Article on the proletarian writer Georges Navel, which appeared in the Anarchist Federation's magazine Organise!
Georges Navel- proletarian writer
“There is a working class sadness that can only be cured by political participation. Morally, I was in agreement with my class”. From Travaux, Georges Navel
Undeservedly almost unknown in the English-speaking world, the French writer Georges Navel was an outstanding example of the “proletarian writer” and his books, especially his Travaux (Works) rank alongside those of the Russian Victor Serge, the American Jack London , the Russian Maxim Gorki, and the Romanian Panait Istrati.
Georges Navel, whose real name was Charles François Victor Navel, was born at Pont à Mousson on October 30th 1904, in the Lorraine region of France, not far from the German border. He was the last of thirteen children to a peasant family. His father moved from working on the land to labouring in blast furnaces. His mother continued to work in the fields and woods.
At the start of the First World War, the family was exposed to bombardment from German artillery and the young Navel was evacuated to Algeria for several months by the Red Cross. He was then re-united with his parents in Lyon.
Navel had to go to work at the age of twelve. His brothers, in particular Lucien, ten years his senior, who was interested in anarcho-syndicalism, took him to meetings in 1918, and it was here that he came across anarchist ideas and deepened his knowledge by attending evening courses from 1920 at the “Union university” created by the union central the CGT, and began to see libertarian communism as a goal for humanity. Navel was to later write about the meeting that he attended with Lucien that:” I learnt the meaning of the strikes of 1917, the mutinies… and the struggle in Russia. The foremen and the boss lost their prestige”. He commented that up till then his traditional worker’s outfit during the week-peaked cap, smock, grey jacket and moleskin trousers- was his identity. “Now class ceased to appear a limit within which one was enclosed”. Lucien introduced his young brother to the ideas of the anarchist communist writers Kropotkin and Jean Grave, and also persuaded another brother, René , to attend meetings with the result that all three brothers were strongly attracted to anarchism. He came in contact with the psychiatric doctor Emile Malespine, who edited a Dadaist magazine that was contributed to by leading Dadaists like Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara. Much of Navel’s time when not working was spent in reading avidly. Malespine introduced Navel to the world of literature and painting, to schools of art like Dadaism, Surrealism, Cubism and Futurism.
In 1921 he realised that the libertarian communist society was still a long way away. He therefore tried to drown himself in the river Saone but the current washed him up again on the river bank!
He worked as an itinerant labourer, moving from Northern France to the South depending on the work. Over the course of years he worked on building sites, as a ditch-digger, as a fitter in the Renault, Berliet and Citroen factories, and as a seasonal worker gathering fruit, cutting lavender, collecting sea salt. A draft dodger from 1927 to 1933 he escaped capture by living under false papers.
On the 29th July 1936 he took the decision to cross the border to aid the Spanish revolution. He joined the anarchist militia column the Ascaso Column, named after Francisco Ascaso, a heroic anarchist who had died in the first day of the fighting in Barcelona. Suffering from sunstroke and chronic gastritis, he was invalided out a month and a half later.
He began to write and one of his texts was published in a special edition of Nouvelle Revue Française (New French Review) on poetry. Another of his texts on ditch digging appeared in NRF in 1937. An account of his time in Spain appeared in the syndicalist magazine La Révolution Prolétarienne.
After his return from Spain he attended meetings at the Musee du Soir (Evening Museum) set up by the anarchist Henry Poulaille, defender and supporter of proletarian literature, where he read out some of his writings.
In 1940 he was called up into an artillery division, and then was assigned to work in a Hispano factory. With the French defeat, he moved back to Southern France, where he worked first as a gardener then as a beekeeper. He corresponded with the French writer and philosopher Bernard Groethuysen who encouraged him to write. In 1945 he published his most important book-Travaux- on the experiences of working and the following year he received the prestigious Prix Sainte-Beuve in recognition. The first run of the book was sold out, but paper restrictions meant a serious delay with a loss of momentum.
Navel followed Travaux with Parcours in 1950, Sable et Limon (Sand and Silt) in 1952, Chacun son Royaume in 1960 and Passages in 1982.
In 1954 he moved to the Paris region and worked as a proof-reader up until retirement in 1970. He died on 1st November 1993.
He defined himself as a revolutionary before being an anarchist and at one stage approached Marxism. He was rather put off the anarchists he met in southern France, who were vegans, vegetarians, naturists, Buddhists, individualists, Esperantists, etc. above all rather than being involved in revolutionary activity. He correctly saw individualist anarchism as a movement of revolt rather than revolution. As a result he joined the Communist Party in an experimental fashion for a while around 1940 without being either a Stalinist or a Trotskyist and without losing his libertarian ideas. In later life he admitted that he was a “libertarian by nature” in an interview that he gave for the anarchist magazine A Contretemps in 1984.
Les Travaux documents his life of work from beginning to end. He describes the life of his father in the blast furnaces, working 6 days a week and tending his vegetable patch on Sundays, and still retaining peasant concerns about the health and progress of his crops. He describes the life in the factories where Taylorism is beginning to be introduced with all the miseries of strictly controlled and increasingly alienated labour that come with it. Yet Navel’s lyrical but straightforwardly honest style comes through and he even makes the handling of a shovel sound poetic! He renders the smell of different types of plums experienced in childhood and remembers how he learnt less in school than in the fields, where he learnt how to make potatoes sprout, and through the novels of Jules Verne.
And the factories where he remarks that somehow the foremen seemed to feel they had been rendered a personal service if you worked faster. His horror of enclosed and regimented work returned him to working outdoors, doing seasonal work and still being in contact with nature, working in rain or under a blue sky. He abandons relative security in the factory for his work as a jack of all trades, whether house painting, ditch digging, or cutting lavender. Whilst he recognises the alienation of work, he takes pride in a task well done, in craft and skill, in contact with nature and the material worked upon. He delineates the whole of the working class in France in transition in the 1920s and 1930s from work on the land to life in regimented factories.
He refuses resignation and submission and shows how to live in a calm and dignified way. Les Travaux is one of the best books on work, coming from the direct experience of a worker. It is a great loss that it has never been translated into English.
The above appeared in issue 87 of Organise! magazine of the Anarchist Federation