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Perec's Jewishness.

Georges Perec's "History of the Lipogram" begins with references to the Zohar, to Rabbi Simeon, to the cabala, and to the three main directions of cabalistic exegesis: gematry, notarikon, and temurah. This majestic demonstration of learning (copied over from Gershon Scholem) ends on a pirouette: "A considerably diminished echo of these vertiginous preoccupations seems to me to resound still in the case of the lipogram."(1) I shall take my cue from Perec; since he thought it proper to use the cabala and the Zohar as a way into the lipogram, I shall use Origen and biblical exegesis as a way into Perec.

In the Commentaries on the Psalms of David, Origen, the leading Christian theologian of the early third century, relates a curious parable allegedly borrowed from a "learned Hebrew": "The Holy Scriptures ... are like a house of many rooms; at each door there is a key, but it is not the right key; the keys to all the rooms have been switched, and you have to find which key will open which room."(2) We could do worse than spend a moment reflecting on this ancient Jewish parable, teasing out its application. The house of many rooms signifying the Torah (as if the Torah were but the visible product of the juxtaposition of a specific number of spaces); the keys so mysteriously switched (by a dybbuk?); the whole architectural metaphor, in sum, is insistently reminiscent of something; and the play on "rooms" and "keys" bears a strange resemblance to other games with which Perec has made us familiar. One of the "earliest memories" recounted in W or The Memory of Childhood is, "stated simply," this: "my father comes home from his work; he gives me a key" (14). We should perhaps paraphrase Perec's own text, quoted above, and say that a scarcely diminished echo of the vertiginous preoccupations of Origen and his Jewish predecessors resounds quite firmly still at the core of Perec's own writing, and thus arrive at the core of our subject. All we would then have to do would be to find other Jewish parables that could be read as "anticipatory plagiarisms" of works by Perec; but that is not the direction in which we shall proceed. I shall limit myself to the most obvious interpretation of the rabbinical utterance, and apply it as it stands to Perecquian writing which, like the Holy Scripture, is apparently beset with difficulties about keys, or clues. The wide range of divergent readings is proof of that.

For the last twenty years, a whole clutch of keys has been jangling at Perec's door: the oldest and now slightly rusty key, sociology, was first used for Things and, more recently, for other, later publications; then there is the autobiographical key, the Oulipian key, the Jewish key, the metatextual key - an ample sufficiency of Yales, mortices, and sesames to discourage all but the keenest of aspiring interpreters.

Far from discounting any of these approaches, I would stress that they most often derive from hints given by Perec himself, who was by no means averse to suggesting reading strategies and user's manuals for his own works. "The eye follows the paths that have been laid down for it in the work" is the epigraph of Life A User's Manual, an epigraph taken from Paul Klee (rhyming in French with clef, "key"), and it is self-evidently a key-formula (a "Klee-formula") that Perec seems to have applied to every one of his works. In every one of Perec's books, there is a subtitle, a piece of flap copy, a foreword, preamble, or afterword in which the artist takes care to "lay down a path" for his reader to follow.

But the standard keys on the Perecquian key ring seem to me to raise as many difficulties as they provide solutions. The main problem can be summed up in two points: (1) each key's first cutter is eager to have it used as a master, even if it means forcing the locks that have the bad grace to resist; (2) the leads which you think Perec gives you in this or that hint are far from straightforward: the writer only says what he wants to say in the context of a writing enterprise whose ramified complexity has yet to be fully grasped. There is therefore no reason to take him at his word. The path he points to, in this or that case, may just as probably be a trap, a means of deflecting the reader's eye; great caution is always required with Perec, the deception expert, who, like Ferri the Eyetie (in Life A User's Manual [356]), does a very special line in double covers.

The theme of Jewishness is not an easy theme in Perec and the fact that I have chosen to write about it does not mean that I think all of Perec's work can be related or reduced to Jewishness. The Jewish key, however great its role in the instigation of Perec's writing career, however important it might have been in the works left unwritten, will not open all the doors of his house.

Georges Perec's relationship to his Jewishness went through phases of opacity and transparence, and his declarations on the subject are so complex that, irrespective of his good faith (or of what Harry Mathews called "the intensity and unique candor which emanates from his works"), they cannot be treated as the last word on the matter. As we shall see, some of the most obvious traces and signs of Jewish foundations are not located exactly where Perec would have put them himself.

In the following pages, "Jewishness" means both the fact of being Jewish (objective Jewishness) and the way of being Jewish (subjective Jewishness); and "Judaism" means not only the religious faith, but also the whole set of cultural values attached to Jewishness.

1. The Gap Made Manifest

There are a number of allusions to Jews and Judaism in the works of Georges Perec:

- "wearers of invisible stars" in A Man Asleep,

- a "Yid from Munich running from the Anschluss" in La Disparition;

- references to the Zohar and the cabala in "History of the Lipogram";

- various dreams where Jewishness crops up in connection with public order - arrest, denunciation, internment - in La Boutique obscure (notably, dreams 16 and 124);

- the celebrated pages on childhood and family in the autobiographical chapters of W or The Memory of Childhood,

- the passage elaborating on Perec's special relationship with Ellis Island as a place of exile and his interviews of immigrants of Jewish origin in the television documentary Ellis Island: Tales of Vagrancy and Hope,

- a reference to The Golem, also mentioned in Ellis Island,

- finally, there are two named Jewish characters in the milling microcosm of Life A User's Manual: the ethnologist Marcel Appenzzel, and Albert Cinoc, whose profession is given as that of "word-killer."

Perec's published answers to interviewers' questions about his Jewishness must also be taken into account, especially those given in Paris in 1979 (published in L'Arc 76) and in Warsaw in 1981 (published in Litteratures in 1983).

Except for the particular statements in certain passages of W and Ellis Island, there are few references in Perec's fiction to Judaism, or to the theme of Jewishness, and thus we hardly feel encouraged to make this theme alone a topic for study. Since Perec is an author who uses accumulation, even saturation as a favorite technique, his painstaking understatement deserves to be highlighted. Similar things were said about Kafka, who was even more discreet, since the word Jewish never once appears in his work!

This omission appears to achieve the impossible. Kafka's discretion about Judaism goes hand in hand with a deep understanding of Jewish culture and an extraordinary openness to the various currents running through the Jewish world of his time. His daily entries in the Diaries prove this. But in Perec's case it seems to be mainly the natural result of ignorance, of an absence of basic Jewish education, compounded by indifference and lack of curiosity. Perec knew next to nothing about Judaism either as a religion or as a culture. He did not understand Yiddish or Hebrew, and outside the events of the war, he does not show any particular interest in any period of what might be called "Jewish history." When he tries to imagine his mother's childhood, for example, he settles for a completely literary phantasmagoria built around the memory of the stories he read in his own childhood - Andersen's The Little Match Girl, the story of Cosette at the Thenardiers' (from Hugo's Les Miserables), or the pictures of Tom Thumb and his brothers - when the information about Lubartow and its population, half of it Jewish, could easily be found in the Encyclopedia Judaica.

Georges Perec probably does not speak of Jewish people more frequently, does not touch on Judaism in its concrete, historical existence with a little more competence, simply because he has nothing to say on the subject. What stops him seems to be an inbuilt hesitation when faced with a subject which has no familiarity for him. Perec's work is obviously at the other end of a whole spectrum of postwar Jewish literature, far removed from all those American and French writers for whom the Jewish experience is constantly and clearly present, and becomes (in different ways) the sole theme of an oeuvre, of a whole life. Elie Wiesel, for example, built his life and work around his role as a witness of the Holocaust.

When Georges Perec does venture out of his reserve, when he goes to the trouble of giving details of a precise Jewish reality, the result is not always convincing.

1. The various errors - found and corrected by Perec himself - which creep into W:

- first of all in the identification of a Hebrew character (the well-known sign "shaped like a square with a gap in its lower left-hand corner") on p. 13;

- then in the transcription of his mother's surname (where Szulewicz is transformed into Schulevitz with three spelling mistakes), and of his grandmother's surname (Klajnlerer becomes Klajnerer), on pp. 38-39.

2. There is also the rather obscure paragraph devoted to the etymology of the name "Peretz" on pp. 35-36. We learn here that "Beretz, like Baruch or Barek, is formed from the same root as Peretz." This is incorrect. , the root from which Peretz is taken, and which has meanings related to "gap" or "breach," has nothing to do with ,the root of "Baruk," which has meanings related to the idea of "benediction." What a pity that Perec should have taken the trouble to give us a groundless philological detail and yet not have felt it necessary to tell us more about the venerable and remote eponym of his family! For Peretz, who appears on numerous occasions in both the Old and New Testaments, is far from being an insignificant character. He was the son of Judah and Tamar. Before marrying Judah, Tamar had successively been married to two of Judah's own sons, Er and Onan. Peretz's direct descendants would include none other than Boaz, King David, and Jesus of Nazareth. Imagine what a story Perec could have written with that material!

3. One could also point to the mistaken letter in the Hebrew inscription that is supposed to be in Cinoc's room, in Life A User's Manual (409). It should read (shaddai) but Perec writes resh ( ) instead of daleth in the middle position.

These are only tiny mistakes, which I am perhaps stressing too much. However, I feel that the letter-muddle that occurs in Perec every time a Jewish name or a Hebrew word is involved cannot be insignificant. These muddles are surprising, to say the least, in a writer well known for his precise attention to letters, to their shape, to their presence and their absence, to their organization - in an author, moreover, who can quote the story of the Golem, which crumbles to dust when the mere aleph is erased from the word emeth on his forehead - in a writer who knows that fate can sometimes don the mask of the alphabet.

This carelessness, this absence of a real curiosity about anything related to a Jewish past is accompanied by overt indifference to anything that closely or distantly resembles Jewish community life. Perec was never one of the "organic" Jewish intellectuals. He never joined in the Jewish community's internal debates, in its passions, its campaigns, its myths. As for Zionism, Perec never attempted to hide his distance from it.(3)

Once this sketch depicting a straightforward gap has been drawn, we should look towards Perec's own admissions and examine how he lived with this situation. There are in fact two texts on this subject. One is in L'Arc: "I am Jewish. For a long time the meaning of this was not clear to me; it did not mean being attached to a religion, to a people, to a history, to a language, barely even to a culture." The other is from Ellis Island: "I don't know exactly what it is to be a Jew, or what effect being a Jew has on me; there's something obvious about it, I suppose, but it's a low-grade obviousness that doesn't connect me with anything. It isn't a sign of belonging, it doesn't have to do with belief, or religion or a code of behavior, a way of life, or a language."(4)

I don't have to emphasize how close these two more or less contemporary texts are to each other. We can see a slight variation in the reference to what is perfectly obvious. The "this was not clear to me" of the first text is corrected to "something obvious ... but a low-grade obviousness" in the second. It is as if, in the space between writing the two texts, the first more spontaneous, the second more considered and literary, a seed of awareness had been sown. Whatever it is, in both texts, the relationship to Judaism is above all presented as the sum of a series of negations, which precisely delineate the gap which we have identified in the work.

What is perhaps more interesting to note is that this collection of negations is accepted as an unquestionable theme in itself. None of that was laid down in advance. That is why I felt it worthwhile to try to establish how Perec reached this kind of "absolute zero-degree Jewishness" which he felt was his.

2. Background

Perec was the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. His father died in the war, and his mother was lost in a Nazi concentration camp. His own life could have followed quite a different path. His personal history, marked so harshly by the blows of "History with a capital H," could have taken another direction and his Jewishness another content. For example, he could have become the very archetype of the rebellious victim, of the Jew who tirelessly denounces the scandal of hatred and persecution and tries constantly to draw lessons from it.

It is partly in this light that Perec seems to have appeared at the end of his adolescence. Jean Duvignaud, who was his teacher at Etampes, recalled this "image of the exasperated-looking final-year student in the schoolyard" and the comment of a member of staff that "the rebellious young Jew had to be taken in hand." However, this fleeting image soon went into eclipse. Rebellion and Jewishness became separate things for Perec, and the latter was less important.

Then, as Perec said in the Warsaw interview, a long period of "occultation" of childhood, of "rejection of the past" began, and it did not end until W was published. As a student in Paris, Georges Perec belonged to the generation that discovered politics, philosophy, and the world in the late 1950s. It was the period of La Ligne generale, a Marxist review that Perec and his friends wanted to launch, a key period and vital turning point in Perec's development which none of his biographers have yet mentioned, an epoch made fun of with wistful irony in Quel petit velo a guidon chrome au fond de la cour? (1966). It was a period heavily marked by a fascination with Marxism and revolution, by the search for justice, by a taste for universals. That was when Perec developed an allergy to the religious side of Judaism (since it contradicted his lay ideals), and to Zionism (since it ran directly counter to internationalist dreams).

Thus, for Perec as for most of the Jews of his generation, Jewishness seems to have had no substance. Not long after the war's end, Sartre's reflections on "The Jewish Question" had given historically convenient authority to the idea that a Jew is only a Jew in the eye of the Other. So for one section of the French Jewish community, being Jewish became nothing more than a contingent fact, a genealogical detail. Jewishness meant nothing more than the vague awareness of being a Jew.

However, though it made apparently few demands on its holders, this position was not always tenable in the long term. In a good many cases, minimal Jewishness, Jewishness reduced to almost nothing, produced results out of all proportion to its apparent substance. This next-to-nothingness was a word weighed down with history, a name shared with others who carried on giving it a positive meaning, a name that sufficed to keep alive in many people the awareness of a difference. What sets it apart is that it is not a question of being different from other people, from non-Jewish people (which is normally almost imperceptible); it is a more subtle difference, more insistent, a difference that separates the so-called assimilated Jew from the whole Jewish past and thus from a part of himself. Thus for many Jews who thought in fact that they had answered it, the painful question of identity came back into the foreground. Jacques Derrida states this quite clearly in Writing and Difference. "To say one is Jewish would be another way of expressing the impossibility of being oneself" Perec's words in Ellis Island seem to echo Derrida's: "in some way I'm estranged from myself; in some way I am |different' - not different from others, but from |my own people.'"

Things follow on like clockwork. The crack that starts off with questioning and doubting identity brings with it its own corollaries: the impression of being deprived of belonging, of being at odds with something, the acute feeling of a lack of something, of an absence, all become the common themes of a whole group of Jewish writers.

This state of mind can be shown by several quotations. These remarks are made by Edmond Jabes when he gives written replies to questions people have asked him: "I feel that I exist only outside of any belonging. That non-belonging is my very substance.... That non-belonging - with the availability it allows me - is also what brings me close to the very essence of Judaism and, generally, to the Jewish destiny." Or in a slightly different vein: "It is indeed the impossibility of being an |untroubled Jew,' a Jew at peace, anchored in his certainties, that has made me the kind of Jew I think I am. This may seem paradoxical, but it is precisely in that break - in that non-belonging in search of its belonging - that I am without a doubt most Jewish."(5)

A younger man, Alain Finkielkraut, who has no direct experience of either the war or persecution, writes in Le Juif imaginaire: "What makes me Jewish is the acute awareness of something missing, of a perpetual absence."

This attitude is in fact very close to what emerges in fragments of Perec's work, notably in the following lines from Ellis Island: "what is found here ... are by no means landmarks, roots or traces but the opposite: something formless, at the limits of expression, something which I can call a fence, a split or a break, and which for me is most intimately and most confusingly linked to the fact that I am Jewish." Or again this part of the interview in L'Arc: "In fact, [Jewishness] was the mark of an absence, of a lack (the death of my parents during the war), and not of an identity (in both senses of the word) - being oneself and being the same as others."

All these statements have one obvious point in common, a common theme which is all the more disturbing in writers whom we would never normally associate with Perec at all, since they have such differing backgrounds, destinies, and works. Without going into any further biographical detail, it is absolutely clear that Perec followed exactly the same path as many other postwar Jewish intellectuals, whilst believing in good faith that his experience of life was connected solely to his own individual history. It is a path that starts from the (relative) comfort of ignorance and refusal, and that arrives at unease, a feeling of something having been breached, of a non-belonging, of something missing.

It is hardly surprising that Perec, despite the acute sociological awareness running through nearly all his work from Things to Especes d'espaces, failed to grasp the collective nature of this phenomenon and never tried to analyze it seriously. At any rate, it's no more surprising than his misadventures with the Hebrew alphabet.

3. Development: Themes and a Grid

In the beginning was a gap. Once it's been noticed, we all set about filling the gap as best we can. Here is Edmond Jabes again: "It is from the starting point of an absence that we decide to write, that we speak." On several occasions, Perec tells us how he perceives his own approach to writing. At the outset he had a feeling of a break, a crack, a fracture, a severance: "I was plunged into nothingness; all the threads were broken," he writes in W, apropos of his time as a parachutist. In the back-panel copy [printed after the title page in the English translation], he names "the break" as "the point of departure for the whole of the book." Writing is what enables him to face up to what he has defined as a gap which is not a lack of something, but a fundamental condition of absence.

But once it has triggered the process of writing, the "gap" has only achieved part of its function. The other part involves making its presence felt in the very product of writing. "Gapness" is first of all an explicit theme, as in W or The Memory of Childhood, before becoming what Magne has called a "textual structure" in Life A User's Manual. As Magne has shown, Life A User's Manual is constructed from an inventory that includes empty rooms, along with unusual objects, disfigured characters, widows and orphans, unfinished stories and incomplete projects - a radical proliferation of gaps and gapness. A Man Asleep, La Boutique obscure, and Ellis Island are no less full of such things.

Writing that speaks of gaps in this way will naturally try to fill all available space; it will become an assertion of the spaces to be filled; and it is the art of writing itself that becomes the foundation, which is the means by which things can be restructured. For writing is the sole domain where what life has made unreal can finally be realized. For example, to find lost relatives: "I write because they left in me their indelible mark, whose trace is writing... Writing is the memory of their death and the assertion of my life" (W 42). We should point out that this function of writing as a link with the dead is also found in other contemporary Jewish authors, such as Elie Wiesel: "Thus, for me, the act of writing is often nothing other than the violent or obscure urge to etch a few words on a tombstone" (from Chants de morts). Another impossibility overcome is the examination of the self which takes a unique shape in Perec's work. "The idea of writing the story of my past arose almost at the same time as the idea of writing," he says in W (26), before quoting two texts written "fifteen years earlier." This statement echoes and complements what is said in L'Arc: "I think that I began to feel Jewish when I began to tell the story of my childhood." What Perec reveals in this double admission is a quasi-equivalence between the three actions of writing, of writing his own story, and of feeling Jewish - as if, in the last analysis, they were but three aspects of the same action, as if each book had the function (amongst others) of being a staging post on the path back to finding the self.

It is therefore not at all surprising to find, even in works which are apparently entirely fictional and produced by a rigid set of formal constraints, the scattered fragments of a set of themes which only take on their true meaning if they are related to Jewishness (if needs be, by means of various mediations not always easy to detect). And even if we reject the idea that Perec links himself to these Jewish themes either by choice or by drifting towards them unconsciously, one can at least put forward yet another idea, more in keeping with Perec's "citational" habits, an idea which brings these themes back to a particular model. It is a model which exists. Perec was always keen to identify himself, as a Jew and as a writer, with Franz Kafka.

Among the many points that Perec and Kafka share, the most significant is perhaps their careful and curious use of names. Marthe Robert draws attention to the fact that in Kafka, "all proper nouns are plays on words, words with double or triple meanings." It is much the same in Perec. He goes to great lengths to create names. The finest flowers of Perec's onomastic craft are, obviously, W (in lieu of Kafka's K), and Bartlebooth. The latter is a portemanteau bulging with contradictory connotations, since the two characters to which it refers, Melville's Bartleby and Larbaud's Barnabooth, are complete opposites which almost cancel each other out. By Perec's own admission, Bartleby "arouses an uneasy feeling - strangeness, estrangement, the incurable, the inachievable, emptiness."(6) He is associated with negation. Barnabooth, on the other hand, is a symbol of wealth, of positiveness. The character given a name that "synthesizes" the two is therefore necessarily the bearer of an unbearable contradiction, struggling with a permanent identity crisis.

In this context, it is right to pay special attention to Perec's treatment of the two Jewish characters in Life A User's Manual One of them, Albert Cinoc, bears a strange resemblance to Perec himself: he is a Jew of Polish origin, bearing a name which causes pronunciation problems [at least in French], spelled in a way which is the result of a sequence of transcriptions. And Cinoc's life, like Perec's, is entirely devoted to words - removing from dictionaries words fallen into disuse or editing a great dictionary of forgotten words, Cinoc's career, in La Vie mode d'emploi (Life A User's Manual), revolves around les mots vides d'emploi, "words devoid of use."

The second character, Marcel Appenzzell, whose name is a variant spelling of a Swiss canton, is an Austrian Jew. The reasons for Perec's choice of this name are quite obscure - until you look in a French rhyming dictionary. For "Appenzell" (the Swiss canton spelled correctly) is one of only three words that rhyme in French with "pretzel." Perec has of course already told us in W or The Memory of Childhood that he believes that "pretzel" is a diminutive derived from the same root as the name "Peretz" - and so we have another clue, laid through a web of overlaid transformations, to a special relationship between the author and the character called Appenzzel. In Perec's works, names not only serve to identify characters, they also serve to highlight the identity problems that face them, and that face their creator also.

There are other similarities between Perec and Kafka. Besides their taste for names, there is their taste for numbers (shared by Raymond Queneau), and for playing with numbers, which obviously stands in the tradition of the cabala. Above all, the general tone of the stories told by Perec and Kafka have an uncanny resemblance, with characters who are permanently under threat, who do not always avoid the disaster that will bring their efforts to nought, and who basically never reach any salvation. This comes across in the writing through the constant questioning of what seemed to have been established. Every assertion is at some time or other corrected by a doubt. Apparent certainties suddenly fall under the shadow of ambiguity; and the explanations put forward for a particular mystery do not always make it any less inexplicable. Finally, our two authors are similar even in their taste for self-representation. To quote Marthe Robert again:

It can be seen how Kafka's work constantly bears his own image, how it always comes back to its own genesis, to its own meaning, to what makes its drama and its impossibility. Art is seen here as if in a mirror which reflects it indefinitely, or in one of those pictures showing a scene featuring the same painting in miniature. Embedded in the very substance of language, placed at the center or relegated to an almost invisible nook of the story, he constantly has himself in mind and reveals himself.(7)

Readers of life A User's Manual are well aware of the role that Perec gives to this kind of self-mirroring, a device valued also by Raymond Roussel, another one of Perec's literary models.

Some of these themes of course can be found in authors who have nothing to do with Jewishness, but it remains true that as a whole, their coherence ends up creating a network in which the Jewish reader soon finds himself on familiar ground. Especially when, as is the case with Perec, there are other traits in addition which are traditionally considered inseparable from Jewish thought: the desire for an exegesis, and the exegesis concerning the very work of the exegete; the need to exhaust all the possibilities of a thought, of a line of reasoning, and to exhaust all the consequences of a word or an image.

In this sense, there is a kind of compensating balance negotiated between the almost complete absence of outward forms of Jewishness and the by no means insignificant presence of themes linked to a vision of the Jewish condition and of attitudes close to the Jewish intellectual tradition. The effective catalyst of this alchemy, which can conjure up an idea without actually stating it and transform an apparent absence into a milling presence, is not the least of Perec's achievements as a writer. In fact, it is the result of extensive thinking about literature which has so far escaped mention in writing about Perec, and which must be ignored no longer.

It was when Perec wrote about concentration camp literature, in an essay on Robert Antelme's l'Espece humaine, that he first put forward a set of ideas that remained his basic vision of the relationship between truth and literature, and which can be summed up in a few words: the purpose of writing is to convey an experience not by presenting a collection of facts and descriptions, but by developing them, by transforming them, by fitting them into a specific literary framework. In his panegyric of Antelme, Perec wrote:

Robert Antelme refuses to treat his experience as a whole, as a given, as something that speaks for itself, as something that goes without saying. He fractures it. He questions it. He could have done no more than refer to it, he could have done no more than stand there and show his wounds without comment. But Antelme places between his own experience and his readers a grid or discovery procedure, the grid of memory, of unremitting self-awareness. What is left implicit in other concentration camp literature is the plain obviousness of what a camp is, the obviousness of the horror, of a total world closed in on itself, which is summoned up as a single entity. But in l'Espece humaine the camp is never simply a given. It constructs itself, it emerges bit by bit. The camp is first mud, then hunger, then cold, then beatings, then hunger again, and lice. Then all that together.(8)

If we now re-read W or The Memory of Childhood, published in 1975, in the light of these lines, published in 1963, the coherence of Perec's thought can be seen clearly, for Perec's approach in this disturbing book seems to be a perfect extension of Antelme's own. For instance, the slow discovery of the truth about the camplike nature of W's society is quite simply a masterly application of a principle of writing which Perec first found in Antelme.

Perec never abandoned this principle, that the true writer should place a structure between his own experience and his readers. Use of a structure means that writing is never simply swayed by experience, just as later, the use of Oulipian constraint meant that writing would never be swayed by random inspiration. These two points render unto Perec's oeuvre the profound unity that it possesses.

It can now be seen more clearly what was at stake in the painful and clumsy struggle between Perec and his Jewishness - nothing less than his self-image as a writer. Perec's art was to invent the most elegant solution to the problem. Though he does not wear his Jewishness on his sleeve (like many others of his generation), he is perfectly able to give it expression. Furthermore, instead of staying stuck in an early attitude, Perec managed to move some distance from the purely negative Jewishness of his youth to an awareness of a Jewishness with positive features. In this movement, Perec was anticipating the roots of an answer to what would be left as the main question outstanding, the question of origins, and which he intended to tackle in Histoire d'Esther [an unfinished family saga, also called L'Arbre, The Tree], a project he had put off for years but which, as he said in 1979, he could not put off much longer.


(1) Georges Perec, "History of the Lipogram" (1970), in Warren Motte, Jr., Oulipo: A primer of potential literature (Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1986). (2) Origen, Selecta in psalmos (Ps 1), in Migne, Patrol latin., 12, col. 1080. (3) See, for example, La Boutique obscure (Paris: Denoel, 1973), dream 16. (4) Georges Perec and Robert Bober, Ricits d'Ellis Island. Histoires d'errance et d'espoir (Paris: Le Sorbier, 1981). The quotations are from an unpublished English translation by Harry Mathews, read as a voice-over in the English-language version of the film. The French film is available as a videocassette from Le Seuil. (5) Edmond Jabes, From the Desert to the Book: Dialogues with Marcel Cohen, trans. Pierre Joris (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1990), 29, 64. (6) Georges Perec, letter to Denise Getzler, in Litteratures 7 (1983). (7) Marthe Robert, Kafka (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), 70. (8) Georges Perec, "Robert Antelme ou la verite de la litterature," Partisans 8 (1963): 121-34.
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Title Annotation:Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau
Author:Benabou, Marcel; Bellos, David
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:Phago-citations: Barthes, Perec, and the transformation of literature.
Next Article:'W or The Memory of Childhood.' (Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau)

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