The old and the new: an introduction to Georges Perec.
Perec was educated at day schools in Paris and as a boarder at Etampes, a small town some fifty miles south of the city. He was not intellectually precocious, but in his final year he attracted the attention of his philosophy teacher, Jean Duvignaud, who encouraged him in his decision to be a writer. Perec's early attempts at fiction brought him no success at all, and it was not until he was nearly thirty that he got a book published. Les Choses (Things) won the Renaudot prize and made Perec famous for a brief spell. Thereafter, he brought out a new book nearly every year, but did not regain his first celebrity until La Vie mode d'emploi (Life A User's Manual) won the Prix Medicis in 1978. Only then was he able to leave his job as a scientific archivist and to work full-time as a writer. Perec completed no major work in the years remaining to him, but diversified his already wide-ranging activities. Stories, essays, filmscripts, poetry, puzzles, and squibs of new and challenging kinds flowed from his pen with bewildering ease. He fell ill towards the end of 1981 after a spell as writer-in-residence at the University of Queensland in Australia. He left an unfinished detective novel, "53 Days," and a vast and complex work which is only now coming into full view.
Perec led a modest life. He was never an intellectual celebrity and avoided the fevered debates of his age over structuralism, psychoanalysis, and theory. He belonged to no school, and all that he kept of his youthful Marxism was a gentle, ironic anarchism of the "Grouchist tendency." But though he rarely held forth on great issues, all his writing is shot through with intelligent reflection. As Claude Burgelin insists, Perec was by no means as isolated from the intellectual life of the Left Bank as he often chose to appear. 
Perec made his life in writing. His own dogged persistence is the obvious model for the artistic and intellectual passions that inhabit the characters of Life A User's Manual. His real ambition, he confessed with the modesty and arrogance of a great creator, was to write everything. He would have liked to add children's books, science fiction, strip cartoons, and libretti to the novels, plays, poems, puzzles, essays, and exercises that he did write, for there was nothing writable to which he would not have turned his hand and his craft with words - not even advertising copy. The absence of any traditional hierarchy of "literary kinds" is one of the most subversive and endearing features of the kaleidoscopic work which he left.
The range of possible approaches to his labyrinthine universe is correspondingly vast. In an irreverent German radio play which tears a lyric by Goethe to pieces, Perec has a simulated supercomputer rattle off all the index headings of current Goethe criticism:
Goethe and architecture Goethe and Aristotle Goethe and art Goethe and Bacon Goethe and beer Goethe and Beranger Goethe and Byron Goethe and Catholicism Goethe and charity Goethe and children Goethe and color theory Goethe and Cousin Goethe and death Goethe and democracy Goethe and despotism Goethe and disease Goethe and education Goethe and fame Goethe and the fatherland Goethe and Faust Goethe and freedom Goethe and the French Goethe and geology Goethe and the Germans Goethe and God Goethe and Gotz Goethe and Hegel Goethe and Herder Goethe and Homer Goethe and Hugo Goethe and Italy Goethe and Jean-Henri Meyer Goethe and the Jews Goethe and Kant Goethe and Knebel Goethe and Kotzebue Goethe and Lavater Goethe and literature Goethe and Luther Goethe and marriage Goethe and mathematics Goethe and memory Goethe and Merimee Goethe and monads Goethe and morals Goethe and morphology Goethe and Mrs. Goethe and Vulpius Goethe and nature Goethe and Newton Goethe and occultism Goethe and painting Goethe and pederasty Goethe and people Goethe and Pestalozzi Goethe and philology Goethe and philosophy Goethe and poetic composition Goethe and protestantism Goethe and reason Goethe and religion Goethe and the republic Goethe and Rieme Goethe and Saxony-Weimar Goethe and Schiller Goethe and Schiller Goethe and Schiller Goethe and Schiller Goethe and Schiller Goethe and Schiller Goethe and Schiller Goethe and Schiller Goethe and Schiller Goethe and Schiller RESTART Goethe and Schlegel Goethe and scholarship Goethe and science Goethe and Shakespeare Goethe and Sophocies Goethe and the soul Goethe and Madame de Stael Goethe and suffering Goethe and Tasso Goethe and theater Goethe and tobacco Goethe and Van Eyck Goethe and Voltaire Goethe and war Goethe and Werther Goethe and Wieland Goethe and Wilhelm Meister Goethe and women Goethe and Zacharias Werner Goethe and Zelter. (2)
A scratch list of plausible "Perec and" topics could be just as long. It is a measure of Perec's stature that the set of keys that open doors to the house of his writing, to use the image borrowed from Origen by Marcel Benabou, is already remarkably large. In this collection of essays and extracts, I have tried to represent only those which seem most important to me.
Perec's career can be laid out in four parts. About the first, "Perec before Things," I have written elsewhere. (3) The second phase, labeled with only partial accuracy as Perec's "sociological" period, is the short era of Things and A Man Asleep in the mid-1960s: novels and stories which attempt to grasp the self as well as a social reality, and which step aside from drawing conclusions through irony, ambiguity, and narrative restraint. This moment can be approached through the interview that follows given in 1965 and through Andrew Leak's study of Perec and Roland Barthes.
Perec's third phase began in 1967, when he was co-opted by OuLiPo, the "Workshop for Potential Literature" founded by Raymond Queneau and the mathematician Francois Le Lionnais, and it could be said to culminate in the completion of Life User's Manual in 1978. OuLiPo was (and is) a convivial working group of writers, scholars, and mathematicians - not a movement, a school, or a sect. Its aims are to assist the renewal of literature by inventing, refining, and refurbishing formal devices, which can be thought of equally well as tools, or constraints, or constrictive forms. (4) Perec took to OuLiPo as a duck to water; the conscious constraint of form liberated his imagination, unblocked his creative potential. The simplest and most audacious of Perec's Oulipian works is La Disparition (1969), a whole adventure-novel written under the constraint of a lipogram on e, that is to say, avoiding all words containing the commonest vowel in the French language. Although it is far more than a mere alphabetic exploit, La Disparition is more talked about than read even today. Bernard Magne's article in this issue, one of the many he has written on Perec's textual practices, explores a range of texts written under constraint, and gives a particularly precious insight into the mind-boggling machinery of Life A User's Manual.
Perec in his third phase was by no means exclusively an explorer of the potential of constrictive form. Like many other members of OuLiPo, he also wrote works that are not especially indebted to Oulipian inventions. He never ceased to work and rework the material of autobiography, the idea of which, he said, had arisen in him almost at the same time as the idea of writing. The painful development of W or The Memory of Childhood, Perec's principal autobiographical text, is studied here by Philippe Lejeune, who has had privileged access to the drafts and manuscripts. At first sight, there would seem to be almost no relation between the anguished autobiographer who appears between the lines of Lejeune and the cunning fixer grinning from Magne's pages, but they are nonetheless two faces of the same man at much the same time. The paradox of Perec is that these different and equally unprecedented kinds of writing are each bound up with the other in ways that escape easy explanation. The extract from Jacques Roubaud's novel The Great Fire of London allows us to see an important, mysterious connection between them.
A third aspect of Perec in the 1970s is presented by Gilbert Adair: Perec the observer of micro-events, the artless chronicler of "everydayness," of passing time and of passing traffic. There are connections to be made, of course, between the flat style of Perec's "infraordinary" descriptions and the fragmentary plainness of his autobiographical chapters, just as the observation of everyday life reconnects with the "sociological eye" of Perec in his second phase. Both these connections can be seen in Perec's Oulipian monument and masterpiece, Life A User's Manual, which is devoid neither of exhaustingly monotonous list-poems nor of acute microsocial perceptions. But to point out these elements of coherence does not diminish the jubilant multiplicity of Perec's mind and writing.
The fourth and regrettably brief phase of Perec's career had no clear dynamic. In prose, he developed ever more constructed forms ("81 Easy-Cook Recipes for Beginners" is an amusing and simple example of the potential of very narrow constraints); but in poetry, he developed what he called "soft constraint," and also wrote two pieces allegedly with no constraint at all. Because he regarded no writing task as beneath him, there was almost no kind of writing that he was not keen to tackle and to decorate with his own special mark - from travel pieces to essays, detective fiction, and pastiche. In the "English interview" of 1981 included here, Perec talked with enthusiasm of an almost boundless range of writing interests, ending with the humble art of translation.
Les Choses, Perec's first novel, was the first to be translated into English. It appeared in New York in May 1968, when other news from Paris was attracting the world's attention. Partly because of the unfortunate timing, Les Choses was barely reviewed in America, was never released in the U.K., and was quickly forgotten. Despite the efforts of Harry Mathews, Perec's close friend, and the author of a memoir in "I remember" form, The Orchard, Perec remained virtually unknown in English for the following twenty years.
Perec made his real entry into English posthumously, and in reverse. "The Winter Journey," a Borgesian tale of literature and madness written in 1979, appeared in translation in 1985. Life A User's Manual came out in America and Britain in 1987. It was greeted with almost unanimous enthusiasm in Britain, America, and Australia, and achieved the rare feat (for a translated work) of both critical and popular success. W or The Memory of Childhood (1975) appeared the following year, and a new translation of Things together with A Man Asleep (1965 and 1967, respectively) was published in 1990. This reverse order of acquaintance has given Perec's work a more obvious coherence in English. The intensely connected nature of Perec's books is easier to see in the smaller range of texts, published at shorter intervals and in reverse order of composition, than in the vaster, more disparate and still emerging oeuvre which has become available in French over what is now nearly thirty years.
Three short appendices - "Perec in English," "Perec's Titles," and "Secondary Sources in English" - give some of the details which would permit a more detailed study of how Georges Perec has emerged with surprising speed as one of the few foreign authors acknowledged in the English-speaking world as a master of contemporary writing.
It is not altogether easy to find your way around what the Avignon Festival called "The Perec Galaxy." Perec himself gave a deceptively simple set of readers' instructions in his lapidary "Statement of Intent," where he likens himself to a farmer growing four different crops in four fields: the fields of sociology, autobiography, the "ludic," and narrative. But he only set up the crop-rotation model so as to be able to break it down by asserting that not one of his works fits unambiguously into any one field, and not one of them is without relationship to all four. Perec's apparent helpfulness to the reader looking for a map or guide is a characteristically gentle and effective trap, forcing us to find our own path through his universe of words, every part of which is different, and yet a constituent of an elusive whole.
There are many aspects of Perec's writing that are best approached with little regard for chronological development, or for the ill-fenced "fields" of his literary farm. Two such are studied here: the question of what it is that Perec does with his Jewishness, discussed with privileged insight by Perec's long-standing friend, Marcel Benabou; and the role of the visual in Perec's writing, examined by Patrizia Molteni. Studies of Perec and language, Perec and science, Perec and psychoanalysis, Perec and space (and - why not - Perec and Goethe!) still await exploration in English (and, in some cases, in French).
English and American literature provided Perec with many of his most treasured models and mentors: Sterne, Melville, Joyce, Nabokov, and Lowry, in particular. Perec was disappointed to be known in England, Australia, and America only as the author of a conveniently slim "modern classic" used in French first-year programs as an example of the "new novel," or of social relevance, or of the French moralist tradition. The fate of Things at the hands of teachers of French has led critics to dig perhaps too wide a trench between Perec's writings before and after his contact with OuLiPo. All the same, what makes Perec a force in contemporary writing is quite different from the grounds used to canonize Things.
What strikes me most about Perec now is that he has renovated the craft of writing by taking it back to some of its overlooked roots. He rediscovered the joy and the difficulty of placing letters into regular shapes, as our ancestors did in carmina figurata, in acrostics, palindromes, and pattern-poetry of all kinds. He reinvented the simple art of making lists, one of the very first uses of literacy in the historical sense, and also in every child's experience of learning to use pencil and paper. Despite the uncompromising experimentalism of his formal work, he remained faithful to his own childhood discovery of the imagination in Dumas, in Jules Verne, and in detective stories, and he reinvented the pleasures of reading "flat out" for the story itself. He made no distinction between his play and his work, and, like some superintelligent child, he constructed games that involve his readers entirely, and thereby dignify the act of reading itself. For Perec, despite his reticence about theory, knew very well what he was writing for, and he made himself perfectly clear in the early articles to which Marcel Benabou refers on p. 86 below: to make a sense of the self, and of the world. Because words never say things exactly, because there is always a gap between the intention and the expression, Perec made gap or absence the constitutive device of all his writing, before and after his meeting with OuLiPo. By means that are sometimes stunningly simple (write without e!), and sometimes of mountainous difficulty (the machinery of Life A User's Manual), Perec put the situation of the writer at the heart of his writing, and thereby asserted his mastery, his control, and his existence nonetheless.
The devices of self-mirroring and the half-playful self-references, nods, and winks in Perec's texts therefore take on an altogether more serious function. Perec's work is explicitly built on nothing, on the absence that lies at the heart of language, and which is the truest expression of the self. Perec described himself as being like a child who does not know what he wants or fears the most: to stay hidden, or to be found. In fact, there is no tension in Perec's work between self-affirmation and denial. What he achieved through intense reflection on the writer's material, and through the acquisition of unparalleled craft with words, is the paradoxical assertion of the self by the conscious construction of its absence. Observation, formalism, wit, and autobiography combine on such premises to make Perec's work not just entertaining, provoking, and formally bizarre, but also, for those who wish to hear, sharply poignant too. Perec's tortuous "procedures" are not ways of hiding sentiment but his own necessary means of arriving at simple emotion.
For these reasons, it seems to me to matter rather little whether Life A User's Manual is or is not the highest peak of postmodern fiction, or, in Italo Calvino's words, "the last great event in the history of the novel." It is the crowning achievement of a life's work that combines older traditions of craft with a determined pursuit of the new and has thereby made literature possible again.
(1) Claude Burgelin, Georges Perec (Paris: Le Seuil, 1988). (2) Georges Perec and E. Helmle, Die Maschine (Stuttgart: Reclam's Universal
Bibliothek, 1972), 61-65. (3) "Perec avant Perec," Ecritures 2 (1992) in summary form; at greater length in
my Georges Perec: A Life in Words (London: Harvill, 1993). (4) See Warren Motte, Jr., Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature (Lincoln:
Nebraska University Press, 1986).
References, abbreviations, acknowledgments
References throughout this issue to books by Georges Perec available in English translation are given in square brackets, using these title abbreviations followed by a page number:
L Life A User's Manual. Translated by David Bellos. Boston: David R.
Godine, 1987. M A Man Asleep. Translated by Andrew Leak; T Things. Translated by David Bellos.
Published together as "Things. A Story of the Sixties" and "A Man
Asleep." Boston: David R. Godine, 1990. W W or The Memory of Childhood. Translated by David Bellos. Boston:
David R. Godine, 1988.
These translations are all also published in London by Harvill. The British editions have the same pagination and the same text as the Boston editions.
A full bibliography of Perec in English is given on pp. 135-38 below.
References to books by Georges Perec not yet available in English are given in like manner, using these title abbreviations:
EsEs Especes d'espaces. Paris: Galilee, 1974. inf l'infra-ordinaire. Paris: Le Seuil, 1989. Jms Je me souviens. Paris: Hachette, 1978. Jsn Je suis ne. Paris: Le Seuil, 1990.
PC Penser/Classer. Paris: Hatchette, 1985.
REI Recits d'Ellis Island. Histoires d'errance et d'espoir. Paris: Le Sorbier,
CGP refers to volumes of the Cahiers Georges Perec: 1: Paris: P.O.L., 1985. 11: number 21 of Textuel 34/44. Universite de Paris-VII, 1988. III: "Proletaires et Presbyteres." Paris: Editions du Limon, 1989. IV: "Melanges." Paris: Editions du Limon, 1991. V: "Les Poemes heterogrammatiques." Paris: Editions du Limon, 1992. Further volumes are in preparation.
In articles translated from French, interpolations by the translator are put in italics in square brackets.
"Back to Basics" first appeared in issue no. 23 of La Bibliotheque oulipienne (Paris: 1984), p. 43. (C) Harry Mathews.
The introduction and the essays by Gilbert Adair, Andrew Leak, and Patrizia Molteni were written for this Perec number of the Review of Contemporary Fiction.
"Georges Perec Owns Up" was first published as "Georges Perec s'explique" in Les Lettres Francaises, no. 1108 (2 December 1965): 14-15. This translation (C) D. Bellos.
"Statement of Intent" first appeared as "Notes sur ce que je cherche" in Le Figaro, 22 November 1978, then in Penser/Classer (Paris: Hachette, 1985), pp. 9-12. This translation (C) D. Bellos.
"The Doing of Fiction" has been broadcast on Radio Helicon (Sydney, Australia) several times, and also in fragments by France-Culture, in Intercalaires pour Georges Perec, March 1982, but not previously published. (C) Estate of Georges Perec.
"81 Easy-Cook Recipes for Beginners" first appeared as "81 Fiches-cuisine a l'usage des dibutants" in Christian Besson and Catherine Weinzaepflen, eds., Manger (Liege: Yellow Now/Chalon-sur-Saone: Maison de la Culture, 1980), pp. 97-109, and then in Penser/Classer (Paris: Hachette, 1985), pp. 89-108. This translation (C) D. Bellos.
"53 Days" first appeared as "53 jours," edited by Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud (Paris: P.O.L., 1989). The complete novel was published by Harvill in 1992 and will be published later this year by David Godine.
Marcel Benabou's essay on "Perec's Jewishness" was first given as a talk at the ten-day Perec conference at Cerisy-la-Salle in 1984, then published in French in CGP I, 15-30.
Philippe Lejeune has spoken and written about the history and structure of W or The Memory of Childhood in many places, most notably in CGP II, 101-69. The essay translated in this issue is a specially commissioned resume of "Le Bouffeau Veritas," a chapter of La Memoire et l'oblique. Georges Perec autobiographe (Paris: P.O.L., 1991).
Jacques Roubaud's "The Transition from W to M in Life A User's Manual" is taken from his novel The Great Fire of London, translated by Dominic Di Bernardi (Elmwood Park: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991), pp. 128, 255-56.
Bernard Magne's essay appeared as "De l'ecart a la trace. Les avatars de la contrainte" in Etudes litteraires (Universite Laval, Quebec City, PQ, 1991), volume 23, pp. 9-26. This translation (C) D. Bellos.
The editor and publisher wish to thank the contributors and Harvill (London), David R. Godine (Boston), Universite Laval (Quebec), Editions P.O.L. (Paris), Editions Le Seuil (Paris), Editions Hachette (Paris), and the Estate of Georges Perec for permission to reproduce and to translate copyrighted material.
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|Title Annotation:||Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau|
|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1993|
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