, in consequence, formal or informal prostitution flourished. In the absence of birth control and with abortion illegal, large families with a single female parent, such as Cuchas’s mother, were common.
Simenon, Orwell and Hemingway each give insights into the social history of 1920s Paris but they do so from a different authorial perspective. My next post will suggest that a familiarity with the writing of each can help enrich a reading of the others.
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