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The Absolute Originality of Georges Perec

OtherThe Absolute Originality of Georges Perec

Even if Georges Perec had not written a novel without the letter “E”—“La disparition,” later rendered into “E”-less English as “A Void”—he would still be one of the most unusual writers of the twentieth century. Among his works are a treatise on the board game Go, a radio play about a machine that analyzes poetry, an autobiography cast in the form of a novel about a city of athletes, an approximately five-hundred-word palindrome, a crypto-Marxist anatomy of consumerist Paris, a scrupulously researched history of a wholly fictional painting, a deeply eccentric bucket list (“buy a number of domestic appliances” and “travel by submarine” are among the entries), a memoir composed of four hundred and eighty stand-alone sentences that all begin “I remember,” a novella in which the only vowel used is “E,” a lyric study of Ellis Island, and, from 1976 until his death from cancer, in 1982, a weekly crossword puzzle for the newspaper Le Point. It would be hard to disagree with Italo Calvino that Perec “bears absolutely no resemblance to anyone else,” or with Perec himself, who said, in an interview a few years before his death, that he had never written the same thing twice.

Far from a mere collection of nutty pirouettes, Perec’s writing often confronts the most disturbing historical realities. The loss of both his parents at an age when he barely knew them—his father killed by a German bullet, his mother sent off to Auschwitz, both dead before Perec was nine—seems to have become more laceratingly painful the older he got. The missing “E” throughout “La disparition” is phonetically indistinguishable from the pronoun “eux”—“them” (“they” are missing)—and the title is taken from the acte de disparition, the official document that Perec received from the Ministry of War Veterans telling him that his mother was last seen alive in February of 1943. The novel about an island-city of athletes turns out to be a thinly disguised conceit about a concentration camp. The lyric study of Ellis Island is a mournful counterfactual about what might have been had his parents—and many others—made it across the ocean. Perec was heir to the mighty Raymonds—Roussel and Queneau—and, like those grandmasters, he unlocks strange, convulsive worlds made of words, yet his severest formalism is inseparable from an acute sensitivity to human suffering. Still, is it possible to write about unimaginable cruelty with the infantine levity of a jigsaw puzzle?

Perec’s first published novel, “Things: A Story of the Sixties,” from 1965, chronicles the ups and downs (mostly downs) of Jerome and Sylvie, a young professional couple striving to attain status in the “strange and shimmering world, the bedazzling universe of a market culture.” The first chapter’s exhaustively itemized description of the chic apartment that they imagine one day acquiring is an early indicator of Perec’s love of taxonomic catalogues and taste for making lists. When Sylvie gets a job teaching in a Tunisian school, the couple sees a chance to escape the rat race of consumerism only to find themselves in a labyrinth of ancient streets, where their own worries over money seem decadent in a place so poor. A few Parisian things—a row of Pléiade editions, a record player and some LPs, an antique nautical map hung on the wall—keep them clinging, with a different kind of desperation, to hopes for a luxurious future. What prevents the novel from being a mere indictment of crass materialism (though it is that) is Perec’s power of noticing thin shades of the quotidian, making it read like a precursor to such hyper-observed novels as Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine.” The book also has a strange, beguiling tone, somewhere between an engagé documentary and an archaeology of taste.

After “Things” won the Prix Renaudot, in 1965, Perec followed it with a bafflingly odd novella, “Which moped with the chrome plated handlebars at the back of the yard?,” which is, among other things, an irreverent repurposing of rhetorical terms picked up from Perec’s desultory attendance in Roland Barthes’s lectures. The book that feels like the real successor to “Things” is “A Man Asleep,” published in 1967. Told in an unwieldy second person, Perec’s “tu” is an impassive cog who plays pinball, goes to movies at random, drinks the same lukewarm Nescafé, orders the same tough steak, oily fries, and cheap red wine at the same bistros, stares at cracks in the ceiling of his flat, plays cards, and has hallucinatory visions in which streaking lights morph into panthers sailing over his head. Some of this is in Beckett territory; at other times, it feels close to the self-tormenting narrator in Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger,” at others, the potent zombie passivity of Melville’s “Bartleby,” a story to which Perec would return.

In 1967, Perec became a member of the Oulipo group of mathematicians and writers, and began experimenting more explicitly with constraints on composition. On its face, the idea of drawing upon arbitrary rules for making art is not remarkable: iambic pentameter, sonata form, the key of B-flat, a piece of stretched canvas, the cropped dimensions of a movie screen, all are different kinds of constraint. Writing a novel without using the letter “E”—Perec’s most conspicuously Oulipian undertaking and one the group placed under the heading lipogram (from lipo, to leave out)—was for Perec less a laboratory experiment or a Houdini-like demonstration than a device designed to spit out ideas. As David Bellos put it, in his excellent biography “Georges Perec: A Life in Words,” Perec began his massive lipogram sensibly enough, by collecting words that didn’t have “E” ’s in them, then “transcribe[d] the day’s catch into files labelled for different narrative situations.” Perec composed the novel during the student revolt of 1968, and its police-state plot, with kids getting harassed, and its challenge to the (alphabetic) status quo seem to reflect what was happening in Paris at the time. It was also through the Oulipo that Perec struck up a lasting friendship with the American writer Harry Mathews, a few of whose novels he translated into French. Mathews in turn said he loved what he called Perec’s deep sense of “rigolade”—fun.

In 1969, Perec told his editor Maurice Nadeau that he was planning an adventure novel which was to appear serially, feuilleton style, as the stories of Jules Verne had. The result was “W, or the Memory of Childhood,” at once a tale of shipwreck, an oblique autobiography, and a peculiar and elaborate fantasy of a city on the island of Tierra del Fuego, organized entirely around sinister sports competitions in which all the athletes wear matching tracksuits emblazoned with the letter “W.” If the premise sounds somewhere between Plato’s Republic and “The Hunger Games,” the narrative moves with the patience of an ethnographic study, as the competitors’ hierarchical reward system—winners are lavishly fêted to the point of being unable to compete the next day, and losers are systematically humiliated and even tortured and killed—comes into focus as an image of a Nazi concentration camp. Again, the most horrific content is made vivid through the most whimsical games: with a few simple graphic permutations, the “W” of the title may yield both a Star of David and a swastika.

For nearly his whole writing life, Perec worked as a medical archivist and seemed to enjoy this poorly paid work for the sheer pleasure of classifying things. “Life: A User’s Manual,” his 1978 masterpiece, takes the love of taxonomy to its blazing reductio. The endlessly dappled world of “Life,” Perec’s longest and most intricate novel, was arrived at via constraints more baroque than simply dropping a vowel. Perec had for years wanted to plan a novel around the layout of an apartment block, and found a way to do it by combining the idea with the “Knight’s Tour” pattern discovered in a chess dictionary—i.e., the moves a knight must make so as to touch every square on the board without landing on the same one twice.

Many of the resulting chapters in “Life” involve tales of extravagant uselessness. The central figure, Percival Bartlebooth—a fusion of Melville’s copyist with Valery Larbaud’s millionaire eccentric A. O. Barnabooth—takes on the project of making a series of watercolor paintings, which he then sends off to a man who converts them into jigsaw puzzles, which are then sent back to Bartlebooth, who restores the original images. Another chapter involves a man whose job is to go through the Larousse and “kill” words that are no longer in frequent use, such as schuele (a “block of wood on the end of a stick used for flattening watercress in flooded ditches”) and ursuline (a “small ladder leading to a narrow platform onto which fairground gypsies had their trained goats climb”). After killing off hundreds of thousands of such specimens, the man decides to compile a dictionary of only those words that he has eliminated. The whimsical superfluousness of such stories becomes in the aggregate ninety-nine chapters of “Life,” a massive encyclopedia of the off-kilter quotidian. If, as Virginia Woolf beautifully put it, a novel is “like a spider’s web . . . attached to life at all four corners,” then “Life” is attached at angles so quirky the web seems almost to be non-Euclidean.

At the time of his death, Perec was at work on “53 Days,” a puzzle-solving whodunnit in the Agatha Christie mode. His take on the golden-age murder mystery is, unsurprisingly, close to its instantiation in the board game Clue, with its floor plan of a country mansion and various combinations of rooms, weapons, victims, and murderers. Perec completed only eleven of the novel’s planned twenty-eight chapters, but Mathews and another friend, Jacques Roubaud, used the preparatory notes that Perec had been fiddling with to compile a virtual edition, with the novel’s many delirious twists and permutations included as an appendix of outlines, drawings, and diagrams. The section Perec completed tells of a math teacher, in a fictional North African police state, entrusted with the manuscript of the mystery novelist Robert Serval, which is supposed to contain clues to Serval’s sudden disappearance. Later, the mathematician-detective finds— stashed behind the radiator in the home of one of the suspects—a novel called “The Magistrate is the Murderer,” itself loosely based on Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” From there, the Russian dolls keep piling up, and the reader tumbles into a twirling fractal of clues (pleasing or suffocating, depending on your taste). All this would be too precious if done only as a metafictional stunt, but the chapters Perec completed succeed as a thriller. When we get to the parts that Perec did not have time to finish, we must take on yet another piece of detective work—trying to piece together how he might have synthesized his notes had he the time to complete the novel before his death.

If Perec took pride in not repeating himself, it did not stop him from returning, as if in an elliptical orbit, to the same obsessions: police states, citizens going missing, organized brutality, human fragility. These recurring premises took shape as a series of aggressively odd books, each sui generis in its formal and compositional mechanics. Together, they form a lifelong refusal of every kind of goose-stepping conformism. (The only group that he was officially a member of was the Oulipo, and even among that crowd he stood out as an eccentric.) That Perec also seems to have been temperamentally allergic to the stultifying uniformity of market culture and branding, which tends to reduce the particularities of experience to manageable (and profitable) generalities, makes him central to our own time. Perec’s too short, astonishingly prolific life had the opposite shape of the cautious careerist’s, who brands early and sticks to the formulae so as not to confuse a hoped-for clientele. Each of his books is a jarring surprise, irreducibly idiosyncratic and autonomous, and whoever decides to read him will come away not only with a new sense of what is possible in literature, but of how strange and exciting, and how fun, real originality can be.

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