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Dominique Meeùs
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Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1958

Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, W. H. Allen, Londres, 1958, 213 pages, ISBN : 0-491-00200-9.
Acheté (10e tirage, Reprinted December 1967) à The World of Rare Books à Goring-by-Sea, West Sussex, le samedi 15 avril 2017, reçu le mardi 25 avril. Exemplaire déclassé de la Hertfordshire County Library.

L’éditeur publie le livre parce qu’il considère que c’est un chef d’œuvre. Cependant, c’est osé pour l’époque et il semble prendre quelques précautions en le présentant :

This is an exceptionally frank and vigorous novel about working-class life in Nottingham, and its chief character, a young man of twenty-two, perhaps more closely typifies modern youth than any previous fictional character.

Arthur Seaton is not, at first glance, an attractive person. Indeed he might at times fairly he described as amoral, cunning, dishonest, selfish, or unscrupulous. Yet despite his bad character, one almost gets to like him for his vitality and generosity, and it is no surprise when he appears in the end to settle down.

The book of course has serious implications, and the author is to be commended for trying to explain the younger generation to a bewildered public. It is also one of the best —and certainly best written— first novels we have come across for quite a while. The author differs from most writers who have sprung from the working classes in that he is not conscious of himself as an intellectual, and his writing has therefore a refreshing originality.

P. 1.

J’ai lu ça en français à 25 ans. J’étais timide et bien élevé et très impressionné par « la vraie vie ». Début 1969, j’étais assistant à l’université de Louvain et je préparais ma thèse de mathématiques. Une année (1966-67) passée à l’École normale supérieure, à la rue d’Ulm, et un premier voyage en Chine (été 1967) avaient fait de moi un communiste, mais je ne savais pas alors que trois ans après, je serais moi-même ouvrier et pendant quatorze ans. Il y a des choses dans ce roman que je comprends mieux en le relisant aujourd’hui (avril 2017).

Une chose que j’ai apprise à l’usine, c’est la complexité du rapport au travail. D’un côté on rejette l’exploitation, donc le travail dans ces conditions ; de l’autre côté, se massent un grand nombre de facteurs dont je mentionne quelques uns en désordre : on ne peut survivre moralement, on ne peut se libérer, on ne peut défendre sa dignité, on ne peut gagner son pain… qu’en s’investissant dans le travail. Mais toutes les circonstances de travail sont différentes.

Arthur reached his capstan’ lathe 1 and took off his jacket, hanging it on a nearby nail so that he could keep an eye on his belongings. He pressed the starter button, and his motor came to life with a gentle thump. Looking around, it did not seem, despite the infernal noise of hurrying machinery, that anyone was working with particular speed. He smiled to himself and picked up a glittering steel cylinder from the top box of a pile beside him, and fixed it into the spindle. He jettisoned his cigarette into the sud-pan, drew back the capstan, and swung the turret on to its broadest drill. Two minutes passed while he contemplated the precise position of tools and cylinder; finally he spat on to both hands and rubbed them together, then switched on the sud-tap from the movable brass pipe, pressed a button that set the spindle running, and ran in the drill to a neat chamfer. Monday morning had lost its terror.

P. 28-29.

The minute you stepped out of the factory gates you thought no more about your work. But the funniest thing was that neither did you think about work when you were standing at your machine. You began the day by cutting and drilling steel cylinders with care, but gradually your actions became automatic and you forgot all about the machine and the quick working of your arms and hands and the fact; that you were cutting and boring and rough-threading to within limits of only five-thousandths of an inch. The noise of motor-trolleys passing up and down the gangway and the excruciating din of flying and flapping belts slipped out of your consciousness after perhaps half an hour, without affecting the quality of the work you were turning out, and you forgot your past conflicts with the gaffer and turned to thinking of pleasant events that had at some time happened to you, or things that you hoped would happen to you in the future. If your machine was working well —the motor smooth, stops tight, jigs good— and you spring your actions into a favourable rhythm you became happy. You went off into pipe-dreams for the rest of the day. And in the evening, when admittedly you would be feeling as though your arms and legs had been stretched to breaking point on a torture-rack, you stepped out into a cosy world of pubs and noisy tarts that would one day provide you with the raw material for more pipe-dreams as you stood at your lathe.

It was marvellous the things you remembered while you worked on the lathe, things that you thought were forgotten and would never come back into your mind, often things that you hoped would stay forgotten. Time flew while you wore out the oil-soaked floor and worked furiously without knowing it: you lived in a compatible world of pictures that passed through your mind like a magic-lantern, often in vivid and glorious loonycolour, a world where memory and imagination ran free and did acrobatic tricks with your past and with what might be your future, an amok that produced all sorts of agreeable visions. Like the corporal said about sitting on the lavatory: it was the only time you have to think, and to quote him further, you thought of some lovely and marvellous things.

P. 36-37.

Le personnage principal, Arthur Seaton, n’est pas très politique, mais il a un sentiment de classe très fort, viscéral, un peu anarchiste.

Cunning, he told himself gleefully, as he began the first hundred, dropping them off one by one at a respectable speed. Don’t let the bastards grind you down, as Fred used to say when he was in the navy. Something about a carborundum wheel when he spouted it in Latin, but good advice just the same, though he didn’t need to tell me. I’ll never let anybody grind me down because I’m worth as much as any other man in the world, though when it comes to the lousy vote they give me I often feel like telling ’em where to shove it, for all the good using it’ll do me. But if they said: “Look, Arthur, here’s a hundred-weight of dynamite and a brand-new plunger, now blow up the factory,” then I’d do it, because that’d be something worth doing. Action. I’d bale-out for Russia or the North Pole where I’d sit and laugh like a horse over what I’d done, at the wonderful sight of gaffers and machines and shining bikes going sky-high one wonderful moonlit night. Not that I’ve got owt against ’em, but that’s just how I feel now and again. Me, I couldn’t care less if the world did blow up tomorrow, as long as I’m blown up with it.

P. 38.

They were angling for another war now, with the Russians this time. But they did go as far as to promise that it would be a short one, a few big flashes and it would be all over. What a lark! We’d be fighting side by side with the Germans that had been bombing us in the last war. What did they take us for? Bloody fools, but one of these days they’d be wrong. They think they’ve settled our hashes with their insurance cards and television sets, but I’ll be one of them to turn round on ’em and let them see how wrong they are. When I’m on my fifteen-days’ training and I lay on my guts behind a sandbag shooting at a target board I know whose faces I’ve got in my sights every time the new rifle cracks off. Yes. The bastards that put the gun into my hands. I make up a quick picture of their stupid four-eyed faces that blink as they read big books and papers on how to get blokes into khaki and fight battles in a war that they’ll never be in —and then I let fly at them. Crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack. Other faces as well: the snot-gobbling gett that teks my income tax, the swivel-eyed swine that collects our rent, the big-headed bastard that gets my goat when he asks me to go to union meetings or sign a paper against what’s happening in Kenya. As if I cared!

P. 128.

Once a rebel, always a rebel. You can’t help being one. You can’t deny that. And it’s best to be a rebel so as to show ’em it don’t pay to try to do you down. Factories and labour exchanges and insurance offices keep us alive and kicking —so they say— but they’re booby-traps and will suck you under like sinking-sands if you aren’t careful. Factories sweat you to death, labour exchanges talk you to death, insurance and income tax offices milk money from your wage packets and rob you to death. And if you’re still left with a tiny bit of life in your guts after all this boggering about, the army calls you up and you get shot to death. And if you’re clever enough to stay out of the army you get bombed to death. Ay, by God, it’s a hard life if you don’t weaken, if you don’t stop that bastard government from grinding your face in the muck, though there ain’t much you can do about it unless you start making dynamite to blow their four-eyed clocks to bits.

They shout at you from soapboxes: “Vote for me, and this and that,” but it amounts to the same in the end whatever you vote for because it means a government that puts stamps all over your phizzog until you can’t see a hand before you, and what’s more makes you buy ’em so’s they can keep on doing it. They’ve got you by the guts, by backbone and skull, until they think you’ll come whenever they whistle.

But listen, this lathe is my everlasting pal because it gets me thinking, and that’s their big mistake because I know I’m not the only one. One day they’ll bark and we won’t run into a pen like sheep. One day they’ll flash their lamps and clap their hands and say: “Come on, lads. Line-up and get your money. We won’t let you starve.” But maybe some of us will want to starve. and that’ll be where the trouble’ll start. Perhaps some’ll want to play football, or go fishing up Grantham Cut. That big fat-bellied union ponce’ll ask us not to muck things up. Sir Harold Bladdertab’ll promise us a bigger bonus when things get put right. Chief Inspector Popcorn will say: “Let’s have no trouble, no hanging around the gates there.” Blokes with suits and bowler hats will say: “These chaps have got their television sets, enough to live on, council houses, beer and pools —some have even got cars. We’ve made them happy. What’s wrong? Is that a machine-gun I hear starting up or a car backfiring?”

Der-der-der-der-der-der-der-der-der-der-der-der-der. I hope I’m not here to see it, but I know I will be. I’m a bloody billy-goat trying to screw the world, and no wonder I am, because it’s trying to do the same to me.

P. 196-197.

And trouble for me it’ll be, fighting every day until I die. Why do they make soldiers out of us when we’re fighting up to the hilt as it is? Fighting with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers, army, government. If it’s not one thing it’s another, apart from the work we have to do and the way we spend our wages. There’s bound to be trouble in store for me every day of my life, because trouble it’s always been and always will be. Born drunk and married blind, misbegotten into a strange and crazy world, dragged-up through the dole and into the war with a gas-mask on your clock, and the sirens rattling into you every night while you rot with scabies in an air-raid shelter. Slung into khaki at eighteen, and when they let you out, you sweat again in a factory, grabbing for an extra pint, doing women at the weekend and getting to know whose husbands are on the night-shift, working with rotten guts and an aching spine, and nothing for it but money to drag you back there every Monday morning.

Well, it’s a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don’t weaken, and if you know that the big wide world hasn’t heard from you yet, no, not by a long way, though it won’t be long now.

P. 213.
Notes
1.
Il est tourneur (D.M.).