Mark Ford

  • W or the Memory of Childhood by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos
    Collins Harvill, 176 pp, £10.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 00 271116 8
  • Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos
    Collins Harvill, 581 pp, £4.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 00 271999 1

These are the first of Georges Perec’s wonderful and extraordinary writings to be translated into English. Perec has been a household name in France since the runaway success of his first and most popular novel, Les Choses (1965), which still sells twenty thousand copies a year. Les Choses describes, with a sociological exactitude justified in the novel’s concluding quotation from Marx, the motivations and disappointments of an utterly ordinary middle-class couple in a consumerist culture. Sylvie and Jérôme are both public opinion analysts, as indeed was Perec at the time: they emerge as a kind of generically rootless Parisian couple of the Sixties, whose experiences and emotions are such that no one of that generation could help but identify with them. The book ties in neatly with, indeed was partly inspired by, Barthes’s theories on the language of publicity, which were appearing around the same time; its precision and syntactical ingenuity aspire to Flaubert, a major figure in Perec’s pantheon of favourite authors.

Until recently in England Perec was simply known as the crazy writer who first wrote a book without any e’s in it, La Disparition (1969), and then one with e’s but no other vowels, Les Revenentes (1971). (One’s heart goes out to the translators of those two.) Both books certainly establish benchmarks in the virtuosity with which they sustain themselves within the most severe of Oulipian constraints. OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) was a literary association founded by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960 and dedicated to the search for new forms of writing, mainly through the application of mathematical structures, gratuitous forms of word play, and bizarre constrictions on content. The Oulipian text aims for a state of absolute paradox, at once wilfully arbitrary in the rules imposed at its conception, and slavishly obedient to the internal logic arising from their fulfilment. Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, Harry Mathews’s Tlooth and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (both translated into French by Perec), Queneau’s Exercises in Style are striking examples of what may be achieved in the mode. Perec joined in 1967 as the group’s youngest member, but one of its most inventive. He excelled in composing bilingual poems, palindromes (his longest is five thousand letters long), exercices d’homosyntaxisme (in which a text must be written to a formula that predetermines the number of its words and the order of its verbs, substantives and adjectives), and in heterogrammatic poetry. ‘Ulcérations’ is a good instance of the latter, a poem written using only the letters of its title, which also happen to be the 11 most frequently used letters in the alphabet. ‘Alphabets’ is an even more prodigious feat; each of its 16 sections of 11 poems is written using only the ten most frequent letters – that is, a, e, i, l, n, o, r, s, t, u – plus one variable letter. In the first 11 poems the variable letter is b, the next c, and so on through to z. In other poems the vowels used are not allowed to deviate from the strict order of a, e, i, o, u – A demi-mot un art chétif nous parle, and so on. In an interview with L’Arc magazine Perec revealed he treated such exercises as a wordsmith’s equivalent of a pianist’s scales, and found in their intense difficulty nothing compared to the horrors attendant upon any attempt to write poetry freely.

Practically all of Perec’s texts are constructed, with varying degrees of extremity, in this kind of pre-programmed way. Un homme qui dort is written entirely in the second person. Je me souviens is fabricated out of sentences all beginning Je me souviens, followed by some randomly chosen remembrance. La Boutique Obscure relates 124 dreams Perec had over a period of years. (In a particularly harrowing one he dreams he finds first one e, and then two, then 20, then 1000 in the text of La Disparition.) Life: A User’s Manual describes the contents and inhabitants of a Parisian apartment block at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. The block is ten storeys high and ten units wide, and the order in which the apartments are treated is determined by the route a knight at chess would have to take to cover all the squares on a ten x ten chessboard without alighting on the same square twice. Perec decided on the 42 constituent elements of each chapter, including references in each to three of the 30 authors systematically alluded to throughout the book, via a particularly complex mathematical algorithm. It’s in Life in particular that Perec most exhaustively exploits the eccentric compositional techniques invented by another of his great heroes, Raymond Roussel.

Perec’s obsession with autistic, self-propagating literary forms of this kind, which implicitly reject all preconceptions of depth and significance, is wholly compatible with Post-Modernism’s ideal of literature as a self-reflexive surface, a field of clues that reveal nothing beyond their internal chance coherences. La Boutique Obscure ends with a quote from his close friend Harry Mathews’s Tlooth: ‘for the labyrinth leads nowhere but out of itself.’ La Disparition more bleakly talks of an enigma that will destroy us whether it is solved or not. But Perec’s own adherence to this idea of literature as a self-sustaining puzzle, a teasing game between writer and reader, developed also, as he most clearly explains in the autobiographical chapters of W, in response to the circumstances of his own childhood.

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