Reading Georges Perec

Context N°11

by Warren Motte

Georges Perec is the finest French writer of the twentieth century. There. I’ve wanted to stake that claim, in print, for the last twenty-five years. And it seems to me finally, now, as we listen to bleatings from every quarter telling us that the twentieth century is well behind us, that the time is ripe to do so. I can already hear the howls of righteous outrage from the Proustians, the Sartrians, the Durassians, and a variety of other battle-happy literary partisans. But tant pis! My choice is Perec. And don’t forget: you heard it here first. In CONTEXT, that is (appropriately enough). Allow me to say just a few words about Perec’s life, before turning to his works. He was born in Paris in 1936, the only son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. His father enlisted in the French army at the outbreak of World War II, and was killed at the front, shortly before the French surrender in 1940. His mother was arrested in 1943 and deported to Auschwitz; Perec was never able to learn whether she died during the journey or after she arrived at the camp. Perec himself spent the war years in a Catholic boarding school in the south of France, and after the war he went to live with the family of a paternal aunt. He studied sociology at the Sorbonne, and later worked as a public-opinion pollster and a research librarian, until his literary activity allowed him to support himself financially. He died of cancer at the age of forty-five in 1982.

Georges Perec is perhaps best described as a literary experimentalist, one who was intrigued by the question of form. He produced a score of major works, each one quite different from the others. Although he is best known for his novels, he also wrote plays, poetry, essays, filmscripts, opera librettos, and many other texts which confound traditional generic categories. “My ambition as a writer,” he explained to an interviewer in 1978, “would be to traverse all of contemporary literature, without ever feeling that I am retracing my own steps or returning to beaten ground, and to write everything that someone today can possibly write.” He once suggested that his work was animated by four major concerns: a passion for the apparently trivial details of everyday life, an impulse toward confession and autobiography, a will toward formal innovation, and a desire to tell engaging, absorbing stories. Anyone wishing to read Perec today may consider those four concerns as paths that may be followed through his otherwise labyrinthine oeuvre—and indeed I shall walk them here, revisiting briefly certain texts that seem to me exemplary of Perec’s literary vision.

His first novel, Things: A Story of the Sixties, which appeared in France in 1965, tells the story of a young couple struggling with the materialism of contemporary consumer society. Closely focused on the ordinary, the banal, the familiar, it puts into play a kind of “sociology of the quotidian,” as Perec himself expressed it. Its popular success was broad and immediate; it won the distinguished Renaudot Prize; and it was praised by critics as offering a new direction for a literature exhausted by the esotericism of the nouveau roman. Among all of Perec’s books, W or The Memory of Childhood (1975) is undoubtedly the most autobiographical. Characteristically, however, even that simple assertion has to be qualified. W is a hybrid text, where chapters of autobiography alternate with chapters of fiction. In the autobiographical narrative, Perec speaks about his childhood, the war years, and the loss of his parents; the fictional narrative tells the tale of a utopian society that degenerates into a concentrationary universe ruled by oppression and death. As those narratives alternate in W, it becomes clear that often one is saying what the other cannot.

In 1969 Perec joined the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Oulipo), a group devoted to the study of literary form. Under the benevolent leadership of Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, the Oulipo worked—and works still, today—to identify and reinvigorate forms that literary history had cast aside. With equal fervor, they postulated new ones, based on systems of rigorous formal constraint, leading one member of the group to propose a definition, tongue firmly in cheek: “Oulipians: Rats who must build the labyrinth from which they propose to escape.” Georges Perec found a home in the Oulipo, in the company of other writers such as Jacques Roubaud, Harry Mathews, Italo Calvino, and Marcel Bénabou; and in 1969 he produced one of the most remarkable illustrations of Oulipian constraint-based poetics, A Void, a 300-page novel written without the letter E. Briefly described, A Void presents itself as a detective novel, the central dilemma of which is the disappearance of the E from the alphabet. That absence marks the novel in various ways. A character comes upon an encyclopedia in twenty-six volumes, but the fifth volume is missing; there is a hospital ward with twenty-six beds, but the fifth bed is unoccupied; and so forth. Similar lacunas color the structure of the novel, too. Chapters are numbered from one to twenty-six, but there is no fifth chapter. Parts are numbered from one to six, but the second is missing (just as the second vowel is missing among the vowels and the semivowel Y). When A Void first appeared, many critics dismissed it as an example of literary acrobatics, a technical tour de force and nothing more. Yet in anything more than a cursory, offhanded reading, it will become apparent that very serious considerations subtend Perec’s wordplay. On the one hand, it is abundantly clear that writing itself is a crucial concern in this novel. Had that escaped his reader up until the end, Perec makes that point explicitly in his “Postscript,” where, in E-less language (and thanks here to Gilbert Adair’s luminous English translation), he explains why he has eschewed the letter E:

My ambition, as Author, my point, I would go so far as to say my fixation, my constant fixation, was primarily to concoct an artifact as original as it was illuminating, an artifact that would, or just possibly might, act as a stimulant on notions of construction, of narration, of plotting, of action, a stimulant, in a word, on fiction-writing today.

On the other hand, the absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence, and the absence of the E in A Void announces a broader, cannily coded discourse on loss, catastrophe, and mourning. Perec cannot say the words père, mère, parents, famille in his novel, nor can he write the name Georges Perec. In short, each “void” in the novel is abundantly furnished with meaning, and each points toward the existential void that Perec grappled with throughout his youth and early adulthood. A strange and compelling parable of survival becomes apparent in the novel, too, if one is willing to reflect on the struggles of a Holocaust orphan trying to make sense out of absence, and those of a young writer who has chosen to do without the letter that is the beginning and end of écriture.

Other radical experiments in literary form abound in Perec’s work. The novel Les Revenentes (1972), for instance, constitutes a kind of negative image of A Void, in that E is the only vowel used (and thus, granted the constraints that govern them, not one word is common to both books). Perec wrote a great deal of what he called “heterogrammatic” poetry, in which each line of a given poem is an anagram of every other line. His most sustained experiment in that form is Alphabets (1976), a collection of 176 poems. There, Perec strolls through the alphabet, playing combinatorically and permutationally, as he reminds us that literature takes shape in letters. It is undoubtedly Life A User’s Manual (1978), however, that stands in most people’s minds as Perec’s most astonishing experiment in form. Maximalist in its conception and its execution, this 700-page novel has been hailed as a landmark text by many critics, who see it as the worthiest postmodernist successor to the “well-made” modernist novel. Recounting in minute detail the life of a Parisian apartment building, Life offers an astonishing multiplicity of stories, savantly interwoven. That interweaving, however, is based upon formal arcana which, although not apparent in a casual reading, constrain and order every aspect of the novel’s structure. By way of example, the sequence of chapters in the novel is determined by a figure from chess known as the “Knight’s Tour,” in which a knight visits every square of the chessboard once and only once. Another organizational constraint is still more arcane, and involves an algorithm borrowed from higher mathematics known as the “orthogonal Latin bi-square order 10.” Perec used that algorithm to elaborate pre-established lists of the 42 different elements (objects, characters, situations, literary allusions and quotations, and so forth), that would figure in each of the ninety-nine chapters of Life. What results from processes such as those is a text that is arguably the most highly “constructed” novel in French literature. Typically, Perec puts that very construction on display in his novel: if Life takes as its narrative object a building and the life within it, its subject is also building: building as a creative activity, as the vital, lively process through which art comes into being.

In the boldness of the literary wager it stakes, Life A User’s Manual brings all four of Perec’s concerns together in close articulation. The panorama of French society and the broad vision of contemporary, daily reality that it offers clearly express Perec’s will to engage everyday life in literature. Snatches of autobiographical detail scattered here and there in the novel testify to his desire to write the self. The degree of formal innovation in the text is enough to beggar even the most demanding imagination. And, finally, it must be noted that Life is animated by a closely-tuned narrative logic, each of the many tales it tells taking its place within a vaster story, each moment in the text carefully crafted with regard to the moment that precedes it and the moment that follows it—in short, it is a sheer joy to read. Interviewed in Le Figaro after Life was published, Perec stated that in writing it, he had been motivated by the desire to tell “stories which one devours, stretched out on one’s bed”; and indeed that is one of the ways the novel has been received, as an exceptionally smart and well-wrought page-turner. One of the most interesting things about such an interpretation is that the highly innovative formal character of Life doesn’t seem to get in the way of a traditional, plot-based reading, for those readers inclined toward the latter. And that phenomenon points, in turn, toward one of the most remarkable aspects of Perec’s writing. His great discovery was that tradition and innovation are not mutually exclusive, but indeed share many affinities and points of complementarity, and his literary production as a whole may be read as an elaborate, impassioned demonstration of that notion. Each of his works is a laboratory of writing, a place where the very possibilities of literature are tested. Yet those works remain nonetheless accessible, readily legible, and indeed warmly accommodating to the reader.

Two decades after his death, it is legitimate to claim that the work Georges Perec produced during the fifteen-odd years of his writerly activity set off in directions that were strikingly original, providing astonishing new horizons for French literature. In that perspective, each of his gestures signifies doubly: first, in the context of whatever story he happens to be telling; second, in the context of a more ample story, a deliberate, sustained meditation on literary potential. Perec questions literature closely in each of his books, questioning both himself as writer and us as reader. He asks us, moreover, to approach literature (his own writing, to be sure, but other kinds of writing too) in the same interrogative mode. He encourages us to ask questions about the way literature comes to be in the world: how it is produced, how it is received; how it survives in culture or how it fails to survive; what it means to us and how we construct that meaning; what its uses may be in a world where its uses are no longer taken as given, but rather must be constantly argued anew. Working through questions such as those is certainly invigorating and edifying, but it is also pleasurable; and I would submit that it is not the least of the many pleasures that one enjoys reading Georges Perec.

Selected List of Works Mentioned

“53 Days.” David R. Godine, $23.95.
Ellis Island. New Press, $16.95.
Life A User’s Manual. David R. Godine, $19.95.
Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. Penguin, $14.95.
Things: A Story of the Sixties and A Man Asleep. David R. Godine, $19.95.
Three. Out of Print.
A Void. Out of Print.
W or The Memory of Childhood. David R. Godine, $16.95.

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