Oh, the joys of mid-January. The seemingly never-ending greyness of it all. The lights of Christmas and resolutions of New Year have long faded and you’re back at work. Work: the daily commute wedged into someone’s armpit, steam rising off everyone’s drizzle-soaked clothes; arriving at your office to realise the barbarian you share a kitchen with has stolen your favourite coffee mug and still hasn’t eaten the unidentifiable gelatinous foodstuff they brought in from home 3 weeks ago; faux-friendly emails from your work-shy boss asking you for fourteen completed reports before the end of the day, signed off with an inappropriate and frankly borderline-sarcastic emoticon. If this is your experience take comfort from the fact that you are far from alone. This week I’m looking at novels that deal with the daily grind of our work lives.
Firstly, Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971). Bukowski is one of the best-known beat generation authors, and Post Office was his first novel. It’s a short work (160 pages in my edition) and details the insanity of working for the titular organisation with its impossible targets and low pay. Henry Chinaski (Bukowski’s alter-ego) suffers at the hands of his bullying supervisors, indifferent colleagues and the unpredictable public. His hard-living ways do not anaesthetise the situation:
“Each route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them. Each day it was another god damned thing, and you were ready for a rape, murder, dogs, or insanity of some sort. The regulars wouldn’t tell you their little secrets. That was the only advantage they had – except knowing their case by heart. It was gung ho for a new man, especially one who drank all night, went to bed at 2am, rose at 4.30am after screwing and singing all night long, and, almost, getting away with it.
One day I was out on the street and the route was going well, though it was a new one, and I thought, Jesus Christ, maybe for the first time in two years I’ll be able to eat lunch.”
Needless to say, he doesn’t get lunch. Bukowski is great at describing the tedium of a job that holds no meaning (for him, my particular postie has been doing the job for 30 years this year and tells me he loves it for the most part), and the seediness of the life he lives and those who surround him. But he tempers the tale with humour which stops the portrait being too relentlessly bleak:
“I picked my cap up out of the street, put it on my head. Put the sack back onto the left side of my spine, started out again. 100 degrees.
I walked past one house and a woman ran out after me.
‘Mailman! Mailman! Don’t you have a letter for me?’
‘Lady, if I didn’t put one in your box, that means you don’t have any mail.’
‘But I know you have a letter for me!’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘Because my sister phoned and said she was going to write me.’
‘Lady, I don’t have a letter for you.’
‘I know you have! I know you have! I know it’s there!’
She started to reach for a handful of letters.
‘DON’T TOUCH THE UNITED STATES MAILS, LADY! THERE’S NOTHING THERE FOR YOU TODAY!’
I turned and walked off.
“I KNOW YOU HAVE MY LETTER!”
Another woman stood on her porch.
‘You’re late today.’
‘Where’s my regular man today?’
‘He’s dying of cancer.’
‘Dying of cancer? Harold is dying of cancer?’
‘That’s right,’ I said.
I handed her mail to her.
‘BILLS!BILLS! BILLS!’ she screamed. ‘IS THAT ALL YOU CAN BRING ME? THESE BILLS?’
‘Yes, mam, that’s all I can bring you.’
I turned and walked on.”
Post Office is unrelenting in the cynical gaze it casts over tragi-comedy of the working day. If you’re sick of your job, this is the novel for you.
Secondly, Year of the King by Antony Sher. I’m going a bit off-piste here because this is a diary and not fiction, but Jeanette Winterson says there’s no such thing as autobiography, only art and lies, so I think this allows for admission into a blog about fiction. (Confession: when I first thought of this blog post I was going to write about Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris as the second book, but I started it 3 weeks ago and I’m only 100 pages in. It had cracking reviews so I’m surprised I’m not getting on with it. If you’ve read it can you tell me, should I persevere or give up?) So, I chose Year of the King for this theme as it details a year in a working life, in this case one of the finest actors of his generation as he grapples with the eponymous role in Richard III. If you love your work but worry constantly that you’re not good enough, this is the book for you. It’s so reassuring to read how this incredible actor feels he struggles with the language of Shakespeare, and messes up his first reading in front of the rest of the cast. Having admired so many of his accomplished performances, I found myself thinking really? Well, if Antony Sher struggles maybe I’m not doing so badly after all…
“‘Just read it,’ says Bill grinning.
‘ “Now is the winter of our discontent…”’
I read badly, rather monotonously or else I over-stress. Mercifully Bill stops me after about ten lines and starts to pick at words and discuss meanings.
We have begun.”
Sher is a great writer (it’s something he’s done more and more of) and his style is easy to read yet vivid.
“Bill suggests running the scene ‘trying to be more bestial’. The result is a disaster. Behaviour not from the animal world but the world of pantomime. Cackling laughter, food being thrown around, sinewy ‘wicked’ acting. Although I’m participating and probably responsible for some of the worst excesses, I can hardly bear to watch the others. Have to bury my head on the crutches for much of the scene.”
Ah yes, the crutches. If you don’t know, Sher performed the “bottled spider” role in crutches. What’s so interesting is amongst all the self-doubt and creative process, are vacillations over the use of the crutches, which for the reader 30 years on is a source of amusement. The play went down a storm, Sher’s performance was showered with praise, and the crutches became stuff of theatrical legend:
The book holds all the things you would expect in an actor’s diary: taking us though the research process, details of the politics of rehearsal, fond (and discreet) portraits of his fellow actors and theatre professionals (Michael Gambon in particular seems a large, hilarious personality). But Sher offers much more, such as beautiful images of the surrounding environment:
“An oil slick on the river today, from the long weekend’s abuse. In the morning sunshine it’s as if a rainbow has fallen in the water and is being gently rubbed against the bank, washed and cleaned until its transparent again.”
The diary is also filled with his brilliant drawings, such as this one of Olivier, whose filmed performance of Richard casts a long shadow:
Year of the King has a lot to offer the great variety of readers (little – very little – joke there for any Shakespeare fans): if you’re interested in the acting process, in approaches to Shakespeare, in the realities of theatrical production, or in Antony Sher himself, you’ll find Year of the King a rewarding read.
To end, here is a clip to bring some joy & colour into these grey January days spent in dreary magnolia offices: