Alistair’s Comments

April 17th, 2018

The fullest response to November came in the autumn of 2017 in a personal email from Alistair Davies, who has been teaching English Literature at the University of Sussex since the early 1980s. In the mid-1970s, while studying for his PhD, he supervised me briefly at Queens’ College (Cambridge, UK): I found him brilliant, intellectually protean, and wonderfully undirective.

Having felt Alistair’s influence — more a state of enabled freedom and curiosity than any series of precepts — at various moments during the composition of November, I emailed him in early 2016, having been out of touch for 39 years. He replied quickly, declaring that he was indeed curious to see November. His generous comments are the result. I’m enormously grateful to him and feel greatly encouraged by his appreciation of the novel.

I have waited months before ‘sharing’ Alistair’s response because it has taken me this long to absorb it myself. I have of course asked for and obtained his permission to post his comments here…

 

Dear Christopher,
I have finished November – I needed a late summer break in order to read it closely – and I think it is a magnificent achievement and a genuinely important novel.

You have written a wonderful historical novel – about a moment and an era which is that of our generation – while (as with the best modernist texts) reflecting on history, time, memory, desire, loss and hope, both ironised and fulfilled. Of course these reflections would not of themselves make November a vibrant novel – your creation of a group of individuals, perceived at once as a fluid group and as a set of individuals caught in their own difficult lives – with their own histories of a history to expand a phrase you use – is for me the heart of your novel.

Exiles, migrants, the displaced, the dispossessed, mostly men – you manage to establish and then unveil their differences while always maintaining their essential mysteriousness. At the same time – I think of your embedded quote from Broch – you give us the blood in their veins. I can think of few novels – except perhaps that of the ‘Triestine aesthete’ – which is at once so bodily and materialist while at the same time so aware of the interior worlds of desire, dreams, disillusionment, the quest for beauty and the constant struggle with and for meaning.

I have found Modernism an infinitely capacious term – from pure interiority to the most extravagant playfulness – but here you seem to me to follow the greatest modernist masters who have extended and deepened the resources of realism while – as with the interventions of your story-teller – making us think about the form and structure of stories, lived as well as written. So many novels about working-class life (and here your novel makes a huge contribution to the tradition of novels about work, the lack of which in the English tradition Raymond Williams constantly and rightly lamented) turn their characters into ciphers; but here so many of your characters -and not just the artists and actors in waiting – have an intense inward creativity you capture and celebrate, along with the freedom (and not just a false freedom) it offers.

Yet your novel is so broad in the links you establish – peasant and industrial working-class life alongside the left-wing European middle-class world of students and bohemians, both gently and very amusingly satirised and the different, intensely class-bound levels of the upper bourgeoisie, less gently treated. You reminded me throughout of the ways in which complicity in fascism had in the 1970s so profoundly discredited the continental ruling classes in the eyes of their children. Here you give us the anatomy of a whole society even if you reverse the usual focus on the middle or upper bourgeoisie. You take us into the world of the factory and yet even here you explored the complex feelings, including pride in accomplishment, those doing routine and seemingly repetitive jobs have in what they are doing. You might not appreciate the term but yours is for me is a deeply humane and a deeply humanist novel.

You follow in the wake of great modernist authors but your novel is in no way a pastiche. On the contrary, it is a deepening and renewing of the possibilities of the contemporary modernist novel. Through Sara and Tomec and through Alphonse, you establish a remarkably productive thinking through of the legacies of modernism and of the differences we have within it, not least about the role of the aesthetic and the place of individual vision in the society of mass production as it becomes the society of the spectacle.

The very striking images on the cover of your novel remind me of German religious wood-cuts – with their tears, their sense of loss, their awareness of the presence of violence and death, their focus on the fragility and endurance of the body and their search for consolation in a world of suffering. It’s a dimension I find throughout your text. If Joyce could rely on Homeric myth to ground his embrace of the world, your novel seemed to me to leave us less surely (as does Broch) in the historical interstice between the classical and the Christian world. Yet this is a joyful text too – I can think of few novels which so truthfully convey the obsessions with sex which shake most of us.

Your novel is beautifully written – by which I mean it is lucid, liquid and constantly alive and various in its use of language. You use striking phrases – ‘this consomme’ of English, this watery breuvage’ – as part of an ironic textual self-abjection but in fact your novel indicates on every page how rich English as a medium is. You explore too not only the penetration of English and English-American at all levels of popular culture in Europe but its budding emergence as the medium of a new transnational European identity in a rapidly transforming Europe of migrants. I found your novel’s constant awareness of the limits and possibilities of inhabiting a particular language – while demonstrating the tremendous richness of English in constantly fresh metaphors and similes – yet another compelling level of your text. I can only think of John Berger’s Pig Earth Trilogy and his The Seventh Man as a match for your writing.

One of the pleasures of the novel for me was a profound nostalgia. I recognised constantly throughout the sensibility of the 1970s – not least the political dimensions of the strike and the Althusserian enthusiasms of the privileged young, along with the language of freedom left over from the existentialisms of Sartre and de Beauvoir.

Yet another was – looking forward – how the lives of your characters would be transformed by the mutations and transformations of the post-1976 period, not least 1989. You teasingly move ahead in some instances; but this reader can hardly wait for the second and third volumes.

I hope you are well and able to get on with your writing. I don’t know why November has not been widely reviewed. I suspect the fate of your novel will be a slow-burn, the completion of the promised trilogy the moment when its stature will be recognised. It is, although written in English and with some deftly handled difficulties of comprehension for Eric, a European novel and in my view a major one. I am so grateful for your gift.

Best wishes, Alistair.