When the working class writes, it writes of return. The prodigal child heads home only to find that everything has changed — they have changed. The experience of a new world beyond the confines of their former life has caused a rupture between what was and what is now. Most often, this change comes in the form of education. Scholarships, grammar schools, universities, and, finally, the move into white-collar employment in the big city — this is the path that the proletarian bildungsroman treads. On this path, homecoming itself becomes a kind of break. In returning to the closed world of the working-class home, the narrator experiences a shock, one that propels the narrative on, into the cracks between social worlds.
Raymond Williams notes in Politics and Letters — his glorious series of interviews with the New Left Review published in 1979 — that this theme of displacement and mobility entered the working-class novel proper with D. H. Lawrence. Prior to Lawrence, working-class writers had sought to reconstruct the world of laboring men and their families. Yet, in rebuilding these communities in prose, they had to remove themselves from the narrative. Once the children of the working class become writers or artists, they no longer fit so easily into the communities of labor. Education means leaving what you once knew for something else. The working class itself is not given — and cannot attain — the tools with which it could narrate its own story, whether that be the requisite room of one’s own and an annual income with which to write, or even the connections in the bourgeois world of publishing needed to get what they’ve written into other people’s hands. Yet each of these forms — both reconstruction from afar and flight and return — lack, as Williams writes, “any sense of the continuity of working-class life, which does not cease just because one individual moves out of it.” In short, what was needed was to see the relationship “between two different worlds that need to be rejoined.”
But what happens to these forms when those once fairly stable relations begin to crumble? What becomes of the narratives of class when those closed worlds break down?
Down and Out in England and Italy — Alberto Prunetti’s bitterly funny, lyrical, and often scatological tale of working-class life in Bristol and Livorno — takes the opposite tack. Prunetti is no genteel returnee, instead acting as our Virgil leading us, the latter-day Dantes, deep into the recesses of the capitalist inferno. His leaving and returning is not from the solidity of middle-class life to the working-class of old, but rather from one form of manual labor to another. We follow him from the stable, unionized, masculine labor of his father’s generation in the steel mills of that crucible of the Italian workers’ movement, Livorno, into the new world of dreadful temp jobs, deep into the abyss of long hours and poor pay, followed by heavy drinking and a fight on the weekend. The working-class hero, our Virgil tells us, is no longer the celebrated blue-collar worker on the picket line but the tabarded underclass cleaning piss and shit from the floors of the nation’s toilets or serving up reheated slop to dead-eyed consumers in suburban shopping malls.
Prunetti’s book, whose English title is a play on George Orwell’s famous account of slumming it in the kitchens and doss houses of Paris and London, begins with a feint. The book is, Prunetti says, an “autobiographical novel,” a fictionalization of actual events and circumstances that the author encountered while working in England. Yet both its publishers and at least one back-cover blurber deem the book a “memoir.” If such a status suggests that this would be a dry and sociological tale or some tedious piece of hackneyed social realism, then it couldn’t be further from the truth. Prunetti’s book is a foulmouthed, hallucinatory, and often surreal account of the contemporary landscape of class.
Inferno in a Pizza Oven
At the book’s opening, Prunetti finds himself working in a not-so-authentic pizzeria in Bristol in England’s South West alongside a motley crew of Italians, Latin Americans, and other assorted migrant workers. Slinging pizzas in his “purgatory of unhappiness and second-degree burns,” he learns how this new world of work operates. There are no employment contracts here, no sick pay or holidays, barely even any time to rest between grueling shifts, and such exploitation and petty indignities are ratcheted up by the restaurant’s Italian owners under the guise of being one “big happy family”; “We Italians are honest people,” they exclaim, all the while ripping off their workers in the most sordid manner.
From such inauspicious beginnings, he is thrown from one temp job to another. One week he’s cleaning fetid toilets in a shopping center, then he’s doling out gelatinous beans and deep-fried sausages to ungrateful school kids — with no connecting thread in his “career” other than the grinding certainty of being treated like dirt by a series of lying managers. Resistance does not take the form that made his father, a staunch Communist militant and trade unionist who worked in the vast steel mills of Northern Italy. The question hovering over every encounter being, just how do you organize when you barely know where you will be working the next day, and when each job is as precarious and works you as hard as the next? What connects you to your fellow workers and, equally, to any potential form of collective resistance when the once seemingly stable identity of “worker” breaks down?
The gap between the world of his father and Prunetti’s own appears cavernous. Early in life, Prunetti’s fate appeared sealed. Like all such products of the calloused sons and daughters of toil, he was once fated to follow his father into the steel mills. But rather than a life split between the factory and the football, he was caught young by the spell of books. On he goes to university, and the familiar tale of leaving and returning seems to be set in motion. But as a child of the neoliberal revolution, nothing works out quite as it should. The factories begin to close, and the engine of social mobility that once took the working classes’ best and brightest up into the middle class begin to falter. Instead, into the world of precarious work we venture, far from the working class of his father’s generation. First, straight from university, Prunetti finds work as a stable boy, but dissatisfied with the poor pay and following a bruising encounter with a condescending former teacher of his, he decides to try his luck in England, where, if the jobs are no better, then at least the pay is an improvement — and he may even be able to learn a new language while doing it.
Yet what he finds upon arriving in England is also no bed of roses. And lurking behind the crappy jobs and long hours, a mysterious entity that lies in wait for him in the shadows. Between the endless cycle of temp jobs, a mysterious, malevolent force stalks his every move. A monstrous presence hiding around every corner. Here we have a vision of capital as an infernal machine, one that grinds up everything in its wake in the service of profit. Just as Marx saw capital as a vampire that sucks the lifeblood from workers and offers it up on the altar of Mammon, Prunetti’s is an all-enveloping presence: “the cephalopod monster, Cthulhu, Das Kapital, the Entity, the Iron Lady’s ghost: they were all the same quiet chilling spirit that enslaved generations of human beings with the mirage of gold and riches.” This is a Cthulhu-capital, one that does not simply degrade the worker but seems to push and pull at the forces of time and space, forcing all to conform under the weight of vast tentacular reach.
Such visions plague Prunetti. Does he really see his Margaret Thatcher–inspired managers leaving votive offerings to “Maggie the Destroyer” or catch sight of a monster “drunk on proletarian blood” as “faithful servants bearing the mark of the Beast fling the screaming shopping center workers off the roof of the food court balcony”? Is it a dream, merely the product of the out-of-date codeine a fellow worker hands him to help him sleep? What if it’s not?
Coughing Up the Good Old Days
Yet if capital is so monstrous, resistance seems all but futile. What hope do Prunetti, Fatty Boy, Tim, and other members of the Stonebridge Kitchen Assistant Nasty Kommittee (SKANK) have against such all-powerful forces? Instead of fighting back, they endlessly slack off. They turn up to work half drunk and stoned, spit into the pizza ovens and grumble among themselves. “Once upon a time,” Prunetti says, summoning up the long-forgotten tales of labor in days gone by, “Black Country miners used to say that if you crossed one of them, you crossed them all. These days, we just pocket our meagre severance package and apply for unemployment benefits.” There is no savior here, seemingly no force left capable of fighting back against the monstrous power that oppresses us.
But there is more to the workers than the barely coherent machines their work forces them to be. Beneath their hard-bitten exteriors lurks a human potential, unrealized or unrealizable. Gerald, another kitchen assistant, has “beneath his thick white brows and his watery, bloodshot eyes . . . the soul of a poet.” He recites Shakespeare’s sonnets to Prunetti and pushes him on his English skills. And there’s his father. As Prunetti tires of the petty indignities of temp work, exhausted by running from “the infernal machine that blackmailed and oppressed workers under Britain’s leaden skies” and fired for the final time, he decides to call his English adventures a day and return to Livorno.
But capital is an international beast. Arriving back in Livorno, the scenes are the same as the ones he left behind. Men still line the bars, chugging down booze. People pass each other without so much as a nod or a wave. And the once great steel mill that churned out hundreds of tons of steel every year — thousands of giant 108-meter stretches of gleaming metal, longer than a football pitch and used as train tracks across the length of Europe, made with the blood and sweat of men like his father — has been shuttered. The labor is offshored, sent to somewhere the work is cheaper, and, in its place, “your children can work in restaurants or beach clubs or babysit. Or they can go abroad . . .”
Little remains. And it’s hard not to feel some nostalgia for the good old days when the present is so crushing. But with Prunetti there is no mawkishness about working-class communities gone by. Theirs was a hard life, between backbreaking work and masculine repression. And the women had it just as tough: suffer for hours making the home and all you get is a black eye to show for it.
When Prunetti finally does arrive home, his father is huddled under a blanket in bed. The years of work in the mills have taken a toll on his lungs. The microscopic fibers from the asbestos that lined the factory has seeped into his airways, tearing them apart.
What can Prunetti offer in return? Through fits of tears, he writes of home. “I had to get it all down on paper,” he writes. “I knew that if I hadn’t travelled I wouldn’t have understood my story, or the stories of those like me.” Prunetti’s story is a poignant one. We all must leave, but only some have the tools to tell the story. After all, “if you can’t write then what use are a pair of delicate writer’s hands?”