Vol. XX, #2 Jean Rhys / John Hawkes / Paul Bowles / Marguerite Young
Review of Contemporary Fiction
"53 Days," by Georges Perec
reviewed by David Ian Paddy
Ed. Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud. Trans. David Bellos. David R. Godine, 1999. 272 pp. $23.95.
The intended novel consisted of two parts: “53 Days” (with thirteen chapters in first person) and “Un R est un M qui se P le L de la R” (with fifteen chapters in third person). Perec completed a draft for most of the first part, from which we are able to gather the intricate narrative. Set in French colonial Grianta, the story concerns the seeming disappearance of detective-story writer Robert Serval. The narrator, a mathematics teacher and lover of mystery novels, is asked to investigate the case, which he does by looking for clues in Serval’s last and incomplete manuscript, The Crypt. As the narrator investigates through the act of reading, he finds books within books. He concludes, in an appropriately Oulipian manner, that the answers lie not so much in the plot, but in anagrams that can be found in the transformations that occur between the books. Needless to say, there are many false trails and false readings. Without revealing too much, the novel continues into the second part with a different investigator who examines Robert Serval’s disappearance by looking for clues in a Serval manuscript entitled 53 Days.
Given that this is a novel about an incomplete novel, this marvelous work of nested narratives, mirror books, and allusive clues becomes all the more notable because it is unfinished. Far from feeling cheated, the reader takes on the detective’s role, poring over drafts to find clues and hidden structures. It is a must for any reader of the Oulipo, for it shows so much of the puzzle work behind their puzzling work. It also serves as a tragic reminder of how incomplete the literary world is without Perec.