Christopher Woodall’s November (Dalkey Archive) is a big book. I knew that going in, and, frankly, its length (just a little over 700 pages) contributed significantly to its allure. Yet it took me longer to “finish” November than I anticipated. Then again, reading isn’t consumption in either an appetitive or a capitalistic sense. So I’ve grown rather fond of the odd luxuries November affords me, chief among them the opportunity to spend as much time as I’d like refurbishing my reality with materials borrowed from its immense reserves.
Big books like November — or Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, or McElroy’s Women and Men, both of which are akin to November even though the resemblances are more superficial than genetic — only seem self-sufficient so long as they remain closed. Open one, though, and you’ll find that the big book’s forbidding densities are quite porous. Moreover, the best big books do not speak with a single voice: “Curious reader, this genius hardly needs your hypotheses.” (Great) big books invite you to add your own descants to its chorus. And the present truly does begin to dance once it’s been admitted to a narrative whose range and scale are equal to the unconformities of lived experience.
Which is also to say that, if a big book is worth its weight (in whatever), it is not “hard work,” a simulacrum of entertainment. It is leisure; it is a form of liberation that is utterly shameless about its girth and heft. So a big book, even one whose modulations are largely cynical or morbid, may yet be the last bastion of humanism. Still, some scholar has surely thought to ask this question already: what does the brain of an engrossed big book reader look like under the fMRI machine? I don’t necessarily want to see, but I do want to know my own mind better, only without the toxic side effects. Thank you to Christopher Woodall, whose incredibly generous and comprehensive responses to these 10 questions about his novel reveal so much more than my assumptions might ever have guessed.
This conversation began in February and concluded in March of 2017.
Let’s get what’s perhaps the most awful question out of the way first. As the author of a relatively long and dense novel myself, I’ve discovered that many readers find the “how long?” question to be the most pressing. As in “how long did it take you to finish your book?” How do you feel about this question and, assuming you’ve had to field it yourself, how have you chosen to respond to it? Especially given that November is the first in a proposed tetralogy.
I’d like to preface my answers by thanking you for reading November and for coming up with these questions, which are new to me and interestingly posed. Also, I’d like briefly to reflect on this Q&A process.
As well as delighting me with your interest in the novel, you’ve caused me to look back at November and to think several things through afresh and this has been useful — not least because my current work on November’s sequel requires a constant return to November, a frequent glance back over my shoulder to re-gauge and re-calibrate the necessary distance between the two books.
If I’ve been rather slow to answer your questions there are reasons for this, both good and bad: life getting in the way, the ragbag of insecurities that dog us all, the sense of impossibility and powerlessness that precedes even a small creative leap, ordinary laziness… More positively, sometimes your questions have been hard to answer because four years have elapsed since I completed November and I have not found it easy to retrace thoughts and reformulate moves made long ago. In other instances, I have had almost to translate your questions into a language or mindset closer to the concerns and issues of November; in yet other cases, I’ve felt it necessary to adopt a language that is not really my own — always an exciting (if perilous) experiment.
This process has thrown into relief two things I already knew but had somehow mislaid: first, that when it comes to pronouncing on a novel, its author can offer only an expert opinion (the expertise having been amassed during thousands of hours of work on an all-consuming project), but never an authoritative judgement; second, that fiction and theory come from different places and while sometimes they can usefully coexist, at other times, perhaps in other hands, they can equally usefully ignore one other.
So, the essential throat-clearing accomplished, onward to your first question, the “how long” question! I find I have to say that the most awful question, the question I truly dread, is not the “how long” question but rather the more basic: “What is November about?”
Most people seem to expect a twenty-second movie-type pitch or at least some sense of an already-intelligible plot or an already-familiar character set. November, as you know, contains a lot of often tiny events and puts in play a varied collection of people, none of whom can be evoked, let alone captured, with a couple of verbal brushstrokes. So there’s no quick hook, no way of placing the curious questioner (and potential reader) in that zone of comfortable anticipation where readers hope to meet people rather like themselves leading lives rather like their own, thus making the book “relevant.” On the contrary, the setting of November as I begin to lay it out (industrial work, 1976, French and migrant workers) seems at once to throw up a wall of wilful Otherness — and thus of irreducible “ir-relevance.” I can find myself flailing demotically: “hey, but you’ll love these people and want to know them better.” Or: “even though there are no cliffhangers as such, it’s still [sic!: still!] a ‘good read,’ a page-turner. Honest.”
I’ve now got the short-form description down to: “November is set in SE France in 1976, focuses on the experience of fourteen men, thirteen of whom are employed as night shift factory workers in a plastics workshop; the fourteenth being the factory owner-manager. The novel also involves a further hundred or so men, women and children, many of whom are given in considerable detail, and most of whom are connected in some way to one or more of the central fourteen. The novel’s action unfolds mostly at the workplace over two and a half hours, but there are many diversions and excursions beyond that space and timeframe.”
As eyes glaze, I may try talking about individuals or relationships: Rachid’s grief, Eric’s amorous ardour, Tomec’s artistic élan, Yvonne’s romantic yearning, Mathieu’s anguished sense of duty, the unlikely friendship between Jacques and Philippe, the conflict between the “gypsy” cousins Bobrán and Marcel, etc. I tell people they’ll be entering an apparently self-contained world, where everything and everyone is at first unfamiliar and where, as familiarity grows, everything remains strange, intriguing. I offer reassurance that the novel possesses a powerful forward momentum without ever relying on “what happens next?” The thing that kept me writing and, I hope, keeps readers reading is a desire to grasp “what’s happening now… and now… and now?” (“Now” of course being… then, way back when…)
The “how long” question, when (if) it does come up, is pretty easy to field, though it takes my breath away each time. The blunt answer is: the novel took me only six years to finish but… about thirty to start. I knew I wanted to write about the individual and group experience of industrial labour in about 1977 but for a long time didn’t have a clear idea of how to do so; eventually (in the late 1980s) I settled on some kind of large fictional treatment; by the 1990s I had discovered what has turned out to be a workable approach and structure; in about 2006, I undertook an inventory, finding I had accumulated thousands of pages of notes, scenes, sketches, plans and then, “life” providing me with an unforeseen and unsolicited opportunity, I decided to “go for broke”.
At this point I can faithfully promise that subsequent volumes cannot but appear rather more quickly than the first one. How could that fail to be true, given the actuarial probabilities that weigh upon our human lifespans?
Although the novel is set in 1976, the diversity of its cast and its sociopolitical mise en scène feels as contemporary as any terrible news that ambushes us these days. And yet November doesn’t seem archaeological or, despite its dilations, like an attempt to pause history for the sake of zombifying the past; transmogrifying it into a portent. Furthermore, the last 200 pages or so of the novel also offer us glimpses into several characters’ futures. At those moments, the novel’s chronology and thematic scope seem to bulge, with consequent distortions. Would you describe November as a historical fiction? Why or why not?
November’s (formal, temporal, spatial) structure is so battened down that “distortions” when they occur are conspicuous. This is intentional. I would be sorry if any reader missed the constructedness of the novel. A contemporary comparator for this aspect of November might be Paris’s “Centre Pompidou” (completed, as it happens, in 1976): the skeleton of the edifice, the piping, circuitry and girders are on the outside, enforcing more than inviting scrutiny. It is in this sense that I have referred elsewhere to November as “vertebrate”: five books, eleven chapters per book, each book, chapter and frequently sub-section or segment possessing its own distinct formal and thematic organization, etc. The artifice of the fiction is everywhere on display.
You are right to draw attention to the sudden brief excursions outside the principal time frame and into moments in the main “characters’” futures (or indeed pasts). These fourteen short sections all occur in chapters 49-51 and each bears a place name as well as a date. The reason these moments are surprising and even disconcerting is, I believe, that elsewhere, consistently, the narration of November, as much as the individuals themselves, is locked into its own temporal strait-jacket (an evening in 1976), its sideways view to both past and future blinkered out. That is to say: the events and the people dramatised are narrated, when not by themselves or by each other, by narrators who are equally contemporary, i.e. anchored in the moment. Hence, also, the lack of post-70s language, references or memes. The plunges into the past (and, even more so, the leaps into the future) are liable to cause the reader to exclaim: wait a minute, isn’t this outside the narration’s established purview or “remit”? Similarly, in the sudden, also brief, interventions by the (tongue-in-cheek) “storyteller” (pp. 250, 286, 355, 403, 555, 603, 691, 719), the novel exhibits gaping fissures, showing its hand, casting a queasy glance outwards to wherever the author squats and scribbles.
To the “would [I] describe November as a historical fiction” question, four possible answers spring immediately to mind:
First answer: No. I was never interested in submitting the people and events of the 1970s to the perusal and judgement from a later time period and certainly not to the condescending gaze of either 2008-2013 (when I was writing it) or 2017. Put another way, I wanted not only to lead any willing/self-selecting reader before unfamiliar places and people from the 1970s but also to provide a guide, an optic, that belonged to that same time and was therefore only ever judgemental or censorious, if at all, from within rather than from without. It is my intention that the world of November, as it becomes known to the reader, retains its distance and discreteness, resisting assimilation, being neither idealized nor sanitized. If, as several readers have now suggested, the result of immersion in November is that they find themselves viewing 2017 — or whenever the novel happens to get read — with the eyes of the late 1970s, I’ll take that as an unexpected but welcome bonus.
Second answer: Yes. November is clearly a historical fiction in the sense that it is securely rooted in a particular period of history: hence its alleged ability to speak to now with an other-worldly voice.
Third answer: No, because a truly, single-mindedly, historical novel, dealing directly with the human material in November, can in fact be imagined and would look nothing like November. Such a treatment might present, for example, an account of Philippe’s experience of the 1968 uprisings in Marseilles, Rachid’s role in Algeria’s war of liberation, Tomec’s escape through Europe’s eastern Bloodlands in the mid 1940s, Mathieu’s experience of military defeat in 1940 and of Gaullist résistance thereafter, Alphonse’s observations on Ivorian/African decolonisation, Luigi’s short-lived involvement in Italy’s 1969 industrial turmoil at FIAT, etc. It would be a very different novel, evoking each person’s experience of capital-H History. Thinking again of the fourteen past-or-future fissures in chapters 49-51, one of the things they do is to afford the reader time-bending wormholes into such an alternative novel, wormholes, that is to say, into other historical universes.
Fourth answer: Yes. Never mind answers one, two and three! The tidiest answer is as follows: I set out originally to write about a period that was contemporary but by the time I’d got the job done, through the sheer passage of years, it had become historical.
If November’s action is consistently (and precariously) balanced upon the crumbling edge of the Industrial Age, its conflicts run through difficulties that are so dear to practicing artists. Alphonse is an aspiring actor; Mathieu, the foreman, is a jazz trumpeter; Tomec, the very first character we encounter, is a painter and sculptor, who mostly spends his hours at M. Boucan’s plastics factory working out a large composition based on Virgil’s final sojourn in Brundisium; even the novel’s own narrator appears occasionally in the guise of the “storyteller,” worrying at his intents and accomplishments. What role does the making and fashioning engaged in by artists play in a novel that is very much about labor? To put this question another way, do you consider November a Marxist text? If so, in what capacities and/or to what ends? If not, how so?
On the one hand, there is what you call the “making and fashioning… by artists” and, on the other, there is brute, alienated [my words and emphasis], “labour.” What role, you ask, does the former play in a novel about the latter?
It is a great question — speaking, as it does, to the gulf that exists between “art” and “work”. Answered simply: it is the very same people, the same individuals who — depending on circumstances — can be involved in either domain and are sometimes, as in November, involved, simultaneously or consecutively, in both. Moreover, in some happy cases, it might even be possible to conceive of the two categories overlapping (Tomec does at least manage to sketch at work…) or even, miracle of miracles, merging: imagine Mathieu actually getting paid to play his trumpet; or Alphonse landing an acting role that brings in serious money; or Tomec finding a wealthy patron or lucrative market; or even, the “storyteller” or author… no, I’d better block that thought…
Consider also the following: while it is true that the Industrial Age is crumbling, its survival is conspicuous: just as the villages abruptly depopulated in the 1800s to furnish Manchester with its working class were eventually mostly re-peopled, so the rust belts of Northern England and Eastern France, devastated by Reaganomics in the 1980s, are at least in some places now humming with teleworkers and info-tech start-ups. Industrial labour itself — so resilient a feature of this slow-passing industrial age — is frequently the focus of November. The novel abounds with descriptions of machine operation, yet these are personalised by being rooted in individual worker’s attitudes towards work and their bodily and mental experience of it. Contrasting with this runs a thin strand initiated in Book Three (see p. 305) where the labouring process is boiled down to abstract essentials, even the machine paraphernalia separated from their adjectives and the “worker” stripped of any more specific nomenclature: “Worker turns to face machine, press opens and product (plastic, red) falls from mould (steel, shiny)…” A further, equally dehumanising, view of the work itself is provided by quotations from an Injection Molding Handbook [sic] which, after analysing the “three basic operations” notes, as if irrelevantly: “To operate the plant efficiently, people are needed.” (p. 201.)
November is, however, anything but miserabilist. The workers at “Ets Boucan” in 1976 have decent wages, live in a well-functioning welfare state, enjoy medium-term job security, are mostly unionised, pursue economic or social class-exit routes (Luigi, Salvatore, Alphonse) or have second jobs (Bobrán, Jacques, Rachid, Marcel and, again, Luigi). What is more, in stark contrast to the morning and afternoon shift workers, the workers in November, just as long as their machines work smoothly, enjoy the informal (and provisional) freedom to walk away from their machines, read, associate, play cards, reflect on their lives, etc.: in other words, how they direct their conscious attention is largely up to them. Were it not for such benign relations of production, November could not have focused so largely (and at times, I would say, so joyously) on the workers’ moment-to-moment experience, indeed on the lives of such interesting and varied minds.
November, in this way, throws light on (and from) an unusual zone of relative ease and liberty within the industrial landscape. And, seizing the opportunity, the individuals portrayed within that blessed zone do what individuals always will do when stupefying, or even merely dull, work abates: they enter the field of “culture,” spurred by an arguably universal aesthetic impulse to consume and if at all possible to create artefacts. Thus, as you say, Tomec, Mathieu, Alphonse… but consider also the reading of Eric, Jean or, for that matter, of Yvonne (from the afternoon shift), the urge that Philippe feels to undertake journalistic investigation into the local nexus of crime and power, the dormant but not extinguished political interests of Rachid, the curiosity of Bobrán awakening under the influence of his young German-student lover, Moritz. And so on.
As for November being a Marxist text? Well, the reader would be hard put to unearth any vestigial belief in putative “iron laws of history,” let alone any weakness for the “actually-existing socialism” of Soviet-bloc societies (see the passages imagining the intractable anti-Stalinist East German singer-songwriter, Wolf Biermann, as he prepares for a concert in the West) or sympathy with the tactics and alliances of Western communist parties (see the comments by Philippe and others on the “historic compromise” in Italy).
Yet in common with the majority of 1970s sentient creatures, the narration/”storyteller” certainly assumes that material circumstances and relations are of primary and determinant importance in all lives and that infinite human potential is on all sides spectacularly squandered. I guess that might qualify the text as Marxist.
To be more forthcoming: somewhere at the back of the author’s mind lingers a text by the indelibly romantic young Marx who, railing against capitalist alienation and the division of labour, yearns for a society in which it is “possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” (from The German Ideology, 1845-6).
If I could liken the structure of your novel to anything, it would be to a mosaic. Most notably, in the last 200 pages or so, November is narrated in smaller and smaller chunks. But these “chunks” are anything but fragments. The narration is careful not to obscure their touch points, and often these “chunks” want to overlap. Yet a border surrounds each (e.g. the majority of them are accompanied by text that functions either as a title or a kind of synopsis.) How did the form of November evolve? Is the structure reflective of how the materials of this fiction originally presented themselves to you, or is it the result of later revisions of (and interventions in) the novel’s mass?
Let me take your complex last question first. Then, with any luck, I’ll find a way back to considering the mosaic analogy.
The structure of the novel — at least its formal structure and patterning — is not the result of revisions or interventions into a pre-existing novel “mass.” Indeed, the novel itself possessed no mass at all until I started drafting it and, in a sense, there never was a “later” during which revisions might have been made. (There is one exception, regarding “Eric”: see below, at answer 5.) As I progressed through the book, almost all the polishing and cutting was done at chapter level. There was only ever one draft. Let me try to explain how the novel took shape.
I found early on that I had to distinguish in my mind between writing and composing and that there was a third process, as important as the other two, which I came to think of as charting. By the time I started composing the novel (“producing chapters” as I also still think of it), I had written several thousand pages of notes, scenes, sketches, dialogues and descriptions. It wasn’t until I had a notion of structure that I could begin the piecing-together and editorial work of composition, placing “Chapter One” at the top of a first sheet.
Below, in response to your fifth question, I shall touch on some of the ways in which I developed the scores of “characters,” in particular the fourteen central ones. But, since I knew from the outset that my subject in November was the individual and the group experience of work rather than any organizing main event or bossy plot, I had to find a way of ensuring that there was no hierarchical bias or preferential treatment accorded to any character/person, moment, location, theme, etc.
Perhaps I can best clarify what I was aiming for by stating what I was not aiming for. I was never tempted to use the industrial setting as a backdrop for a story (say, about two cousins, or a couple dealing with grief, or an aspiring actor, or a British drifter falling in love…) that might equally as well have been told elsewhere; nor, to reverse matters, was I ever interested in using some such story or set of stories as a means to present a depiction of industrial life. My aim was for the experience of industrial work to be neither an exotic framing nor a sleight-of-hand by-product but rather the centrepiece, the thing itself.
This aim had consequences. Firstly, since there was no synopsis-susceptible, extractable, story, there was no need for any plot-derived timeline, which freed me to use an evenly elapsing short time period (two and a half hours) enriched of course by the past-memory and future-projection times of individual consciousnesses and, in extremis, by the narration’s historic wormholes. Further, there was no narrative compulsion to impose dramatic salience (hero status) or obscurity (cameo status) on any particular character, allowing me to grant equal traction to all the people in November on a purely formal (and democratic!) basis. In practice, since my focus was on the conscious mental and physical experience of work at a particular location, the central people have to be those thirteen men who comprise the shift, plus the factory owner-manager, everyone else being by definition secondary, because cantilevered, as it were, from the inner group.
At this point, having discarded a variety of possible fictions and rid myself of external plot concerns, I was free to allow all events and situations to arise spontaneously from an exploration of the people themselves, their relations inside and outside their workplace, their everyday lives, loves, thoughts, passions and work. Any forward momentum in the novel would thus spring from the people themselves and from my (and the reader’s) interest in tracking them from moment to moment.
Thinking back to how the structure of November emerged I find myself roaming in the wilds of speculative reconstruction. I certainly recall that on the basis of some arithmetic — which I shall spare you — I had decided to design a five-book novel, each book of eleven chapters, each book standing for about a half hour, each chapter notionally representing a little under three minutes.
The first two books of November had to boot-strap the novel into existence by presenting, typically over a few pages, an array of disparate individuals (mostly the workers themselves and their boss), either depicted on their own or in dialogue with one or more others. A lot of time and space is also spent, especially in the second book, focusing on non-core “characters” (Heike, Jeanne, Rémy, etc.), who are foregrounded and presented in their own right and with as much intensity as are any of the inner-circle fourteen.
Regarding the second ring of people: it was clear to me, from the outset, that many individuals simply cannot be comprehended in isolation in as much they make no sense without their nearest-and-dearest or co-dependant. In this way, to show Mathieu without showing a fully-formed Nadine, Bobrán without a living Moritz, Marcel without a palpable Chantal, would have been like producing Clyde without Bonnie, Hardy without Laurel or, say, why not? Bill without Hillary. These essential others, however formally secondary and “cantilevered,” had to be voiced and dramatised — in the same range of ways as the core thirteen-plus-one. Since the secondary status of non-core individuals was a formal and, in a sense, random decision, it was possible at any point for any previously introduced (even relatively remote) individual suddenly to move centre-stage (as do Bruno, Richard, Juliette, Maria and many others, especially in the course of Books Three, Four and Five).
By the start of Book Three, with many of the novel’s dramatis personae established and in play, it was time to create a structure with smaller and more flexible parts. This I did by intensifying certain elements of chapter patterning introduced in Book Two, making them much more visible so that, for example, chapters are topped and tailed with more or less ornate mirroring passages. The size of segments also shrank as multiple new strands were introduced into the weave, including passages that seem to fragment individuals and scatter their parts as physical, mental or behavioural traits, as though for contrastive or taxonomic reasons, dwelling for example on noses, ways of walking, use or non-use of tobacco, and so on.
Book Four (organized around a shuffling system of five distinct section types in each chapter) and then Book Five, with further formal inflections, further develop the strict patterning, while keeping it forever open and poised for piecemeal or thoroughgoing modification. The principles that oversee the complex articulation of these changing parts are themselves straightforward: it is principally a matter of juggling “characters” to keep them in play, varying pace and tone, writing each new piece against the piece that has gone before, while working with the grain of the reader’s memory. For me, the process felt like keeping a stack of differently shaped fine china plates constantly spinning in the air; for the reader, the result, when it works best, is montage.
Most readers of November will be largely unaware of the structural and formal patterning involved and, indeed, why should they not be? The compositional apparatus served a vital purpose but can be safely left to emerge, if at all, at a second reading. For there is another, more subtle structure that lies across the formal one and that matters rather more: the rising and falling of event and situation, the dancing in and out of focus of different people, the combining and separating of diverse strands, the coursing of proliferating hares (okay, yes, the clashing of increasingly desperate analogies…). For the experience of the novel depends not on formal stratagems and mathematical regularities, but on the mental and physical content of moment-to-moment experience of individuals involved in a shared experience: work. That’s what I set out to capture in November in the only way that seemed possible.
So to those analogies. Having lived in Ravenna (Italy) for two years from 1979 to 1981, I have a particular fondness for mosaics and therefore welcome your suggested comparison. The tessarae, the smallest elements in a mosaic design (if one excludes the mortar), are individually shaped and can be of many colours and textures: also, however apparently interchangeable, each is in fact unique. That does indeed seem to present a close parallel to the “chunks” of writing that are set out in certain chapters towards the end of November. Yet, with my wall-charts before me, their colour-coding for the fourteen “core” individuals snaking back and forth like warp and weft, I more often thought in terms of weaving. Mostly, however, I had choreography in mind, with the author as choreographer-in-chief, the narrator as one of the principal dancers and much of the actual production appearing (even to the choreographer) as resulting more from the passing humours and whims of individual dancers than from his own occasionally grandiose prior design: the familiar novelist’s fantasy of the “characters” who take over and lead the dance. If only…
One of the great tensions your novel sustains is that between individuality and typology. Specifically, virtually every character in the book conceives of his colleagues in terms that are simultaneously singular and generic. And the generic often boils down to a regional or national identity. Philippe is the admirable contrarian, but he’s also the Marseillais. Salvatore is the punctilious new union representative, but — and despite being Sicilian — is often paired with Luigi under the rubric of “the Italians”.
However, November is also very much a novel about displaced persons and various forms of exile. Country of origin matters in the book; it is a difference that cannot be erased, no matter how well-intentioned that erasure might be. (The complete ramifications of Alphonse’s declarations to the night shift that we are “immigrants all” are left unresolved.) How did these characters first introduce themselves to you? At what point did their more generic or classifiable dimensions become apparent to you, and how did the revelation of those dimensions affect your relationships with these characters?
It is interesting that you find in November a tension between individuality and typology and also that you take the novel to be about displaced persons and “various forms of exile.” You may well be right, yet these categories are scarcely used in November and did not concern me while writing the novel. In fact, the word “exile” and its cognates appear — I have just run a word search — only four times in the novel and are never used in relation to any of the individual workers. The term “displaced” appears once (p. 453) but only in a non-literal, psychological sense. Let me start by examining the mismatch in our perceptions here.
Of the thirteen workers in November, seven are immigrants (Luigi, Salvatore, Tomec, Eric, Rachid, Fernando, Alphonse) and of the six Frenchmen two are “gypsies” of partly East-European family provenance and three of the four others are from outside the fictional city of Grandgobier where the novel is set, hailing from Marseilles, Alsace, and farming country high in the hills above the city. Beyond the inner core of factory workers, most people in November are local French, though there are also other migrants or foreigners (Jorge, Marta, Moritz, the Macedonian family, Callum, Renata, Chuck, etc.) Yet while each individual’s origin and background are always relevant (and can — at the drop of a hat — become a topic) it seems to me that November never posits exile or geographical displacement as themes. Perhaps I’m being obtuse or forgetful about my own novel — but, stepping sideways for a moment, can there not be novels, say, peopled with gay men and women without them necessarily being “about” homosexuality?
The men utilise nationality and provenance as handy but often apparently value-free labels, though this practice can of course suddenly tip into something less casual and less benign: when Jean (or Marcel, Philippe, Alphonse, Fernando, or even the narration) refer to the Algerian worker Rachid as “the Arab,” that usage, especially in the French context, comes heavily freighted with racism. Mostly, however, when individuals dwell on their specific origins it is in response to others’ imagined perceptions: Fernando, for example, is exercised by the social expectation that a Portuguese worker will be particularly assiduous and punctual (p. 27); the Ivorian Alphonse speaks of non-African men’s fantasies/fears of black sexuality and of ways that as an actor he may be typecast (pp. 558-9). By contrast, Eric and Luigi are largely unaware not only that they are referred to by nationality (“Hey, Britishe!”; or “the Italian”) but that this prism of provenance determines how certain of their workmates view them.
Just how the thirteen men experience such matters varies greatly, revealing a continuum that stretches from a near blindNESS TO origin (Rachid’s perception of Mathieu’s background or Eric’s even less informed view of Salvatore, say) all the way to something approaching a blindING-BY-origin (Jean’s racialised and late-colonial view of Rachid). November, however, does not attempt to generalise how these mechanisms work. There are, after all, one hundred and fifty-six (thirteen multiplied by twelve) workers’ views of fellow-workers in November and not a single one of these is fixed or even necessarily stable throughout the narrative time span of the novel. See, for example, how Philippe mocks Marcel for his disrespect of Rachid (p. 413) and how Marcel an hour or so later, with some mix of reluctance and embarrassment, speaks out to defend Rachid before Jean (p. 702). This, of course, is just one of 156 continually adjusting perceptions, many of which are in part conditioned by origin biases. So it’s complicated.
How did these characters, you ask, introduce themselves to me? I’m almost ready to answer that now, but first some comments on the term “character.”
As you will have noticed, I can’t help scare-quoting this term. I am certainly aware of fictional characters as a category and, in the short fiction I have been writing recently, have created and deployed a few in a way I find entertaining. But I think of fictional characters as highly constrained, quick to sketch and then only as open to development as the plot or story determine. I’ve overheard readers (and have read reviews) praising writers for the consistency or immediacy or verisimilitude of their characters or, conversely, taking writers to task for a character who appears to act out of character [sic].
In November, each person (men, women, core or periphery) is conceived as permanently subject to change, consistent mostly in their inconsistency, almost predictably unpredictable, and as virtually protean as any actually-existing person whom one might meet in flesh and blood. Thus Bobrán, to take but one example, acts, experiences, moves, speaks, feels, reasons in radically different and even contradictory ways according to whether he is alone, at home with his mother, in company with Moritz, grappling (literally) with his cousin, performing a circus-type stunt, asking Philippe for advice, taking a ticking-off from the supervisor, pushing back against Luigi, congratulating Rachid on his news, etc. Yet there is only one Bobrán. Whereas the characters [sic] in my short fiction tend to be line drawings serving some scrap of a story, the people in November are more like thick, almost 3D, oil portraits of restless sitters taken from a constantly moving easel in a studio strafed by a kaleidoscope of competing lights. But then, despite (or, rather, thanks to) the machine-like structure of the novel, November is almost entirely “character”-led.
As I explain in the Afterword to November (p. 727), of the fourteen core characters, twelve are loosely based on original models — men with whom I, the author, in fact worked on a night shift in 1976-7. From those models I took certain physical features, elements of gesture, observable tics and interests, but little else. Every other character in November is a whole-cloth invention. Incidentally, my (hitherto private) working collective term for the inner core of thirteen-plus-one (workers-plus-boss) was “ppl” and my collective term for all the lovers, acquaintances, relatives, friends of these “ppl” was “other-ppl”: these are also the names I use for the two electronic folders containing the individual “character”-development files. As you can see, as I was working on November, the difference between people and ppl shrank to a matter of elided vowels: e-o-e.
So far from “introducing themselves” to me, I went out of my way laboriously to encounter them, i.e. to construct piece by piece all the “ppl” and “other-ppl” who appear in November. I started with the core fourteen workers-plus-boss, using those twelve sets of remembered facial features, gestures and behaviours, etc. as springboards to imagination. Quickly I found myself accreting around each “ppl” a small or large constellation of others (family, friends, lovers, etc.). A lot of scenes emerged chaotically, spontaneously. As time went on, however, this presented me with a very uneven mass of writing: for reasons of natural sympathy on my part or of overlapping characteristics (age, background, opinions, outlook) some “ppl”/”other-ppl” required more work that others.
Since I did not wish to privilege particular people over others, my writing of the “ppl” and “other-ppl” had to become more systematic. I determined that if I could imagine the home life, table manners, film-viewing habits, favourite pets, preferences in matters of interior decor and upholstery (to be almost facetious: but then see Marcel’s opinions on these matters, p. 549) or, say, unsanitary habits of one “character,” then I was duty-bound to investigate all those matters, as best I could, for all fourteen. Outlandish as this working method now seems even to me, I was resolved that no “ppl” should be left any less fully imagined than any other.
This egalitarian (or, better, equal-opportunities) impulse brought with it a series of difficulties, since some characters were harder for me to access and required a degree of ethnographic and other research as a support and spur to my imagination. One character, Eric, posed quite the opposite problem, the nature of which I stupidly failed to grasp until I was well into the chapter-by-chapter composition of November. This requires some explaining.
Because the original model for the British worker (Eric) in November is/was originally my former self, the future author of November, the passages that introduced this “character” somehow stood out, as if back-lit. To my consternation, the first friends who read the opening chapters of November found Eric more “immediate” than other characters, sensing indeed that they already “knew” him, i.e. me. This threatened to skew my entire enterprise, overturning the novel’s personal economy. I had no choice but to strip out the “first Eric” from those early chapters and then, having eliminated many of the overlaps between my erstwhile self and that first-draft Eric, construct a new Eric with a new background, past, thoughts and characteristics quite distinct from my own, indeed neither more nor less remote from myself than I imagined my other “ppl” to be from their original partial models. I hope that digression sheds light on the aims and working processes raised in your question.
You asked lastly about the way my relationships with the individual characters [sic] developed as I came to perceive their more “generic or classifiable” dimensions. Well, despite my efforts at even-handedness, I retain greater sympathy for some characters than for others. Driven, I confess, by the worthy (but arguably pea-brained) liberal dictum that “tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner” (“to understand everything is to forgive everything”), I feel impelled to pursue my investigation of the less sympathetic characters, doing so in the only way I know how: by imagining them in fresh situations, putting them into play in such a way as to reveal new aspects that the writing and composition have not yet solicited. They continue to surprise me.
What is your text’s — or, if you prefer, your aesthetic’s — relationship to realism (literary or literal; capital or lowercase)? I’m particularly curious to learn if you feel influenced at all by the French authors affiliated with the nouveau roman, and by their ideas re: description, representation and material reality.
I’m afraid I will have little to say on the nouveau roman — which will perhaps come as some relief after my lengthy earlier answers.
I feel unable to focus here on schools and theories, never previously having done so in any satisfactorily systematic way. Over the years I have certainly read many fragments of literary theory and a certain number of nouveau-roman texts, which have intrigued, charmed and sometimes exasperated me; most often they left me with the impression they were addressing, if anything, other similar texts.
So… “influenced”? I think only in as much as everything one reads provides some kind of impetus even when, as in my case, one is driven by the real-world concern to represent the (arguably) unrepresentable. I can’t be more precise than that. I’d just add that I’m not above mimicking, parodying or imitating different manners of writing. November may be, among other things, a limited repository of narrative mannerisms, the result of a casting-around for ways of getting at “the things themselves,” my elusive object/s.
To come at the “realism and November” question from first principles — i.e. from my attitude to what constitutes reality and to my appreciation of mimesis, I’d state the position as follows: the original object of interest that prompted me all those years ago to embark on the writing that is now materialising as the November series of novels¸ was a shared experience of alienated work that could never be literally reproduced (i.e. it could not be re-run with the same or even restaged with other people) but which I was for that very reason eager to re-present through the medium of fiction, in such a way as to create for readers a living simulacrum of the original, the artifice of whose parts and components would be open for inspection and even re-composition.
But you enquire specifically of my “aesthetic” and I don’t want to dodge that. After all, in response to your third question, contrasting labour and art and exploring the connection in November, I posited the existence of a universal aesthetic impulse, which I might also have expressed as a will to beauty.
In planning, writing and finally composing November, I think I hoped to come as close as I could (with whatever literary means I could recruit) to communicating the flow of conscious experience, the phenomenology of industrial night-shift work in one place at one time. How dry that sounds! Again, the impossible pitch… Perhaps it was always a strange kind of fictional project. Yet I thought that if I could get it at least half-right, the result might be both compelling and, in its own way, beautiful to behold. The extent to which I have succeeded has to be left to the judgement of readers.
When I first supplied this list of questions, you had some questions of your own. Together we reshaped this questionnaire based on our shared experience of your novel. In that dialogue, I was quite struck by something you wrote: “I don’t think I have one language for writing a book like November and another one for talking about it.” I actually think that’s quite beautiful, even though my own training is such that I cannot escape feelings of inadequacy if I don’t bolster myself with another language (one indebted to theory; one meta-) in talking about a book that’s been written. Could you elaborate a bit more on how you see the language within November and the language outside of it converging?
I don’t expect any such convergence, nor do I think it’s necessary. I’m all in favour of the unresolved clash of language/s and I accept the need for special languages of expertise. I now think my comment to you — though honest and straightforward — was overwhelmingly defensive. When I first perused your questions, though I saw at once how interesting they could be, all my feelings of inadequacy kicked in. I feared we were on different pages and knew that it was incumbent upon me somehow to get myself onto your page and to seek a language with which to meet you and your readers at least half way.
November and its language or languages are just one of many alternatives that could have been and may still be tried. Presented with any completed work, it is hard for anyone but its author to imagine how it could have been different (and very nearly was). November is the first of four planned paths through essentially the same thicket of human material. Without making any radical changes to its dramatis personae or formal structure, it is all too easy for me to imagine several different “takes,” several different, virtual, “Novembers.”
One such might be “historical” in the sense I sketched in my third answer to your second question, i.e. foregrounding the (capital-H) historical experience and ancestral memories of several or all of the “characters.” Another novel could have examined in much more depth the kinds of “issues” that any contemporary social observer might easily have raised, naming and thematizing such matters as unemployment, inequality, exploitation, racism, gender bias, misogyny. Yet another might have organized itself around a personal or industrial conflict, e.g. a family crisis or a strike or a workers’ occupation and takeover (such as the famous contemporary one at the watch-makers LIP), or perhaps a modern outbreak of Luddism. A further version might, navel-gazingly, have focussed all attention on precisely such narrative choices by repeatedly starting and interrupting a whole number of paths through the said thicket, without ever finally plumping for any of them, thereby turning the novel into an exercise in high-authorial irony, intertextuality and the impossibility (for all the sound and fury) of ever “signifying” anything to or about an existing world.
At the heart of any such possible variation in “take” stands the narrator/s or, as I prefer to think of it, more abstractly, the narration. For just as the imaginary “historic” November would require a historically conversant narration, the sociological one might demand, for example, the exhibition of some Bourdieusian expertise, and so on. As Salvatore’s girlfriend points out in exasperation in a somewhat different context, “Choices…! I have nothing but choices!”
Kirkus’ unattributed review of November makes a point of observing that “almost all” of the novel’s characters are male. Do they object to this? I imagine so, but in the absence of much conviction. Regardless, I would posit that, by paying such close attention to the male anatomy, and by contextualizing even the most overly masculine attitudes towards women (Luigi’s, Marcel’s, Fernando’s, etc.) within the embodied experience of maleness, the novel’s narration subtly de- and re-genders these men. Within the novel’s notion of the subject, where does gender fit?
Well, I don’t quite know what to do with Kirkus’s anonymous observation — but nor it seems did they. Let me take it as an implied criticism, requiring some explanation.
I could certainly wish that women in 1976 had not been barred from working nights as part of the group of industrial night-shift workers I later re-imagined and placed at the core of November. It would have made things more interesting for me and lightened the shop-floor atmosphere precisely by de-masculinizing/feminizing it.
However, when it came to November, I confess it never occurred to me that I should anachronistically introduce into the night-shift a token woman or, say, a quota. With a fresh complement of fully invented female characters on the night shift, I would either have had to eliminate some of the men or expand the core group and hence, I suspect, the scope (and length?) of the novel. More positively, there would have been some fine comic opportunities to imagine, for example: Marcel’s outrageous flirtation; Jacques’ old-world courtesy; the silly, sullen (but largely unthreatening) “male chauvinism” of one or two of the men; and even the flummoxed inarticulacy of Eric. I can’t apologise enough — or, in fact, at all — for skipping all of this and more.
For what it’s worth, I enjoy writing women at least as much as I enjoy writing men. It so happens that of the approximately 100 non-core “characters” in November, over whom I had, as it were, some greater freedom of choice, there is a clear preponderance of women (58 to 44), which reflects less, I believe, an unconscious rush to correct for the imbalance of the “core” than the fact that I imagined female others (girlfriends, wives, sisters, mothers) to be more prominent than males in the lives of most of the core fourteen.
As for November’s notion of the subject and where gender fits within it, I would say that both are declined in many ways. In some instances, subject position and gender identity are apparently fixed and unquestioned; in others, both categories are in flux, constantly redefined, challenged and changing. November’s narration, however, whose “time of telling” is locked into “the time of what is told,” with its language and conceptual baggage thus tied to the late 1970s, generally either fails explicitly to elicit such categories or does so only to dismiss them: they are beyond the narration’s well-informed yet middle-brow purview. It’s worth recalling that such terms as gender, discourse, identity, subject, narrative etc. had not gained the mass currency they now enjoy but were then restricted to high-flown philosophical and human-sciences usage.
November’s handling of these matters can perhaps be illustrated by a passage where “Luigi” is masturbating with the visual stimulus of an “adult comic,” which portrays a sex scene combining a fantasy sex-object woman, a snarling alien and a donkey (p. 470). What are examined here are the conditions for Luigi’s self-pleasuring and his climactic (visceral and mental) reaction not only to being positioned as alternately farm animal and alien but also to being so positioned by “some sneering graphic-artist type.” It is no accident that this is the only place where the term “gender” appears in the novel, yet it is named, it seems, only to be discounted: “The scene might inspire pathos or horror, could imaginably move some persons to reflections on power relations between the genders or on species-specific endowments of multifarious kinds, but to Luigi, and to the many men who either did or might exploit such material, its most powerful effect was physiological, firing and tweaking, as the pages turned, just those transmitters that had evolved to determine priapic engorgement in the adult male of the tribe.”
So, while such matters as gender and subject position are indeed contemplated and dramatised in November, they are not presented by the narration as themes outside or independent of the lived experiences in which the processes of de-gendering and re-gendering are continually being played out.
What are the wages of omniscience? Put differently, do you consider November’s narrator to be omniscient: all-knowing and absolutely free to move from one consciousness to another? Did you wrestle with degrees of or limits on omniscience in writing this book?
Up to a point, the answers to this question are to be found in November itself.
The narration, in its guise as “storyteller” is reported (p. 719) to have fulfilled “his chronicler’s remit” but now to be on the brink of “dismissal” in favour of a “greater narrator” who will be able to track “society deeper into each person’s minds and thoughts.” The November storyteller’s “abilities,” which by this point are said to be “imploding” are defined much earlier (p. 403) as being “easier to acquire than the profane allowed. In-sight, in-hearing, in-feeling, in-tuiting were not only essential to the calling, they were, in the main, sufficient. Nothing supernatural was entailed, there were no tricks, no cheap wizardry. Every day, not only did billions of people speak (some in tongues, some in wild ululations) to unseen and (mercifully) non-existent gods, some few even claimed to obtain reply. The magic that he conjured (if any there were) was modest indeed, his claims those of a very earthbound materialist.”
Tongue-in-cheek as this is, November presents the narrator/narration as specifically-scient rather omni-scient: he has no sense of history, little sense of society, scant general knowledge, is for example unable — as French philosophers of the time had only recently begun to do — to discourse interestingly on questions of gender or the inscription within texts and narratives of relations of power and subjection.
On the other hand, the November storyteller is granted an outlandish gift to act as a “listening device, or, better, [as] a ventouse gently sucking the person’s voice from the partially dilated trap of their own mind” (p. 251) and can therefore, as you say, move from one consciousness to another, though the accuracy and objectivity of his reporting are certainly open to doubt. When I wrote the passage just quoted, I may have had at the back of my mind Wim Wenders’ angels in Wings of Desire though, rather than falling to earth and assuming full colours amid Berlin’s messy humanity, the November-narrator is of course pensioned off to make way for a differently -scient replacement.
I did not do a lot of the kind of wrestling you suggest. I decided early on that the problem was not how to limit omniscience but rather how to define the edges and limits of what each narrator could know or access. Because it’s on that definition that the outlook of each novel in the November series will depend.
What impelled me forward when writing and composing November is what impels me forward still as I write and compose its sequel. It is a drive to know more about the (non-existent but imaginable and therefore potential) people who interest me and the situations in which they find themselves. For me, writing fiction is a cognitive, fact-finding process: I write in order to dispel some small part of my ignorance. As I have commented elsewhere, if I want to know how two “characters,” e.g. Jean and Luigi, might view and discuss, say, the workers’ and students’ revolts in Rome and Bologna in 1977, I have to bring them together and set them talking.
By page 516 — around 11 o’clock on the night shift — Jacques, “the peasant,” is having trouble staying awake. “He wondered if Jeanne [Jacques’ lover] was reading the book he had given her. She had seemed pleased. What would her [deceased] husband think, could he but see them together? What would Edith [Jacques’ deceased wife] think? Sometimes Jacques imagined they might be watching. It made him nervous. The dead must at least be curious. Otherwise, they are unseeing, unconscious: extinct. Jacques chased that fear away and looked around.” I love this passage for a number of reasons. For one thing, little does Jacques know that one of his co-workers, Rachid, every night speaks to his dead son Mehdi. I also admire how this fleeting episode positions me, the reader, as one of the dead, watching from beyond, and Jacques as among the living. Jacques, of course, is a contrafact (to borrow some jazz vocabulary), a fictional elaboration of human verisimilitudes, and thus neither alive nor dead. Yet he is animated just the same. November is very much about living and, as a linguistic composition, it strives to live. As “the author,” what readerly interactions do you hope your novel most inspires?
Well, it is only readers who bring a text — and its people and world — to some kind of life, first in the act of reading and thereafter through the engagement of their own memory and freshly solicited imagination. With November, I wanted to write into vivid, mental, physical and, yes, even visceral existence a disparate set of people from a largely vanished world that was/is usually overlooked by fiction — and accordingly left un-written and unimagined, un-read.
Of course my people — mine because I have created them as the vowel-less, breathless “ppl” and “other-ppl” of my laborious imagination and meticulous composition — are only (only?), in a sense, contrafacts, new tunes composed or improvised on old “changes.” Evidence [my italics] abounds however that contrafacts can, if taken with at least half-serious intent and conviction, that is to say with our disbelief playfully suspended, indeed live on, and not just in the minds of author and reader… which is to say, in this instance, of just you, just me [my italics].
I had such early evidence that November, itself machine-like in some ways, could in fact both “work” and produce the output I desired, when my partner, twenty-four hours after putting down the first two books of November, sighed and said, “Mi mancano i ragazzi…” (I’m missing the/those guys…).
I set out in November repeatedly to share the illusion of life in repeatingly self-differing people and to exploit the fact that through the multiplication and overlapping of perspectives and by using the insolent intrusion of an unfettered and unsqueamish narration it is possible to create a complex understanding of reality that can go beyond the common sense of one’s own everyday first-person lived experience. To return to your analogy, a contrafact is free to explore its borrowed changes in greater depth and with greater subtlety than could the original show tune that first overlay and now (in retrospect) seems to have wasted those familiar harmonies.
As for readerly interactions, I’ll be lucky to have a few more readers as careful and probing as you have been here. At best, I’d like readers simultaneously both to fall for and to see straight through the small lie at the heart of November (that these people in fact existed and did just these things on just that night in November 1976) but also, indissolubly interwoven with that open lie, the more substantial truth that just such people as these might have existed in the ways depicted here, though the depiction itself could be rejigged and re-elaborated, the material being practically separable from its narration.
This brings me to the ultimate (and possibly vain) ambition for such a novel as November: to ease readers into the seat that the narrator vacates at the end of his “story-telling” with a view to their redrafting the way things and people may actually have been on that distant night and the way they might still have been in that parallel future that is now irretrievable.
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.
Between 1981 and 2006 — while translating and both deepening and extending his linguistic reach — he served as a UK-stringer for an Italian daily, worked in market research, did a brief spell of university teaching, and each year set aside a couple of months to explore a vast and, for the first twenty years, inchoate fictional project first conceived in 1977.
From 2007 until 2013, Christopher Woodall was able to work almost full-time on the said project and November, which was published in December 2016 by Dalkey Archive Press, is its first installment. Currently he is working on the sequel to November. He has also started to draft The Final Bolshevik (working title), a novel that explores the life of Edmondo Peluso, and two collections of stories. He lives in England with his partner and their son.