December 31st, 2015

stadtgesichter by Petra Wildenhahn. I am grateful for permission from the artist to feature this lithograph here.

stadtgesichter by Petra Wildenhahn.
I am grateful for permission from the artist to feature this lithograph here.

November may be said to have four protagonists: a group of night-shift workers in South-East France; their friends, relatives, lovers, acquaintances; the factory in which they work; the work itself. The focus is on two and a half hours during one evening in November 1976 and the plastic die-casting workshop where the men are employed, though many of the novel’s events and situations unfold beyond this narrow frame.

 The novel is in five parts, each of eleven chapters. The novel opens at 9.00 p.m., with most of the men making their way to the factory; it ends at 11.30, following an impromptu shut-down of the machinery for the purposes of a brief celebration. During this time span, there are conversations, arguments, mock-fights, something approaching a real fight, revelations, confessions, confidences, an acrobatic stunt, a union meeting to plan forthcoming strike action, some semi-philosophical repartee, a political harangue, plus a lot of aimless chewing of cud – all of which is punctuated by the various manual and mechanical operations that the men are employed to perform. Attention shifts restlessly from person to person, often abandoning the factory altogether, and frequently yielding for shorter or longer passages to the first-person viewpoints and introspection of individual characters.

Each man, vividly etched and dramatised in the novel’s first book, is developed both immanently and contrastively as the novel proceeds. Each character is in principle as interesting, creatively inconsistent and elusive as any person met in flesh and blood, so that the more you enquire and explore the more you discover.

The men’s names are Alphonse, Bobrán, Eric, Fernando, Gérard, Jacques, Jean, Luigi, Marcel, Mathieu, Philippe, Rachid, Salvatore and Tomec. They are Algerian, French de souche (including an ex-army Alsacien, a Marseillais and a hillside paysan,), Portuguese, English, Italian, Sicilian, Ivorian and Polish. They range in age from early twenties to mid-sixties. Several of them have day jobs: Luigi is a butcher’s apprentice, Jacques works on his economically-unviable hillside smallholding, Bobrán labours on building sites, Tomec paints and sculpts, Salvatore attends university.

For Luigi, it is the start of a quite ordinary Tuesday night; Mathieu plans to put his beloved long-demented wife out of her misery; Philippe, having learnt from his despised sister that he is a cuckold, contemplates first wife-beating and then his own freedom; Rachid is overwhelmed by successive waves of grief and joy; Alphonse, who hopes one day to become a theatre actor, learns lines from En Attendant Godot, while observing and sometimes imitating the men around him; Marcel whiles away the time considering which of his girlfriends ‘to lose’, having just become engaged to marry his favourite; Fernando is obsessed by erectile dysfunction and the friendly prostitute who provides therapeutic assistance.

The factory owner, Gérard, is depicted first with Claude, his wife, at a dinner party, then with Jorge, his Chilean chauffeur; lastly, as he wanders alone around his house. Just as Claude and Jorge are portrayed in their own right and through their own thoughts, so too are Fernando’s sex-therapist, Marcel’s fiancée, Bobrán’s German lover, Eric’s Saturday-night date, Jean’s wife, Philippe’s sister, etc.: the secondary characters are much more than cameos. By the end of the novel, the reader has encountered over a hundred people, a shifting mosaic of 1970s Europe.