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Caro

Work in books

Himadri's blog talked of Primo Levi's short novel The Wrench which has work as its theme. I was wondering what other books had work as a major part of it. I thought Levin's portrait in Anna Karenina was strongly based on his work, how it could be carried out to best fit his ideals, character, and his workers. I think it also formed a contrast with other characters in the book whose work seems rather peripheral or not shown in much detail.

The book I am reading at the moment, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, has work as one of the main aspects of the main female characters. They are trying to get by farming or subsisting on a farm, and Frazier has concentrated a lot of his detail on how nature works and how farming works with nature.

I think work was important in the Forsyte Saga and Buddenbrooks, though there it is business work rather than physical work. What other books can you think of based round or themed on work?

Cheers, Caro.
Sandraseahorse

I've just read for my book club David Lodge's "Nice work"which deals with the worlds of industry and  University.  It is centred on a work shadow scheme.

A lot of Zola's novels take us into different work environments.
TheRejectAmidHair

That blog post - on The Wrench by Primo Levi - was actually an expanded version of a post I'd first put up here.

It struck me reading thatbook that although a great many of us spend aa large proportion of our lives at work, thi sis omething that rarely features in fiction. To quote myself:

Quote:
Here, he [Levi] addresses a theme rarely addressed by fiction: work. Usually, in fiction, we are either shown people wealthy enough to not have to work; or we are shown people whose work is exciting, or made to appear exciting (soldiers, detectives, etc.); or we are shown characters during their non-work hours. The truth is that most of us we spend a large proportion of our lives at work, and this is an area that fiction barely touches on at all. People at a desk doing paperwork, analysing data on PCs, mending gas pipes, taking blood samples in clinics these are usually considered too dull to depict.


There are exceptions, of course: Tolstoy focuses on Levin's work, in a number of chapters that I find fascinating, but which readers unsympathetic to Tolstoy's artistic aims often find dull. And yes, Zola spends much time both in Germinal and La Terre exploring the characters' working lives.

But the truth is that work is dull: even when people enjoy their work, depiction of it is  likely to appear dull to the general reader. This is perhaps why it is so frequently shoved into the background in most fiction.
chris-l

I couldn't read this topic without thinking of 'Moby Dick': on one level, that wonderful book is a detailed description of life on a whaling ship, an environment where work is totally integrated into life. Melville not only gives us incredibly detailed descriptions of the roles of the various crew members and the processes involved in catching and dealing with the carcasses of the whales, but he also treats us to what can hardly be seen as less than hymns of praise to the craftsmen, such as the carpenter and the blacksmith, who exercise their trades on board ship. The language is often poetic, but there was never any doubt in my mind that Melville was talking about real work, with all its tedium and hardship, as well as recognising the qualities of those who were involved in it.
TheRejectAmidHair

Yes, agreed fully: Melville describes the work of the various crew members in great detail - not just the exciting bits  such as hunting whales, but, as you say, the day-to-day grind. And it amounts to, as you put it, a "hymn of praise". But it's interesting, isn't it, that these are precisely the passages that those unsympathetic to the novel complain about?
MikeAlx

Mention of Moby Dick reminds me of a more recent example: BS Johnson's Trawl (1966), which describes in a fair amount of detail the work of a trawler crew.
Green Jay

Glad someone has started something here, as I was thinking about that after reading Dorothy Whipple's High Wages, about a very young and poor girl who manages to set up a dress shop.

Yes, daily work is often boring but its dramas also provide a lot of the interest in our lives.  I like to read novels that feature work or a workplace setting in some way, and get irritated by fiction that floats along on a cloud that pays no attention to economic realities.

Slightly off-topic, I often think that the over-emphasis on Westminster politics and infighting that features so much in our UK news is because it is the "office dramas" of a little coterie of journalists and ministers. They wouldn't want to be bothered with our little workplace fracas and jealousies but over- inflate the public interest in their own. I know theirs do have influence on our lives, but even so could do with less hysterical attention on it and would rather they looked more at the bigger political picture.

Back to topic - I loved reading about all the farm work done by the two struggling women in Cold Mountain; that was the most interesting part to me, how this work and food storage was really survival. I think Tim Winton's books are often about work or working people's day to day lives, as he sets them in working-class Australia for the most part - fishermen, farmers, police, paramedics all come up. Anne Tyler also has people at work, often in strange jobs, certainly in her earlier books, and so does Jane Smiley. Good Faith is about real estate agents, and Larry in Larry's Party starts out as a florist. There are lots of novels featuring academics, but I suppose that goes with writing these days - the day job of many authors like Lodge and Bradbury.
TheRejectAmidHair

Thanks, Mike & Green Jay, for that: they are interesting examples. The fact does remain that the work most people do is boring - at least to those who don't do that work. For instance, much of my working time is spent of extracting data, doing statistical analysis, etc. Is it at all possible to present that kind of thing in fiction and make it appear interesting to a general reader? I'm not talking about office drama - i.e. conflict between people working in an office: I am talking about the actual work. It's not really surprising that writers of fiction tend to keep away from that sort of thing.
Chibiabos83

It sounds exactly the kind of thing Ian McEwan would write about.
Caro

I wouldn't agree that portrayal of work in novels is boring - like Green Jay it was the working lives of the women's work on the farm and the detail of how they went about ensuring the crops were in and growing etc that was the most interesting part of Cold Mountain.  Likewise for me Levin's work was the best part of Anna Karenina. (Though I am not quite sure how it worked with the other themes and characterisation of the novel, for all that. Apart from Levin's himslef, of course.)  And the details of the working lives of people in any upstairs/downstairs book is also fascinating.  Perhaps this is often the interest of a historical knowledge of things no longer done.

But nothing in a novel is completely separate from the drama surrounding it or the characters it affects.  The details of travel, work, clothing, geography, farming, the sea, whatever are all used to portray the characters or the themes or how the background has impacted on people.  So I don't think it is quite valid to separate the work details from the dramatic ones.  They fit together or they should.  That is what I am enjoying about Cold Mountain - the details aren't just there for their own sake (though perhaps a little too often they are and I could do with a few less), but to show the life people lived, the harshness of that life generally and how that makes people fearful, quick to react, or very concerned with their own survival.  Survival is a major theme of this book and the farming parts fit with that.  

Likewise in The Forsyte Saga which I admittedly haven't read for a long time.  The work there fits with Soames' character and his concern with it shows his limitations as a lover and a person.  And the failure of the business and work life in Buddenbrooks seems to mirror (and bring about) the gradual downfall of its characters.  

Cheers, Caro.
Green Jay

Good post, Caro. I agree, the content of the work and the social dramas that come out of that can be fitted together to make a good story. I actually do enjoy finding out about the kinds of work I've never experienced, either myself or in my wider circle, as many people I know tend broadly to work in similar fields.

Another good example: Annie Proulx's The Shipping News. We find out a lot about how a journalist on a small coastal town newspaper works and what is expected to constitute the "news", how he gets it and how the paper is put together. Along with his own personal story, and that of the community.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley looked in detail about how a midwest farm worked, as well as the family drama. A number of midwestern and southern writers have detailed American farming systems in fiction,  Willa Cather, Bobbi Anne Mason and Barbara Kingsolver included.

H G Wells' Mr Polly works in a shop, and we learn a lot about that, until he escapes. And J B Priestley wrote about work of various sorts.
Chibiabos83

It's quite true that the failure of the business in Buddenbrooks mirrors the fall of the family, but there's not all that much business transacted within the novel's many pages. We sit in on a meeting or two, but from what I recall the actual day-to-day work of the firm is seldom touched on, presumably because Mann has better things to be talking about.
TheRejectAmidHair

Chibiabos83 wrote:
It's quite true that the failure of the business in Buddenbrooks mirrors the fall of the family, but there's not all that much business transacted within the novel's many pages. We sit in on a meeting or two, but from what I recall the actual day-to-day work of the firm is seldom touched on, presumably because Mann has better things to be talking about.


And let's face it, if the day-to-day work of a mercantile firm were to be described indetail, it would have bored the back sides of us all!
Evie

Yes, I think the kinds of work that people are highlighting here as featuring in some novels are work that is vaguely interesting to people in general - farming, journalism, teaching, shop work, all have elements that are about more than a process.  They are more than a job of work, they are vocational, a way of life - shop work is not always that, of course, but in the case of High Wages, mentioned here and elsewhere by Green Jay, it is.  As has already been referred to, I know lots of people who say Moby Dick would be a great novel if there weren't so much about the intricacies of whaling in it (I haven't read it, so can't comment on that personally!).  Certainly sometimes the work people do is described, but given how much time the majority of people spend working, novels rarely focus on it in a way that reflects that work-life balance.  

Novels are more either about a story or about human behaviour and relationships and a person's place in the world, and many jobs do not give scope to explore this.  Analysing data, for example, is limited in terms of how a novelist could sustain a focus on it that provides the sort of satisfaction most of us require in a novel.  Obviously police work comes into detective novels - but when Morse, for example, sends Lewis off to search through computer files, etc, he is left to it while the more interesting aspects of the story are developed.
MikeAlx

People who actually work in detection will tell you it is absolutely nothing like the impression you'd form from reading "police procedural" fiction! As with most professions, the majority of detective work is tedious drudgery. In fact, these days a fair amount of breakthroughs come from statistical analysis not too far removed from Himadri's line of work.
TheRejectAmidHair

MikeAlx wrote:
People who actually work in detection will tell you it is absolutely nothing like the impression you'd form from reading "police procedural" fiction! As with most professions, the majority of detective work is tedious drudgery. In fact, these days a fair amount of breakthroughs come from statistical analysis not too far removed from Himadri's line of work.


Indeed!

I think it quite understandable why authors tend not to depict work in any detail. As Evie puts it:

Quote:
Novels are more either about a story or about human behaviour and relationships and a person's place in the world, and many jobs do not give scope to explore this.


Quite. But the consequence of this is, again as Evie puts it,

Quote:
...given how much time the majority of people spend working, novels rarely focus on it in a way that reflects that work-life balance.  
Mikeharvey

Has any one read the novel THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris? Apparently it's a detailed and funny account of day-to-day life in a office.
After reading Thomas Hardy I think I might be able to prune trees or milk a cow. Or be a hangman.

Might I draw Readers attention to THE OXFORD BOOK OF WORK (ed. Keith Thomas. 1999) which is a compendious litrerary anthology of 600 pages from Classical Antiquity to Now about Toil.

I just remembered Anthony Trollope's BROWN, JONES AND ROBINSON which is all about the day-to-day running of a department store.  Zola's THE BELLY OF PARIS about the workers, stallholders and shopkeepers in Les Halles.
Castorboy

While watching a WW11 documentary on Norway the name of Nevil Shute (Norway) came to mind. He had a career in aeronautical engineering for many years before he began writing using his experience on, for example, the R100 airship and with Vickers to construct his novels. I think construct is a good word to describe those novels as he does describe the office and factory experiences he had. I tended to read the novels for those details rather than the stories of his characters. Those early novels may be out of print now but a number of the later ones were filmed such as A town like Alice about POWs in Singapore, On the beach a story of a romance in a post nuclear world and No highway in which an engineer predicts metal fatigue in aircraft.

According to Wikipedia two of the themes of his novels are the dignity of work spanning all classes and the bridging of social barriers like class and race.
TheRejectAmidHair

Neville Shute was a very popular writer back in the 60s &  70s. I even remember reading a couple of his novels No Highway and Pied Piper. A Town Like Alice, based on one of his novels, was a fine film. Thanks for reminding me of him!
Caro

I still read Nevil Shute on occasions - I read his Pied Piper on the plane to Britain. It was interesting to realise that this tale of someone taking kids out of France was written in 1943 before the outcome of the war could have been certain. Pastoral used to be one of my favourite books - I read it for the romance and the hint of sex in it, unusual in the books I read when young.

I meant to reply to Evie earlier about computer work in police novels - some of them put very detailed explanations of the computer workings and how the criminals are discovered via their computer use. (I probably skimmed that, but then I skim a lot of description too or scenic detail, or fights and battle descriptions.) I often think it must be a nuisance for crime authors nowadays to have to have such a lot of knowedge about how computers work and how to access their usage.

Cheers, Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

Sorry Caro, but long sections of a novel devoted to describing computer work sounds incredibly boring to me. I'm not surprised you skimmed them! Smile
MikeAlx

Funnily enough Caro, what made me think of Police Analysts (they are distinct from detectives) is that I read about it on the blog of a crime writer whose day job it is. Not sure to what extent she uses it in her novels though - can't imagine an analysis of hotel booking times or public transport networks to try and connect crimes together would be most people's idea of thrilling reading!
Ann

I don't read many stories about fighting but I expect many of them have quite detailed descriptions of the working life of a soldier, though probably there is little about hanging around and maintaining equipment.
Green Jay

Mikeharvey wrote:
Has any one read the novel THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris? Apparently it's a detailed and funny account of day-to-day life in a office.


Ah, yes, that's why I didn't fancy reading it!  Very Happy  So much for my claims to like reading about work. I think one of Joseph Heller's less successful novels was about something similar - was it Something Happened? I suppose I feel I've worked in enough offices over the years not to want to read about them these days.

Shirley Hazzard wrote about working in the UN in a book of short stories, and in The Transit of Venus there is a perceptive section on being a female clerical worker in a big ministry or similar in the 1950s or early 60s; only clever young women got in but then they were required to do the menial tasks for male bosses. Barbara Pym also wrote about women in similar situations, doing clerical and "helpmeet" type of work for fusty institutions. Because she often wrote about single and rather genteely-impoverished women she had to have them go to work.
Caro

I've remembered now Andrew Martin's Jim Stringer novels, set on the railways around 1915.  They have considerable detail about his work and how these old engines and stations operated.  I think this would be very interesting for people with a mechanical bent which isn't me, but I still enjoy them a lot.  Don't seem to have read them in order.

I see he has also written a non-fiction book How to Get Things Really Flat: A Man's Guide to Ironing, Dusting and Other Household Arts.!  Must check if it's in our library.  My guide to ironing would just be 'don't do it - the wrinkles disappear once you put the garment on".  And my guide to dusting is 'shut your eyes'.  

Cheers, Caro.
chris-l

A few years ago, I read a book by Magnus Mills, 'The Scheme for Full Employment', which dealt with the working lives of a group of van drivers and warehouse staff. The drivers spent all their time ferrying a cargo from one depot to another and it eventually becomes apparent that this is all there is to it. No end use for their delivery, no customer, no point whatsoever.

The book did become a little tedious in the end (but I seem to remember that it was quite short!), but on the other hand it was a brilliant metaphor for working life as experienced by huge numbers of people. On the whole, this novel does tend to support the view that reading about other people's work is often a not very interesting experience, but, neverthe less, it was quite a pertinent comment on the human condition!
Green Jay

In The Woman In White, Walter Hartright is a drawing-master. Towards the end of the book he says that the mystery is only solved because he is poor; if he and his companions - two ladies of diminished means - had had the money to pay for lawyers to investigate they would never have got as far as he does in the detecting of the great fraud and crime imposed on Laura Fairlie.  They would have stuck to the rules and not have had such motivation to delve deeper as he did.

I was intrigued when he refers to selling his "practice" as a drawing master when he flees abroad. When he is just going to work in Cumberland for a few months he simply employs someone as cover. I had not thought of this job as a formal practice. Earlier in the novel he seems to move from job to job, and relies on a new client to pass on his good name to their friends, but I suppose he was selling his contacts book and his current set of clients.  He also talks of the professional manner that he puts on as he enters the door of each house where he has to teach young ladies -  and lean close and guide their pencils - so as never to get embroiled in any romance or, however unconsciously, encourage one, until he forgets this and falls for Laura. I found this interesting as it is just like nowadays, a professional repsonsibility and distance, when so many of the relations between men and women were utterly different then (the book is set in 1850). Though I don't think there was always much professional distance between teachers and students in the 1960s and 1970s (!) and it is only recently that they have been made more formal.  

There is also some detail about how Walter later makes a rather scant living by producing freelance drawings for a newspaper, and hopes to get taken on full-time. There is a pathetic bit where he encourages Laura's recovery from illness and trauma by getting her to draw again and then pretending that he sells her (obviously hopeless) drawings so that she can feel she contributes to the household purse, but really he gives her some of the money he has earned. Although this is sweet, I did feel that had she ever discovered it she would feel really humiliated.
Castorboy

Another one that comes to mind is William Golding's The Spire. I understand there is plenty of detail of the work of the stonemasons as they construct an addition to a cathedral. Generally considered one of his best novels.
Caro

I have just read two novels which reminded me of this thread (though reading old threads reminds me of all the people who used to post here and no longer do.  What happened to Floorboard George, for instance or even Green Jay.  Or Country Lady?  

I have, as mentioned in the What Are You Reading threads, read About Schmidt and Reach both of which dwell on the work of people.  In the first one, Schmidt's work is shown as boring and barely worthwhile, certainly not bringing lasting satisfaction and in the end not appreciating fully his contribution to it.  I was reminded throughout of how people are forgotten or feel forgotten once they have left their jobs.  (I don't really think they are, but certainly if you go back it often is a little depressing how it has continued without you!)

The other one, Reach, had people working in lonely occupations that they enjoyed - underwater diving, preparing artworks for exhibiting, veterinary work.  His photographing ultrasound foetuses was what drew Marcus and Quinn together in the first place.  Their work is integral to the story and characters.

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