He had a gift for phrases. He had managed to keep his brain alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty. He might be ragged and cold, or even starving, but so long as he could read, think and watch for meteors, he was, as he said, free in his own mind."
George Orwell is a damn good writer. Sure, he whipped out 1984 and Animal Farm, but it's from his essays and nonfiction that I'm learning Orwellian tricks--and by that I mean, the very best sort of craft points.
Yes, I know that his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) is characterized as a novel--usually with some qualifier like "semi-autobiographical" or "thinly-veiled." But given that Orwell saves several chapters for his personal commentary about, among others, the life of a Paris plongeur, London slang and swearing, tramps, sleeping options for the homeless in London, and the Salvation Army, it seems a stretch to me to use the word "novel." I understand his book to, at most, have about as much inevitable fudging as a memoir.
DOPL is about exactly that--Orwell mired in poverty, looking for work or working 17-hour shifts in hellfire hot hotel kitchens, begging, pawning, banding together with others in the same state, starving, and generally fighting to survive.
He knows how to weight anecdotes. He's clearly fascinated by the stories he hears and sees, the people he meets, and the strange going-ons about him. The temptation would be to lay it all out there--"This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened....." Orwell doesn't fall for it. Rather, he uses anecdotes proportionally: the shorter ones add scope and breadth to what might otherwise be read as an individualized experience; longer ones push the narrative forward; still longer ones fundamentally shape Orwell's experiences and opinions. With narrative intention for each sub-story, Orwell keeps the book from being a diary-esque dumping ground for every interesting thing that happened to him. He allows each story only as much it needs to serve its textual purpose. Given the proper weight, the story of the weeping cook in the bad restaurant is as compelling as that of Boris, the former Russian army captain now sleeping in bug-infested sheets in the slums--even though we spend significantly more time with Boris than the cook.
Orwell's sense of proportion extends to his use of imagistic details. Some are dropped in only once--that of Boris inking his skin where the holes in his black socks would otherwise be revealed, for example--and others, like tramps smoking used cigarette ends found in streets, are returned to again and again. The result? Boris inking his skin adds depth to his character; the numerous men--named and unnamed, in Paris and in London--all with tins full of dirty tobacco tips builds the broader picture of poverty that Orwell wants to paint.
What's the point? Why wouldn't a diary-esque series of observations be just as compelling? If DOPL took this travelogue route, it'd still have a lot of worth. But because Orwell takes pains to shape a narrative--one with tension, one with movement, one with continuity even when he leaps into another country and set of characters midway through (see: used cigarette ends), readers are better prepared for the chapters when Orwell's first-person narrator turns discursive:
Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised?--for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful, or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except "Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it"? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounts a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a business man, getting his living, like other business men, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.
Why don't we resent the narrator for getting all political on us in the midst of a good story? First, Orwell refrains from opining in scene; he's rather distant until we hit on these chapters (see: Orwell's sense of proportion).
Second, the chapters are placed when that intentionally-shaped narrative naturally pauses. The first discourse doesn't appear until the narrator is transitioning between Paris and London. We readers want to pause and reflect before we make that leap; otherwise, it would be too abrupt. Moreover, the breathing space actually builds tension, because while we know the narrator is steaming towards London, with one chance to pull himself out of his dire straights, he's not there yet; the discursive chapter delays the resolution and heightens suspense.
And finally, Orwell's plain-language voice is a stay against the resentment we might feel for a pontificating narrator. "For what they are worth I want to give my opinions on the Paris plongeur. ..." Nothing high and mighty in that tone; our guard drops. And rather than riddling his commentary with adjectives, adverbs, and other grammatical efforts towards artificial emphasis, Orwell puts his money on nouns; that is facts, observations, and the general good sense to say what he means in the most clear way possible.
Which means he's following his own advice, from the essay he'd later write titled "Politics and the English Language." Not that I'm one for artifical emphasis, but it's only one of the best essays ever written, ever.