Anatole Kupper_edited

“It was now absolutely necessary to find work, and I remembered a friend of mine, a Russian waiter named Boris, who might be able to help me. I had first met him in the public ward of a hospital, where he was being treated for arthritis in the left leg. He had told me to come to him if I were ever in difficulties.”  
                                             
                                                            George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)

Orwell à Paris: Dans la dèche avec le capitaine russe
Editions Exils, 2024
Preface: Thomas Snégaroff
Translator: Nicolas Ragonneau
EAN: 9782914823340
240 pages

Reading George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London saved Duncan Roberts’ sanity when he worked as a jobbing sous-chef in Melbourne more than a decade ago. He kept a well-thumbed copy of the book in his apron pocket as a quotable way of getting through shifts when all he really wanted to do was walk up to the head chef, theatrically stab a knife into a nearby chopping board and tell him exactly what he thought of him and his miserable kitchen. Instead, Duncan would take a deep breath and say, “Chapter 14. The head chef was an insufferable bully”. Most situations he encountered in the kitchen were mirrored in the text of Orwell’s first published book.

On returning to Paris, Duncan – who I can safely say is a kindred spirit – spent years researching the real people and places mentioned in Orwell’s book. His labour of love was rewarded this week when Orwell à Paris: Dans la dèche avec le capitaine russe was launched at the Hotel Littéraire Le Swann! Orwell devotees are in for a genuine treat when they get their hands on a copy! 

Duncan’s literary detective work in modern-day Paris has uncovered significant new material about Orwell’s time in the French capital nearly a century ago. It is rarer than one would expect to find publications about Orwell which contain genuinely original research and this is especially the case regarding his life in Burma, Paris and London during the 1920s. 

Duncan’s research adventures, on the trail of the Russian captain, are deeply engaging (especially for anyone who has ever undertaken historical detective work). The information about the “real Boris” will be what interests most fans of Orwell’s first book who are curious to know more biographical details of his time in Paris. However, there is much more of interest than just this story! The reader is taken on a journey back to the Paris Orwell experienced in the late-1920s. 

Duncan engagingly weaves two of his important contemporary research contacts, Dimitri Vicheney and Andreï Korliakov, into the narrative. Korliakov, a photo-historian whose herculean efforts to acquire, restore and identify Russian emigres in Paris proved enormously beneficial in identifying Boris, the colourful ex-Russian officer and waiter who helps the unnamed narrator of Down and Out in Paris and London find work as a plongeur.

Hôpital Cochin

Orwell, by the time he died, knew all about hospitals. He had been confined in a Republican military hospital after being wounded in the Spanish Civil War by a sniper’s bullet incising through his throat. He was to spend many months in sanatoriums in England and Scotland fighting the pulmonary tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. However, the horrors witnessed during his stay in early 1929 on the public ward of Hôpital Cochin would never leave him. He eventually fled the ward, without waiting for a medical discharge, on the 22nd March after fifteen terrible nights experiencing how the poor die. Orwell later learned there was no worse hospital in Paris. 

The most significant event during his stay was meeting Anatole Kupper (1896-1951) the day after being admitted to the hospital. Kupper, an ex-Russian army officer suffering terribly from arthritis, was a patient for three months.  They were numbered 3058 and 3060 on the hospital admissions register. Kupper’s profession was recorded as ‘waiter’ and later in the year Blair sought the Russian’s assistance when desperately in need of a job. Anatole was to gain literary immortality as “Boris”, the most memorable character in the book that was eventually published as Down and Out in Paris and London.

We learn from Roberts that Kupper had not recuperated at all quickly from his painful, arthritic knee and after three months ensconced in Hôpital Cochin was transferred to the Hôpital Militaire de Vincennes, Saint-Mandé, located in the the south-east of Paris. He was released in July 1929 but had still not fully recovered. It was around this time that Blair sought out his friend about finding work, if not as a waiter, at least in the kitchen as a plongeur.

We know from Down and Out in Paris and London that Boris stayed at the Hotel Edouard VII while on leave during the war where he later sought employment as a nightwatchman before become head waiter at the more prestigious, Hotel Scribe. Duncan discovered that in between these two Paris hotel jobs, Kupper moved to Belgium. This “enigmatic monochrome photo of Kupper” was included in his work visa application for the Hotel Carlton, in Antwerp.

Anatole Kupper aka “Boris” (1923)

It was a short-lived position and barely three months later he was back on French soil. One record of his departure from Belgium on the 18th of September 1923, included a forwarding address:
Capitaine Kupper
Union des officiers Russes
79 rue de Grenelle
75007
Paris
Duncan (and I encourage you to read the book to find out about Kupper’s military service during World War One) discovered that ever since remaining in Paris, after the cessation of hostilities, the ex-Russian captain had managed to “stay off lists” and away from “ex-commanding officers who might still hold sway over him, or worse still, try to put him on a boat back to Russia as General Lokhvitski had threatened to do”. He points out that giving the Russian Officers’ Union as a postal address is a clear indication that he had no job to come back to and nowhere to stay. 

Fiction or Reportage?

Orwell à Paris: Dans la dèche avec le capitaine russe will provide knowledgable readers with good cause to reconsider the vexed question of whether Down and Out in Paris and London is genuinely reportage – or fiction! The book always defied conventional classification by publishers. Commonly considered to be reportage, like two of Orwell’s other books from the 1930s – The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and  Homage to Catalonia (1938) – it is just is not that simple.

The torturous publication history of the book goes some way towards explaining why it is challenging to classify it. It is also important to consider the very real threat for publishers that they could be gaoled for libel. You will never find Orwell’s first book in the fiction section at a contemporary bookseller. However, it is important to consider the two first editions of the book. 

The text on the original Gollancz dust jacket from 1933 positioned readers to expect a book that held their ‘attention far more closely than 90% of novels’. When Penguin first published Down and Out in Paris and London (December 1940) ‘fiction’ was emblazoned on the familiar orange and white paperback cover design. 

Blair was a long-term resident of the Hôtel des Bons Amis which was fictionalised by Orwell as the Hôtel des Trois Moineaux. The hotel had been leased from Henri-Antoine Mons and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, by the friendly Italian immigrant ‘restaurateurs’, Carlos and Clothilde Ferrari who also ran the bistro. He later described it as “a dark, rickety warren of five storeys, cut up by wooden partitions into forty rooms. The rooms were small and inveterately dirty, for there was no maid, and Madame F., the patronne, had no time to do any sweeping.” Duncan’s research shows this is not an accurate rendering of the establishment. 

Duncan’s reveals that Boris’ father was not as recounted in Down and Out in Paris and London:

Like most Russian refugees, he had had an adventurous life. His parents, killed in the Revolution, had been rich people, and he had served through the war in the Second Siberian Rifles, which, according to him, was the best regiment in the Russian Army…
The only things left to Boris by the Revolution were his medals and some photographs of his old regiment; he had kept these when everything else went to the pawn-shop. Almost every day he would spread the photographs out on the bed and talk about them: ‘Voilà, mon ami! There you see me at the head of my company. Fine big men, eh? Not like these little rats of Frenchmen. A captain at twenty–not bad, eh? Yes, a captain in the Second Siberian Rifles; and my father was a colonel.

Boris’s father, Ernest Kupper, was not a colonel but the station master in Bakhmut, a town in Eastern Ukraine. Duncan discovered that elder Kupper was decorated by the Tsar for civic, not military achievements. 

Did Orwell embellish what his friend told him – or was he told an untruth? Did Anatole Kupper’s parents lose their lives during the Russian Revolution? It is not clear but certainly very possible!

Personal reflection

“…Boris was inclined to shirk, partly because of his lame leg, partly because he was ashamed …”

Duncan has published the images of Anatole Kupper in his officer’s uniform which I first saw three years ago. I vividly remember the moment, when we were looking at one photo together while on a Zoom call, Duncan spotted Anatole had a walking-stick. It seemed the ultimate confirmation that we were looking at the real “Boris”!

Duncan contacted me several years ago to discuss our shared interest in Eric Blair’s time in Paris. He and I had both worked out that “Boris” must have been listed on the hospital admissions register. The copy which had been supplied to me by the archivist was frustratingly truncated just below Eric Blair’s name. Duncan generously shared the complete document. I provided him with the real name of Eric Blair’s accommodation in Paris, Hôtel des Bons Amis. We set-up an online folder, shared our knowledge and had many lengthy zoom calls.

Since then, Duncan has visited Kiama with his family and I have enjoyed his company in Paris! It is absolutely fabulous he has successfully published this extraordinarily interesting book detailing his experiences “on the trail of Eric Blair in the 1920s” with such excellent research into Anatole Kupper’s life!

Orwell à Paris: Dans la dèche avec le capitaine russe will become an invaluable resource for scholars, as well as those with a more general interest in Orwell and Russian emigres during the interwar period in Paris. 

Highest recommendation!

Please feel encouraged to buy a copy plus follow Duncan on X/Twitter and and check out his blog.

Duncan Roberts

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Comments(3)

    • Robert Menzies

    • 3 weeks ago

    Interesting as always, Darcy. Congrats to Duncan on the book.

    • Michael Casey

    • 6 days ago

    Translation to English??

      • Darcy Moore

      • 3 days ago

      Yes, not yet – but it will happen, Michael! There is and English one is prepared that just needs a publisher.

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