The Disappearance of Georges Perec
SIR: I was sitting on the floor talking to a girl and she said: ‘I have this friend in Paris who writes the strangest plays. Novels too. I think you’d like them. Let me send you one.’ Such exchanges don’t usually lead to anything but a fortnight later a book did arrive through the post. There was a barely decipherable note from the girl, a completely indecipherable signature and no address. I asked the person who had given the party who the girl was but he couldn’t place her: ‘She must have come with someone,’ he said. And so, in a very Perecian way, Georges Perec entered my life. For the book was La Disparition.
It begins like this:
Anton Voyl n’arrivait pas a dormir. Il alluma. Son Jaz marquait minuit vingt. Il poussa un profond soupir, s’assit dans son lit, s’appuyant sur son polochon. Il prit un roman, il l’ouvrit, il lut; mais il ne saisissait qu’un imbroglio confus, il butait à tout instant sur un mot dont il ignorait la signification.
I read on. There was something odd about this book but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It rang oddly in my ears. It wasn’t till I was more than half-way through and describing the bizarre plot to someone that they said: ‘But couldn’t it be about the letter “e”?’ At once I realised that the whole novel was in fact written without the letter ‘e’, a feat even more difficult in French than in English. And, like all interdictions, formal and psychological, this one functioned as a way of releasing energy and invention. I have rarely read a book which made me laugh so much, and I am not sure if it was more exhilarating to know what the author was up to and admire his ingenuity and humour, or to feel oneself carried through a mad but recognisable universe which clearly functioned according to laws, but whose laws one couldn’t fathom. At least, though, I now knew why Baudelaire had to be the ‘fils adoptif du Col. Aupick’.
After that I hunted for all the works of Georges Perec I could find. There was an earlier novel, Les Choses, which had won the Prix Renaudot in 1965; a book of crosswords and one on the art of Go; a delightful meditation on man’s use of space, Espèces d’Espaces; and at the NFT I managed to catch up with a film made from yet another novel, L’Homme Qui Dort. I began to piece together a few facts about Perec: he was a Polish Jew brought up in France, who worked or had worked as a civil servant, and he was a leading member of OULIPO, the group of writers and mathematicians gathered round Queneau whose members devoted themselves to exploring the possibilities of literary form in the manner more of Medieval and Renaissance writers than of any post-Romantic artists. Like Queneau, Perec seemed to combine a delightful humour and a sense of the absurdity of ordinary life with a brilliantly inventive mind and a powerful feeling for form. But he had his own voice, and it was quite distinct from the very French voice of Queneau. It was the voice of an exile, a visitor in an alien culture, but one not in the least upset by this: amused rather, even delighted. I warmed to him.
In 1978 I picked up his latest book, La Vie Mode d’Emploi, in Paris. I had hesitated for a long time though the book was in all the bookshops, for it was almost seven hundred pages long. I wondered if Perec had not perhaps succumbed to the temptation to write a Masterpiece – always a mistake, but one to which ambitious writers are unfortunately all too prone. I was also thinking of the weight of the wretched thing in my luggage. Finally I decided to pluck up courage and at least sample it in the bookshop. I only needed to read the first couple of pages to be convinced that, willed or not, this was indeed a masterpiece.
It is impossible to describe the book in a few lines. In a recent essay Perec has explained the permutational principles on which it is built: the Greco-Latin orthogonal square of 10, and the old chess problem known as the polygraph of the Knight. This consists in making the Knight cover all the pieces of the board without ever stopping more than once on the same square. There are innumerable solutions to the problem. The magic square of 10, though, was only discovered in 1959, and featured on the cover of the November issue of that year’s Scientific American. All this sounds daunting, but it isn’t. It is simply a way of constructing with a large number of elements in such a way that order will underlie the apparent chaos. Peter Maxwell Davies has been composing with magic squares for a decade now, but I have yet to understand how Perec uses his. What is important – and what strikes one immediately on a first reading – is the sense of abundant inventiveness firmly controlled by principles beyond one’s grasp. The effect is enormously exciting. And all the time, as one is carried along on the surge of the proliferating stories, the hilarious anecdotes, one has the strange feeling that something else is going on, something which one can experience in the reading but which can never be put into words. It makes books like Robert Nye’s Falstaff, also written in 100 chapters, and the works of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, look like kindergarten stuff. The only novel I can compare it with is Ulysses, and it seems to me far more integrated than that book, more human and a great deal funnier. But the main reason why it is a major novel, on a par with Crime and Punishment and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and not just a brilliant tour de force, is that it is much more open to pain than anything else of Perec’s. There is a real undertow of sadness and bewilderment, even of despair and desperation, which is deeply moving.
When I had read it – in one go, in less than a week – I wrote Perec the only fan letter I have ever written, telling him how much the book had meant to me. He did not reply, but every New Year I would receive a little privately printed ‘piece’, usually a light-hearted exploration of the nature of our lives with language and popular culture. The last I received, in 1981, was a tribute to Queneau, based on the titles of his books.
I was sure that one day I would meet Perec, but it was not to be. In March this year a friend wrote from Paris that his death had been announced in the papers. He was 46 and had been suffering from cancer for some time though few people knew it. The French papers paid tribute to what they called his eccentric genius, though an awareness of the frequent use of acrostics in the Bible and of the numerological bases of such works as Dante’s Commedia and Spenser’s Faerie Queene might have suggested that he was rather closer to the central traditions of our literature than our post-Romantic age might assume. In England, of course, there was not even that. His death, as far as I know, passed quite unnoticed. His works are untranslated and probably untranslatable. Yet he was the best French writer since Robbe-Grillet and was only just begining to find his true voice. His death is a tragedy for the art of letters. Yet, just as in his early book the fact that the leter ‘e’ is missing has the effect of making us keenly aware of how vital that little letter is, so Perec’s own disappearance may wake us up to his significance. He has, after all, left a substantial body of work behind him. No one seriously interested in fiction can afford to ignore him.
Faculty at War
SIR: I am writing to lament the absence from the LRB of a judicious consideration of Against Criticism by Iain McGilchrist. The book raises issues which all concerned with the state of English studies at the present time must wish to see intelligently debated. But all we get from Tom Paulin is coarse invective (LRB, 17 June). That your readers have been deprived in this way is a pity, and especially so if (as it is unfortunately not safe to take for granted) Mr Paulin has accurately described the forces and attitudes represented by Re-Reading English, the other book he reviewed. Moreover, the fact that so intelligent and humane a reviewer as Mr Paulin should have lost his head when faced with McGilchrist’s book adds an interesting twist to the tale of woe he is himself concerned to tell.
In all but the last paragraph of his piece Mr Paulin is preoccupied with Re-Reading English, a volume of essays which fiercely espouses the debourgeoisification of literary studies, yet expresses the frustration, anger and narrow-mindedness of an essentially petit-bourgeois mentality. Mr Paulin exposes the barrenness of these attitudes. More’s the pity, then, that he should be deaf to the voice of an ally in McGilchrist, and, in the final abrupt paragraph of his piece, should mar his polemic against the philistines with a philistine outburst of his own. The reason for this sudden loss of judgment is all too plain. His tone betrays him: ‘Mr McGilchrist is a fellow of All Souls and an upholder of that élitist culture which so angers Widdowson’s contributors. He appears to be highly cultured – he talks confidently of “the ornate, yet simple, splendour of Vierzehnheiligen”, notes the resemblances between Lu Chi and Alexander Pope, and sprinkles his text with impressive bits of Greek, Latin, Italian and German … His harmless Sitwellian waffle makes me wonder whether English studies will go the way of phrenology.’ It seems only fair to your readers to reassure them that this and the rest of what Mr Paulin has written is not an account of any book Iain McGilchrist wrote. But this is not, of course, properly speaking a book review at all, merely an expression of Mr Paulin’s prejudices, a tantrum quite unworthy of his intelligence, in which, interestingly, like the authors of the essays in Re-Reading English he himself deplores, he has allowed thinking to be overwhelmed by feeling. The result is depressing mainly for the manner in which it seeks to downgrade a knowledge of ancient and modern languages, a breadth of reference in argument, and a familiarity with the greatest works of European architecture, to a species of upper-class twittery. And it prompts one to wonder what level of ignorance in Iain McGilchrist would have left Mr Paulin at his ease.
Clearly, Mr Paulin suffers from a mild strain of the virus which rages in the writing of Peter Widdowson et al. But he diagnoses their disease so acutely that we may hope his own case is not too serious. In them it is far advanced, it has got to their heads, and must be assumed terminal. In him, as yet, it appears to have got no further than his shoulder. The sooner he has it seen to, the better.
SIR: Tom Paulin’s review of Re-Reading English mocks its contributors but also represents the new work in English Studies as insidious, a nihilistic symptom of ‘a self-conscious civilisation turning in disgust upon itself. Paulin’s review is a striking instance of one aspect of the reactionary temper of both culture and politics in this country at the present time. The fact that these two domains are united in reaction is of course no accident: as Re-Reading English and the article by Raymond Williams in the same issue of LRB make clear, politics and culture are inseparable.
Undoubtedly we’re living through one of those periods when what is misleadingly described as a ‘recession’ precipitates two opposed tendencies in the superstructure: on the one hand, an ideological retrenchment and reaction; on the other, a sharpened realisation that only a democratic transformation of the social order can provide a long-term answer. At such times something else becomes dramatically clear: it is not the emergent consciousness, the voice of change, which will be responsible for ‘the massive social crisis’ which Paulin alludes to; nor, intrinsically, is it the bankruptcy of the existing order; it is, rather, the reaction of that order, or rather elements within it, against the emergent. Never, it seems, is the status quo defended more ferociously than when impending crisis demonstrates conclusively the necessity for change.
One crucial aspect of these reaction formations is to offload the failure of the present – the ‘crisis’ – onto the new; the emergent is denigrated as a symptom of the very disease for which it may indeed be the cure. Such is the case with Paulin’s review: most of the contributors to Re-Reading English advocate more democracy in education and write in an appropriately accessible way, yet Paulin has to characterise them as showing ‘a Stalinist preference for the mechanistic metaphor’ which makes the reading of a sonnet by Sidney ‘sound like a spell in a forced-labour camp’. The charge of Stalinism is surely a tired, dishonest and irresponsible term of abuse. (Why is it that all socialism is represented as inevitably rooted in Stalinism whereas no one ever dreams of claiming, for example, that Christianity necessarily involves witch-hunting, inquisitions and the other more recent manifestations of its bloody history?)
In his Introduction to Re-Reading English Peter. Widdowson describes his contributors as all recognising that ‘education is a political activity.’ The pluralising, generous and democratic implications of allowing this have, of course, been ferociously resisted by the formative figures in English Studies, from Arnold to Leavis and beyond. Today, the literary hacks of some review columns systematically denigrate those who are trying to work with new and challenging ideas. Actually, I don’t identify Paulin with them and find it surprising and regrettable that he seems so willing to lend his voice to theirs. Maybe he’s getting tired. Certainly I don’t recognise ‘that futureless and pastless sense of blankness’ which, according to him, characterises ‘the present generation of students’. The most informed opposition to the Falklands ‘crisis’ came from my students, not my senior colleagues. Most students today possess ‘humane intelligence’, but they mean by it something very different from Leavis because they bring with it a democratic political commitment and a very real political intelligence. They find Re-Reading English helpful, not because they are vacant, but because they’ve become impatient with a tired discipline and its tired categories.
What Marxist, deconstructionist and post-structuralist theory has to offer is very varied – everything from a specious rejuvenation of the old categories to genuinely radical and positive alternatives. It’s to the credit of the ‘New Accents’ series (in which Widdowson’s book appears) that it not only represents that diversity but also engages with it critically. Though you wouldn’t know it from Paulin’s review, Re-Reading English is no exception.
Thanks for your own coverage of the Falklands war.
School of English and American Studies, University of Sussex
SIR: Reviewing Re-Reading English, Tom Paulin describes its contributors as ‘frustrated sociologists who believe that sonnets and beer mats ought to be treated on an equal footing and examined as interesting “cultural artefacts” (this stupidly philistine term is favoured by David Lodge and other members of the new critical generation).’ ‘Cultural artefacts’ seems to me a descriptive term that is neither stupid nor philistine, and I may well have used it on occasion, though I cannot recall a specific instance offhand. The implication that it is a key item in my critical vocabulary, and that I practise a kind of criticism which could be described, even with philistine stupidity, as equating beer mats with sonnets, is a ludicrous misrepresention, which undermines Mr Paulin’s credibility as a commentator on the contemorary ‘crisis’ in English Studies. This, by the way, is the second occasion in recent weeks when one of your contributors has introduced a gratuitous sneer at my expense into a review of someone else’s book expressing views quite distinct from my own. (The first was Claude Rawson’s review of Denis Donoghue’s Ferocious Alphabets, LRB, 4 March.) Is this – to use a phrase which has appeared in your correspondence columns before – quite cricket?
I hope David Lodge is not suggesting that we have put people up to making disobliging incidental references to his work; or that we should cut such references out if and when contributors choose to make them.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: When I wrote in my Introduction to J.R. Ackerley’s My Sister and Myself that Nancy West had died ‘reduced (in her own words) “to a rag and a bone and a hank of hair” ’, I was aware, though Professor Ricks may choose to disbelieve it, that she was quoting from Kipling. If I had written merely ‘reduced “to a rag and a bone and a hank of hair’ ”, then readers less perspicacious than Professor Ricks might have thought that it was I who was quoting from Kipling. The structure which Professor Ricks erected on the misprint ‘a rag and a bone and hank of air (sic)’ continues to delight me and I see no reason why he should feel defensive or offensive about it.
One further point in Professor Ricks’s review: he implies that, when I write that many of Ackerley’s friends were women-haters, I am using a euphemism for homosexuals. Women-haters and homosexuals are no more synonymous than professors and prigs. One of Ackerley’s friends, Wyndham Lewis, was a misogynist but a heterosexual; another, a homosexual writer still alive, once declared publicly that he felt far more at his ease with women than with men.
New Economic History
SIR: How thoughtful Paul Johnson is (Letters, 1 July). He thinks the old economic history is sometimes bad, sometimes good. I agree. He thinks the new economic history is sometimes good, sometimes bad. I agree. He may even find I said as much in my review. Meanwhile, he wishes to ‘explore the epistemological sophistication of the new economic history’. Good luck to him.
Christ’s College, Cambridge
SIR: In his review of William Golding’s A Moving Target (LRB, 17 June) Frank Kermode writes: ‘Reviewing a book about high-altitude photography, Golding remarks that “if the whole round earth did not appear, still great cantles of it … became visible”; and my guess that “cantle” had probably not been used in precisely that sense since Antony and Cleopatra III.x is confirmed or anyway supported by the OED.’ May I suggest Professor Kermode reads Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem ‘Sea-Serpent’ (1926), where he will find:
Round the cantles o’ space Leviathan flickered
Like Borealis in flicht
Or eelied thro’ the poorin’ deeps o’ the sea
Like a ca’ o’ whales and was tint to sicht.
After all, there are Scottish dictionaries – and Scottish writers – too.
SIR: I have been authorised to edit for publication a selection of the letters of Hugh MacDiarmid and would like to hear from any of your readers who corresponded with the poet and have letters they could let me print in my book.
Balbirnie Burns East Cottage, near Markinch, Glenrothes, Fife KY7 6NE