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François Bon: Sortie d’usine [Factory Exit]

François Bon’s first novel is a relatively rare example of a novel written in and around a factory and about a factory worker. Though written primarily in the third person, Bon uses a stream of consciousness technique, as we follow the unnamed protagonist in his daily routine going to work and at work in a factory in the Paris suburbs. Indeed, it is clear to see that he has been influenced by film/TV. Standard cinema techniques are used such as jump cuts, close-ups, panning and so on. He writes in a continual sequence, with sentences cut short, a lot of colloquialisms and both the thoughts of the protagonist as well as what he sees, hears and experiences.

Bon himself worked in a metallurgical factory and this is where this novel is set. We start out with him on his way to work and, in particular, his travel on the crowded train. Should he buy his paper and get the later train or get the earlier train? We get his view of the station, the train and the various passengers.

At the factory there is probably someone handing out Union or Communist Party leaflets. He sees the same old people, the same pile of junk in the corner, the same old time-clock, the same graffiti on the wall.

But this is not a fun job. Health and safety is non-existent. The noise is very loud, and not just the machines but the continual hammering. Many of the staff have gone deaf. Staff are meant to be permanent or hired on three month contracts and then made permanent. However, we learn of one man – by no means the only one – who was hired on a three month contract, given a couple of days off and then rehired on a three month contract. He has been operating a machine which has seen its best days. Something goes wrong and he is badly injured. The management comes down and has a look. The injured man, now unconscious, is taken away. The work goes on. There are annual inspections but the management knows of these three days in advance, so everything is cleaned up and tidied before they come and they never find anything wrong. Our protagonist will later be injured.

The work is boring. Every day is the same. Occasionally, it is different, such as the first day it is really cold or the first day of Spring, but normally it is the same old grind. He watches the clock. Eleven is the worst time because it is still another hour to lunch but so is the run-up to the end of the day, with managers watching to see that there is no slacking off. Above all, the work is monotonous and tiring.

He deals with the staffing issue. People are taken on for a probationary period and some pass and some do not. Those who do start are often subject to initiation teasing. Some staff, of course, die, with more dying in February than any other month. All of these issues are followed in detail, with both individual cases and an overall view.

Inevitably, there is a union and, as it is France, there is inevitably a strike. The narrator examines several of the staff in detail but reserves his special rancour for senior management and for the Personnel Manager (who upgrades himself to Human Relations Manager) in particular. He has been in post two years and during that time, there have been three strikes.

If our protagonist has a life outside work, he does not mention it. There is no mention of wife/girlfriend, children, family or outside interests. There is an oblique reference to football, when one of his colleagues is mentioned as often talking about it but no indication that our protagonist has any interest in it.

This could have been quite boring but Bon keeps up an intensity, always moving around. His camera pans over the factory and then focusses on an individual, before moving to a strike or an injury. All the time we have his voice, at times cynical or critical, at times affectionate, particularly about various individuals, such as Thomas the longest-serving (and deafest) employee, at times tired and bored and concerned with the mundane. He gives us a vivid picture of life in a factory but shows the dehumanising aspect, the alienation, the lack of health and safety concerns, with the injured and dead all too often just cast aside by management now that they are of no use. There is no happy ending, indeed no happiness at all.

Publishing history

First published in 1982 by Fayard
No English translation
First published in German in 1987 as Feierabend by Aufbau-Verlag
Translated by Edgar Völkl
Also published in Chinese