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The doing of fiction.

GP: I began writing, I was twenty about. I am now forty-five and I think I learn how to write. I know how to write stories and even poetry and dramas, I could say, and it's my way of living in a sense. I can't imagine a life in which I won't spend some hours every day writing. I can't say exactly why I started writing. I can say now that I am in great familiarity with language and it's a kind of, I could say, struggle. I began with French language and fiction in which I try to do what I told you about the boy child with the alarm clock when I try to undo the letters and sentences and paragraphs and chapters and books and to reorganize the game.

When I was twenty about, there was some twenty authors I loved, I liked very much, and they drew a kind of puzzle between them. They were Michel Leiris and Jules Verne and Roussel and Flaubert and Stendhal and all of them were different but all of them had something in common - some frontieres, borders, and I could draw a puzzle with them and somewhere in the puzzle there was a space in which I will myself move and then when I take my books, I think that all my books are different one from each other and all have something in common and again they draw a kind of puzzle in which there is a blank space which is the new book I am going to prepare. And of course, the blank spaces, the white spaces, blanks will always ... it has to stay there. And what I can hope for readers and people who will write after me, that I will take the place of one of these pieces of puzzle and give way to somebody to write again after my death. I mean, of course, if there is a temporal thing in all that, that is, that I will live from 1936 to, I don't know, and then my work will be, sometime, will be both unfinished and finished. Unfinished because what I have to say is everything. I mean, as every writer, I would like to say everything in every way possible. I like to write stories for children of six when they begin to read and I would like to write science-fiction and detective novels and bandes dessinees, cartoons, and music for operas - not music, libretto, and I want to do dramas and comedy and film scripts. I would like to work in all fields of literature and to, I would like to use, at the end of my life, I would like to have used all the words of the dictionary. That's impossible. That's my ambition. That's why I write and how I write at the same time.

KM: Perhaps one way to situate your work might be in the context of the group of writers "OuLiPo."

GP: Yes. OuLiPo means Ouvroir de litterature potentielle. Ouvroir is a kind of workshop and "potential literature," we have to define what is potential. The first name of the group was "experimental literature," then we find that the word experimental was too heavy to carry and we chose another term, "potential," which means to try to decipher what is in writing. We mean, by which way a writer can govern what he's trying to do. There is a play by Moliere, a man who is called M. Jourdain and he makes poetry without knowing he is doing so - il fait de la poesie sans le savoir. Il fait de la prose sans le savoir - without knowing it. We want to know, the Oulipian writer makes prose knowing it. We want to know what we are doing and want to experiment what we are doing and we want to choose pattern and models and structure and contraintes. I don't know exactly what the name for contraintes is.

We are in front of writing like a little child who is playing with a clock, a riveil-matin, an alarm clock, and he will undo it in order to know how it works. And in a way we are like mathematicians. For instance, we put things like that: suppose there is no e in the language. How would we write a story without e? And the result of that is a book I wrote which was La Disparition. And suppose we want to do a text in which vowels would be introduced one by one. First a, then e, i, o, u, and again, a, e, i, o, u. A kind of sequence. We work a little like musicians. We do permutations, we do lipograms and all, there is a tradition which goes very far away. Oulipian began with Greek literature and then in the Middle Ages there was a great ouvrage called the "rhetoration" - "great rhetorics" - and in a lot of literary fields - in Arabic poetry - and Japanese poetry - and in novels too. At many times in the history of writing there were people who wanted to try to understand what they were doing when they did it. We like to function as a group, not as a movement.

We could say at first, that an Oulipian is a man who doesn't take literature seriously but who takes it as a play, as a game, but we think that play and game are serious things and in fact we were a little bored by people like the old Hugolian image of the god-shaped writer and we want to insist on the art of fiction. The doing of writing. We insist that, for instance, a form like tanka has great importance in Japanese poetry for about ten centuries and a form in European poetry like the sonnet has been preponderant for about the same length of time and we wonder why there are such structures and for a lot of time, from, in French literature, for instance, from Renaissance to Victor Hugo, there was no question about writing. You could learn at school how to write and write well and you can learn to write poetry. You have to count to twelve. The twelve, the alexandrine - that was a really great shape, a great pattern for poetry. Then it began with Victor Hugo and Baudelaire and then Mallarme and then Rimbaud and it was broken. Now we are obliged to find new forms, new ways of tracing our way through that thing which is so opaque. The writer, his first purpose is to say something to somebody else - and he has to find his way and his voice. He had to find something which will completely seduce the reader. We have to, first, to examine the old, old patterns that were at work in all novels and poetry and all things, and then we try to find new, new ways of, how we could say, to stimulate.

[Perec was then asked about his attitude to surrealism.]

GP: You know, surrealism was a group very important in the twenties but at the level of text production of fiction, of poetry it was limited by (comment dire: le hasard?) chance. It shows chance as a way of writing, like automatic writing and which used to be most, as most as possible, out of chance. We want to predict what we are doing and Raymond Queneau once said anybody can push the people, characters, like if it were a flock of sheep, and he pushed them and pushed them and through the pages he will arrive at something, something that people will read as a novel. And he said he couldn't support with something which was only like that. He wanted that the number of characters and the relation of the characters to be governed by a structure. He tried to program his inspiration. He tried to build the labyrinth through which he will have the best access to what he was trying to do.

We were, sometimes we were astonished by the way that through this apparently conscious process, the unconscious appears more likely and it's very obvious in some of our works. It's like when we try to decipher our own unconscious - through the conscious patterning. I think it, for instance, it reinforces it, for instance, when I was working without the letter e in my novel, the missing of the e was like a pump for me. All I had to invent was opening a lot of doors. Ca levait des barrieres.

Myself, I entered the OuLiPo in 1966, after my second novel exactly. And it was the end - the sixties were the end of what was called "Existentialism," litterature engagee - and Queneau was at that time a very particular figure in literature. He was related to another kind of tradition which was not very well known. He has been through surrealism but he was not - he has been only a very short time in the surrealistic movement and he was in a kind of border of experimental novel and poetry which was not recognized as itself. And through OuLiPo, through the existence of OuLiPo, there was now a kind of sensibility which is aware of what we could, of how to write, in a sense, is to take the dictionary, I mean reservoir of the language and syntax and all the tradition of novels and poetry and to try to do something else. Something which is a little different to what was before. Of course it's always the same kind of stories and the same kind of descriptions and the same kind of action and fiction and we only tried to strengthen again what happens between the writer and the reader and which is the text. I mean the text functions only if a reader will read it and so we have to, I put it, to seduce him.

KM: You mention the relationship for the first time, I think, between the writer and the reader and the text which is the relationship between them. How do you situate yourself in relationship to your readers, for instance?

GP: I represent myself as something like a chess player and playing a chess play with the reader and I must convince him, or her, to read what I wrote and he must begin the book and go until the end. If he doesn't, I miss my aim. And do you mean what happens when he did it? I don't know. I try, I only imagine that he can take as much pleasure and pain as I expended when I was writing.

KM: So you regard him as a sort of alter ego, who reads, who is reading?

GP: Not exactly - yes, at the end. But I mean during the process of reading, I consider him like a chess mate - somebody who is playing a part with me. The model for that kind of thing is the detective novel, all detective novels. And when you read a detective novel, you don't care really about who kills the victim and who is the murderer and you care only about, you wonder why you don't find. And it's very interesting because in a novel you try to play with what is true, what is false, what to think, what to - just to keep an aura of suspense in a sense - like Roland Barthes uses it. Something is suspendu - hanging - and it's a way of dreaming, of going elsewhere through the process of fiction. What is most important in a novel, it's, I could say it's not written. It's something which is behind the words and which is never said.

Yes, I consider that the most defined area is that of the novel, that of fiction.

I think I am, I could generalize a little, that in almost everything I am producing there is, we could say, a story and the story of the story. A fiction and a fiction about the fiction and like, it's like mirrors, and it doesn't end with the fiction and the fiction about the fiction - there'll be speculation about the fiction of the fiction and so on. And there is, I could say there is several levels.

KM: Have you, then, a personal definition of what you consider to be fiction?

GP: I don't think so. I can't - surtout en anglais - I can't think about it in a clear way. It's something which goes with dream and with construction of something who takes its part in what we are doing and seeing and hearing and living and a part which is completely made of substance of words and who depends so closely on what words are - how they function and language and even in writing - even in the physical act of writing. But I can't know exactly what the fiction is. It's like a mayonnaise, I should say.

KM: In fiction there is a narrative self, or there is some itinerary?

GP: I begin just now, from until a few weeks, to have something who could become later, very later, a theory about narration. And I only can give you an example. You know in linguistic theory people speak about morpheme and lexeme and so I think there is something which could be called the narrateme. That is a very tiny element that is, is like a pearl in a mother of pearl which will gradually become the fiction, become the narration. At the beginning there is almost nothing. I think Balzac does exactly this. You see, he began to write a book, two books, three books, then a character came back in another book and at the end the mass of the books looks like the description of the entire nineteenth century. And at the beginning it's only the linking characters from one book to another or inside a book the linking of details with their backgrounds which could be true or false....

I am, I was a great pedestrian. I like to walk in my town, in Paris, and I chose some years ago, 1969, twelve places in Paris and I decide I will go then every month and describe one of them and then I will try to write another text about the memories I have concerning that place. I do that program, not, I didn't do it all that long time and it was, I suppose it would be very interesting because I would get, when I finish, I would get three kinds of vieillissement - aging. The aging of the places, the aging of my writing, and the aging of my memories. And it was very difficult. It was a hard discipline. The interest was to try to get a very close view of what is to be seen in the street, or in the street scene. Most of the time we don't pay attention to what I call the quotidiennete, the everyday. For instance, we are not aware of how many cars are in our scenery and once I did a radio piece about Carrefour Mabillon where I enumerate all the cars and what I have was very terrifying, because we don't see them. We don't pay attention to what exactly is in front of our eyes. So when I do those texts, I try to be the most precise and flat, I could say, like if I was a Martian going through a city, going through something he doesn't know what it is and describes only by little pieces what's going on. I don't try to interfere and I don't try to put myself in the position other than an eye looking, but afterwards I think it will nourish some kind of fiction, some kind of details of some kind of everyday which I like to speak aloud.

I did another kind of thing which was called Je me souviens, "I Remember," in which I try to remember very tiny facts. Movies, or songs, or a way of dressing, or food we used to eat at certain times and it was like if I was working on a diary that could have been written by everybody of my generation in France, I mean it's not, it's very difficult to translate. And I think it's not fiction in itself but it's like a trampoline to fiction. For instance, it's like a trampoline to a kind of nostalgia, to a kind of sympathy. Sympathy between people who remember that some years ago when you took the underground in Paris they do a hole in your ticket.

KM: It's another type of petite madeleine.

GP: Yes, it's a kind of petite madeleine but it's a game that can be played with a lot of people. And I was astonished when I wrote the book in the beginning of 1978, I received a lot of letters from people who said I was wrong in my "souvenirs," in my memories. But it doesn't matter if I was wrong or right. And people send me their own memories of the same "I Remember." We think we remember very important facts and of course we have lived through very unimportant facts but which speak to us more strongly. Maybe the most important is that, this awareness of everyday. When I try to describe it, first I try to describe what I see. I mean reality. And when I try to remember, I try to remember reality but gradually reality is only transmitted through language, through writing. What is around the reality through the language is fiction and it's through fiction and language that people can communicate.

KM: A work of yours which is very closely linked to this area of language-reality is Tagstimmen, the piece which was done by the German radio which exists only in German.

GP: Tagstimmen was a work which was a commande. I was asked to do it with a musician whose name was Philippe Drogoz and with my German translator which is Eugen Helmle. What I was asked to do was to explore systematically the potentialities of human voice. That is to produce an Horspiel in which the voices would be organized in all their manifestations. For instance, whispering, shouting, singing, different ways of singing, children counting in school - human voice environment in everyday - and it was to be done in German. When I started to work with it I tried to choose a non-narrative line to incorporate two things that seem important to me: first was the length of life, that is from birth to death, then the length of day, that is from morning to evening, and then to transform the narrative elements. That means what happened to a man from his morning to evening in everybody's language - that is proverb. And so I chose a lot of proverbs, a lot of proverbs and I try to move them from line to line, from letters to letters until they become noise, which was a problem, for instance: l'avenir appartient a celui qui se leve tot. For instance if we choose "the early bird gets the worm," we would change one letter and "worm" will become "warm," for instance, and then from "warm" we could go to se leve tot and we change one letter and it's reve, l'avenir appartient a celui qui se reve tot - "who dreams soon." And then we go forward and then we do a kind of programming with all the elements. The problem was to translate them into German, so we worked with bilingual dictionaries and we chose proverbs and ready-made expressions and we worked on them until the work was achieved.

KM: The translating process, then, which you did for this work, or any translation, approximates fairly closely the sort of experiments we were talking about with OuLiPo. Translation is something like that. It's a schema.

GP: Yes. Translating is to impose oneself, to produce a text through a constraint which is represented by the original text. And for me, in a utopian way of thinking, there is no difference between languages. I would like to know a lot of languages, but unfortunately it takes too long to practice so I just am able to balbutiate in English. But it's very interesting to try to produce the same text when you start from a different one.
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Title Annotation:Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau
Author:Mortley, Kaye; Byrne, Jane M.
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Interview
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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