Georges Perec owns up: an interview.
Question: Things? It's a puzzling title, easily misunderstood. Haven't you really written a book not about things, but about happiness?
Georges Perec: That's because there's a necessary connection, to my mind, between modern things and happiness. The prosperity of our society makes one kind of happiness possible--you could call it Orly-joy, the joy of deep-pile fitted carpets; there is a current form of happiness that means, I think, that you have to be absolutely modern to achieve happiness. People who think I have denounced consumer society have understood absolutely nothing about my book. But that happiness is only potential--in our capitalist society, what's promised isn't delivered. Everything is promised; well, advertising entices us towards everything, to having everything, to possessing everything; and we have nothing, or we have just tiny little things, tiny little bits of happiness.
Q: Sure, but aren't your characters wrong to accept having those tiny little bits?
GP: What keeps them from being despicable is that they have at least one positive feature--they have a gift for happiness, they possess as it were an appetite for happiness, they're waiting for it, watching out to grab it. They take it wherever they can find it.
Q: But that's a pretty empirical kind of happiness....
GP: Modern happiness is not an inner value. At any rate, I didn't want to see it as an inner value. It's more like an almost technical relationship to your environment, to the world....
Q: Not to the world, surely, but to objects....
GP: Well, it's a very "bodily" value. Bodiliness is very important, you know! I decided voluntarily to restrict my characters to an everyday quest; I didn't make them conscious of the fact that happiness is a new idea, a new idea that has yet to be imposed. As soon as they start wanting happiness, they're caught, almost in spite of themselves, in a kind of logical sequence. Happiness is a process that in the end is the same thing as accumulation--you can't reach the end of being happy. My characters would be quite prepared to be satisfied with their lot if they got different "messages" from the outside world. The main point is the relation between contentment, work, and convenience. The messages society gives us of work are always negative, always connected with the idea of obligation. Everything to do with convenience, from the simplest level of domestic gadgetry up to the most sophisticated form of upper-class luxury, is conveyed through highly positive images. There's even a point where the switch occurs, where convenience metamorphoses into an art of living, an ideal of life where having becomes a model of being, where accumulation turns into an exemplary style of living.
Q: What kind of accumulation are we talking about?
GP: It's as if there existed true bourgeois values over and above capitalist ones, not the value of saving but its opposite, as if collecting knickknacks, heavy things in gold, silver, pewter, brass was a purely aesthetic matter, an art of living--not at all a matter of accumulation. What poisons the lives of Jerome and Sylvie is the tension between these minor moments of real happiness and the art of living they dream of. They only escape when they've partly put that kind of dream in check; my book is the story of moving from the conditional to the future--and to the present. In a word, a process of mastering dreams.
Q: So your conclusion is optimistic?
GP: The ending is neither positive nor negative. It opens on to ambiguity; to my mind it's both a happy ending and the saddest conclusion you could imagine, it's a logical ending.... What could be more natural than working to earn a living? For a young intellectual, there are only two solutions, each as desperate as the other--to become a bourgeois, or not to....
Q: It's not just the end of Things that is ambiguous, it's the whole book.
GP: That's right. I don't deny the ambiguity. For me, it's a way of asking a question to which I do not know the answer. All I hope is that I've asked the right question. I must say also that the book was in the beginning two different plans: first an exercise on Barthes's Mythologies, that's to say, on advertising language as it is reflected within us, then a barely heightened description of a particular social set, which happens to be my own. That's perhaps why it took me three years, not to write the book, but to extract, from everything I had written, the 120 final pages of my book. Because everything was a problem: should I give the characters individual, specific lives? Should I have them talk to each other, and about what? An author has little freedom with respect to his characters. He can be above them, or inside them. I chose to stand beside them. Maybe it'll be held against me, like an easy way out; but I'm keen on keeping my options of drawing closer to them or moving further away from them, as I wish.
Q: Doesn't that distance necessarily imply coldness?
GP: Definitely. That's undoubtedly my greatest debt to Flaubert. The essence of Flaubert is that tension between almost epileptic lyricism and rigorous discipline. It's that kind of passionate coldness that I wanted to adopt, without always managing it.
Q: It's your main debt, you said, but not the only one. Apart from the Flaubertian attitude towards your characters, and sentence rhythms constantly reminiscent of Sentimental Education, there are whole sentences lifted from Flaubert into Things, like collages.
GP: That's quite right, and I stand by that. I used Flaubert on three levels: first, the three-part sentence rhythm, which had become a kind of personal tic; second, I borrowed some exemplary figures from Flaubert, ready-made elements, a bit like Tarot cards--the journey by boat, the demonstration, the auction, for instance.... And third, there are sentences copied over, purely and simply pasted in.
Q: What is that really about?
GP: I don't know for sure, but it seems to me that for some time now, in fact since the surrealists, we are moving towards a kind of art that could be called "citational," and which permits a certain progress, since the point where our predecessors finished up becomes our own point of departure. It's a device I like a lot, that I like to play with. At any rate, it helped me a great deal. At one point I was utterly stuck, and the act of choosing a model in that way, of inserting cuttings, so to speak, into my material, got me over my block. For me, collage is like a grid, a promise, and a condition of discovery. Of course, my ambition isn't to rewrite Don Quixote like Borges's Pierre Menard, but I would for instance like to rewrite my favorite Melville story, "Bartleby the Scrivener" It's a text I wanted to write: but since it's impossible to write a text that already exists, I wanted to rewrite it--not to pastiche it, but to make a new Bartleby--well, the same one actually, but a bit more ... as if it were me who'd done it. It's an idea that seems to me invaluable for literary creation, much more promising than the mere business of writing well that Tel Quel and other reviews of that kind go on about. It's a desire to place yourself in a line that acknowledges all the literature of the past. So you bring your personal museum to life, you reactivate your literary reserves. Anyway, Flaubert is not my only model, not the only thing I've collaged. There are less obvious models. Nizan and The Conspiracy, Antelme and The Human Race.
Q: So, despite what's been said, then, that way of looking at literature has nothing in common with Robbe-Grillet?
GP: That doesn't matter. Robbe-Grillet keeps to the surface of things, he uses very neutral words, what Barthes calls a "transitive language," or else psychoanalytically loaded words that recur in his books like obsessive themes. What I wanted, on the contrary, was for my words to be "injected" with meaning, loaded with resonance. Fitted carpet, for instance: for me, that phrase conveys a whole system of values--specifically, the value-system imposed by advertising. So much so that you could say that, in places, my book is a piece of advertising copy; but, obviously, with distance, and with the irony that distance brings. The words I use do not designate objects, or things, but signs. They are images. Things is the story of poverty inextricably tangled up with the image of wealth, as Roland Barthes wrote to me.
Q: What is also very striking is a kind of uncommittedness in your characters. But several times you say they are "on the Left." Why?
GP: Oh well, there's the Algerian war, after all. As students they are naturally, spontaneously engages in the struggle against that war. At a time when the Latin Quarter was patrolled, under siege every day, you couldn't forget the war. But when Jerome and Sylvie stop being students, the war, which hasn't stopped, remains the sole surviving constituent of a "hard" political awareness. It is for them the totality of political action. When the war ends, or even when Jerome and Sylvie grasp that it's going to end, their awareness of being on the Left becomes an empty conscience. When they lose the Algerian war, they lose their sign of identity. They never find new grounds for opposition.
Q: In a word, they're retired activists; would that be why some people saw themselves portrayed in Jerome and Sylvie?
GP: Yes, you could say that. I think the reader feels challenged for another reason--because the book describes not people but a relationship. And since we all have a pretty similar relationship to objects ...
Q: But in that case, doesn't this book about everybody become nobody's book?
GP: Maybe. In any case, a book that does well is always suspect. It must have been "recuperated." The author can't do anything about that. The dominant ideology always finds a way of annexing him. Especially when the book is ambiguous, like mine.
Q: And will your next book resolve the ambiguity?
GP: Not really. Because A Man Asleep is in a different place. As it stands at the moment, it describes the dark side of a reality shown in Things exclusively on its glittering side. It's no longer fascination ... I'm concerned far more with words like indifference, solitude, refusal, giving up. And paradoxically, whereas in Things the details were autobiographical without the book as a whole being so, in my new book I'm trying to recover a particular period in my own life by using elements that are not autobiographical themselves, or not very much....
Q: Proust is in fashion this year....
GP: The title comes from Proust, at any rate. But don't make me say any more. I feel as though I'm moving the camera with which I'm taking photographs.
Translated by David Bellos
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|Author:||Benabou, Marcel; Marcenac, Bruno|
|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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