Photograph of Grenoble by Olivier Meyssonnier
by Christopher Woodall
At some point in the summer of 1977, roughly eight months into a nightshift factory job in Grenoble, I woke up hungover one sweltering afternoon and decided to phone a close German friend, or perhaps it was my ex in Scotland, or my mother in England. There was a conversation I needed to have with someone, the main point of which I remember clearly. In order to count, the conversation had to be with someone I knew and in English rather than in the improving but still piss-poor French I now spoke every day to the exclusion of all else.
From the phoneless ninth-floor banlieue tower-block flat I was sharing with two French women, sisters, and a Chilean refugee named Gabriel, I had to snake my way by concertina-articulated bus into Grenoble’s city centre to place my call. After waiting my turn for an airless padded booth at the PTT (posts and telecommunications centre), I got through.
As I half recall and half invent, my side of the conversation played out as follows:
Hi. Yeah, fine. Still in the same place. Still nights. Oh, I don’t know, I might stay here forever. Sorry? Why should I be joking? Why should I want to teach people English when I’m in a hurry to lose mine… Not at all… this job’s perfect: I’m on the minimum wage plus night bonus and I get to spend half of every shift reading. What? Oh, Agatha Christie in French and Berlin Alexanderplatz. By Döblin. Alfred. He was German. Oh, forget it. My workmates? I don’t really have a lot to do with them, except the Marseillais, the peasant and one of the gypsy cousins I go to the bar with at the end of the shift. What does it matter what we drink? Blanc-limé mostly. Dry white wine with lemonade. Believe me, at 5.15 it’s just the thing. Well, I still struggle to follow a conversation but it’s improving: I can now tell someone to fuck off and I can read a newspaper with a dictionary in one hand. Anyway, enough about me. How are you?
There was another moment, not long after some such conversation, when it dawned on me that having now expressed – at least to my own satisfaction – my complacent contentment with nightshift life, it was time I moved on and tried my luck elsewhere. Job centres were still advertising and Britain had newly joined the European Union. Capital, damn it, had always had the freedom to roam: I was keen to enjoy the new dispensation under which labour was – who could guess for how long? – unshackled from calcified ancestral geographies. In retrospect, I might deem it a shame I didn’t stay longer in that job: I could surely have gained a clearer understanding of where and when I was living and might have come to know my fellow workers. In which case, of course, my first book November, a novel about a group of night-shift workers in South-East France would never have been written, fiction being the one mode remaining when documentary and memoir are made impracticable through time’s erasure of lucid record.
Be that as it may, by the late autumn of 1977 I had quit my nightshift job and cycled east to west across southern France, landing a new job in the dusty outskirts of Bordeaux, eight hours a day of tedium and petty tyrannies, paid to stuff foam into cotton bags to make pillows, bolsters and mattresses, kicking my heels each day from 12 till 3 while everyone else went home for lunch and siesta.
This was the moment I realized how special the Grenoble job had been, though of course no idyll. I began to reflect on the precarious freedom we had enjoyed on that shop floor, the absence of white-collar menace or jumped-up chargehand bullying, the generally unspoken yet sometimes explicit ties of solidarity that bound us, the way such a disparate band of fellows mostly rubbed along or, at worst, ignored one another with civility. Underpinning this unusual dispensation was the plain material fact that when our machines were working well, they required little attention, leaving us free to chat, read, play cards, argue, associate, indeed, as night gave rise to dreams, to free-associate.
Since leaving school in 1971 – and, before that, outside term time – I had had unskilled and factory-type jobs in England, Germany, Scotland and now France. Also, between October ’73 and May ’76, I had spent nine short terms of varying intensity attending university in Cambridge (UK), and while there had opted to write a dissertation on the ‘late nineteenth-century urban and industrial novel:’ I can still picture a sheepish ‘director of studies’ telling me he could find nobody to supervise such a topic.
My earliest experience of working-class life goes back to growing up on a council estate in perhaps the only professional-class family to have located there, dwelling as we did above the doctor’s surgery where my father worked as general practitioner, the bulk of his patients being employed on the surrounding industrial estates. Being the son and grandson of Quakers and Labourites, it was perhaps ‘no accident’ (as we loved to say in those days) that my first and best non-school friend was of working-class background and far-left engagements, a German student in the late 1960s who, being several years my senior and a thousand times more studious, gently, certainly unconsciously, for several years steered my reading and shaped my political and social affinities.
So, in the autumn of 1978, by the time I was enrolling at university in Bordeaux to study ‘sciences du langage’ (general linguistics with some interesting add-ons), the year-long night job in Grenoble, instead of fading, began to sharpen in my memory. While still there, it had all been a whirring blur – as life often is when you lack the right language in which to fix it; but as my grip on French and my assimilation into French society progressed (that is, as I acquired a partner, came to know and like her family, made friends, developed new working and study contacts, etc.) so I began to jot down impressions of that nightshift life as they continued to break over me, sketching out prominent half-remembered scenes, noting the daily, hourly routines, preserving on paper the observable tics and behaviours of my former fellow workers.
The pace of my rackety life quickening in the 1980s, I moved with my partner to Italy for eight years, then alone to England, while my mind returned obsessively to those Grenoble factory nights, to all that I had clocked of the processes, the din, stench and skin-crawl of the shop floor and all that I had missed while standing right there: the people, the relationships, our overlapping lives and times, the individuals within the multitude – as Tomec, in the first chapter of November, almost puts it. For a year, I had been one of thirteen workers including an Algerian, a Portuguese man, two Italians, an Ivorian, two French Romany cousins, a Marseillais, a hill farmer, and an easy-going ex-military foreman.
And that is how November took shape, with its factory nightshift and its fourteen central characters (an Algerian, a Portuguese, two Italians, an Ivorian, two Romany cousins, etc.). The paradox is that November, so rooted in the author’s experience, is neither biographical nor autobiographical. Since I knew so very little of the men alongside whom I had worked, the main core of people in November are – saving such superficial detail as facial feature, behavioural mannerism or national/ethnic background – wholly imagined, which is to say invented. As are their friends, associates, siblings, lovers, etc., whose roles in the novel bulk ever larger as the action proceeds. As for the Englishman, ‘Eric’, he is not me at all, not even ‘me’ as I was then, forty years ago, but rather, like everyone in the novel, a living construct straddling that most interesting terrain between irretrievable memory and compulsively inquisitive fantasy.
In effect, I took what I had – the aforesaid superficial features – and grafted onto them entire individuals (laboriously, painstakingly, resorting even to prying questionnaires (what does X know how to cook? how does Y trim his hair or nails? what does Z think of l’Union de la Gauche? who dances and how?), complemented by imaginary home lives, families, traumas, childhoods, aspirations, accreting a world around each one, while taking care that ‘my people’ were developed equally if not always evenly, and ensuring above all that they never shut down, never coagulated into the rounded and ‘coherent’, polished and finished, characters so congenial to some reviewers.
It was years before I realized that a series of novels might result. My earliest attempts to move beyond verbal sketches and notation took the form of stylised descriptions of mundane actions, somewhat in the manner of certain nouveaux romanciers; or, at the other extreme, threw up passages of wild, grotesquely disrupted prose that strained to communicate a state of almost abstract alienation of human faculties through labour, while in fact signally failing to communicate anything much.
For three decades, while making a living mostly in teaching and translation, I kept returning to 1976-7 and to those ever expanding people until I found I had thousands of pages, a tentative then a strengthening structure, a fictional ambition beyond mere vaulting, and at last a four-part monster of a project designed to conjure not just what I had missed that year but what any single person in any group must always miss – the moment-to-moment warp and weft of overlaid relationships within a group, the articulation of shared social experience among randomly assembled and radically disparate people, the single and collective history of such histories. It was never a question of writing some form of truth about what was but rather of truthfully fabricating what might have been.
About the Author:
Christopher Woodall was born in London. Between leaving school in 1971 and starting work ten years later as a jobbing translator, he travelled in Europe, the Maghreb and East Africa, worked in factories, a restaurant, language schools, a crude-oil facility, and on the land, took two degrees (BA English at Cambridge, Sciences du Langage at Bordeaux), acquainting himself along the way with the French, Italian, Spanish and German languages. His novel November was published in December 2016 by Dalkey Archive Press.