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The old and the new: an introduction to Georges Perec.

Georges Perec was born in Paris on 7 March 1936, and died of cancer on 3 March 1982. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland, and his first background was Belleville, a working-class quarter to the east of central Paris. Perec's father joined up at the start of the Second World War and died in the defense of France in June 1940. During the German occupation, Perec was evacuated by the Red Cross to Villard-de-Lans, in the so-called Free Zone, where his father's sister and her husband looked after him. His mother remained in Paris, was arrested, deported, and murdered at Auschwitz. At the war's end, Perec became the ward of his aunt and uncle, and was brought up by them in Paris in a well-to-do, middle-class home.

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 demploi (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, film scripts, 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 body of work which has taken many years to come into full view.

Perec led a modest life. He was never ah 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 in later life 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. (1)

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 that he left.

The range of possible approaches to his labyrinthine universe is correspondingly vast. Toward the end of Perec's irreverent radio play, The Machine, translated here for the first time, a computer rattles off an alphabetically ordered list of ninety-four topic headings for Goethe's secondary bibliography, from "Goethe and architecture" to "Goethe and Zelter." In the fifteen years since the Review of Contemporary Fiction first published this special issue, Perec's own bibliography has expanded to cover an almost equally large set of topics, in dozens of books and hundreds of articles in many different languages. In English alone, a full-length biography, a pedagogical survey, a scholarly study of Perec and the Oulipo, and an intriguing study of Perec's approach to games have been published as books, (2) and around seventy learned articles have appeared, exploring subjects as varied (and as closely related) as:
   Perec and the Algerian War Perec and Antelme Perec and
   Autobiography Perec and the Avant-Garde Perec and Balzac Perec and
   Francois Bon Perec and Borges Perec and Calvino Perec and
   Crosswords Perec and the Everyday Perec and Fantasy Perec and
   Foucault Perec and Forgery Perec and Hide-and-Seek Perec and the
   Holocaust Perec's Left-Handedness Perec and the Lipogram Perec and
   Marx Perec and Melancholy Perec and Memory Perec and Memory Perec
   and the Missing One Perec's Mistakes Perec and Mourning Perec and
   Nabokov Perec and the Oulipo Perec and Perspective Perec and
   Photography Perec and the Post-Nouveau Roman Perec and Proust Perec
   and Psychoanalysis Perec and Puzzles Perec and Social Description
   Perec and Sport Perec and Translation Perec and Trauma Perec and
   Utopia Perec and Vichy Perec and the Visual Perec and W.


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 remarkably large. This collection of essays and extracts represents only some of 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) It is represented in this collection by one of the essays on literature that Perec wrote around 1960 for the left-wing review Partisans, translated and introduced by Rob Halpern. 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 A 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 A Void (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. This intoxicated period of experimentation is represented here by The Machine, written in collaboration with Perec's German translator and close friend, Eugen Helmle, in the heady atmosphere of the Saarbrucken literary circle that met at Helmle's house. The Machine is an early example of writing inspired by the existence of modern computers (Perec's other computer-simulation, a stage play entitled The Raise, will appear in English in 2009). (5) It pretends to analyze and recompose, demolish and then rebuild a short lyric by Goethe that is almost indescribably well-known to all speakers and learners of German--something even closer to the heart of German poetry than Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" might be for us. To do this, it uses pretty much all the rewriting devices invented to date by Oulipo, and at the outset of Perec's apprenticeship to a group that included many scientists and mathematicians far more learned than he, it served as a kind of demonstration piece, or Meisterstuck. Its inventiveness, irreverence, and closing sadness has made it just about the best-loved and most frequently rebroadcast example of the Neues Horspiel, the name given to the experimental reinvention of radio drama that was such a marked feature of German literary culture in the 1960s and 1970s. Perec is nothing it not international.

Perec used his subsequent German radio plays to make further experiments with form, and of course invented many very difficult constraints for his writing in French, from the "simple" lipogram or A Void to the immensely complex structures of Life A User's Manual ten years later. 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 Perec's masterpiece.

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. (6) 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, 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 for the Air France in-flight magazine 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 UK, and was quickly forgotten. Despite the efforts of Harry Mathews, Perec's close friend, and the author of a memoir on Perec 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 carne 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 gave Perec's work a more easily grasped coherence in English than it had had in French. The intensely connected nature of Perec's books has been easier to see in the smaller range of texts, published at shorter intervals and in reverse order of composition, than in the more disparate and ever-changing oeuvre that became available in French over the first thirty years of Perec's life in words, from the 1960s to the 1990s. But the past fifteen years has seen almost all of Perec's other prose writings brought into English as well. Gilbert Adair published a masterful, jubilantly free transposition of Perec's lipogram-novel, A Void, in 1994, and Ian Monk followed this up with three novellas (Three by Perec), including The Exeter Text, which uses no vowel except E. Perec's unfinished detective story, "53 Days" was translated in 1992 in the UK, and was also released in the U.S. in 2000. John Sturrock assembled some of Perec's essays in a volume entitled Species of Spaces and Other Pieces; some of Perec's urban observation texts and many other smaller pieces have appeared in journals in the UK and the U.S. With a fully revised edition of Life A User's Manual about to appear in the U.S. in 2009, and the expected publication of a posthumous volume of essays and exercises under the title Thoughts of Sorts, nearly all the pieces of the puzzle are now in place.

However, the wealth of reading now available in English does not make it any easier 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.

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. 161 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.

Manchester, UK, 1993--Princeton, NJ, 2009

The editor and publisher wish to thank the contributors and Harvill (London), David R. Godine (Boston), Universite Laval (Quebec), Editions du Seuil (Paris), and the Estate of Georges Perec for permission to reproduce and to translate copyrighted material.

REFERENCES

References to books by Georges Perec available in English translation are given in square brackets, using title abbreviations followed by a page number:

T Things (Les Choses, 1965). Translated by David Bellos. With A Man Asleep. Boston: David R. Godine, 1990.

3P Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard? (Quel petit velo a guidon chrome au fond de la cour?, 1966). Translated by Ian Monk. In Three by Perec. London: Harvill, 1996.

MA Man Asleep (Un Homme qui dort, 1967). Translated by Andrew Leak. With Things. Boston: David R. Godine, 1990.

MA The Machine (Die Maschine, 1968). In this volume.

V A Void (La Disparition, 1969). Translated by Gilbert Adair. London: Harvill, 1994.

3P The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets and Sex (Les Revenentes, 1972). Translated by Ian Monk. In Three by Perec. London: Harvill, 1996.

SS Species of Spaces (Especes despaces, 1974). Translated by John Sturrock. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

W W or The Memory of Childhood (W ou le souvenir d'enfance, 1975). Translated by David Bellos. Boston: David R. Godine, 1988.

L Life A User's Manual (La Vie mode demploi, 1978). Translated by David Bellos. Boston: David R. Godine, 1987. A revised and corrected edition in preparation (2009) will have slightly altered pagination.

3P A Gallery Portrait (Un Cabinet d'amateur, 1979) Translated by Ian Monk. In Three by Perec. London: Harvill, 1996.

EI Ellis Island (Recits d'Ellis Island. Histoires derrances et despoir, 1981). Translated by Harry Mathews. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

TS Thoughts of Sorts (Penser/Classer, 1985). Translated by David Bellos. Boston: David R. Godine, 2009

53D "53 Days" ("53 jours," 1989). Translated by David Bellos. Boston: David R. Godine, 2000.

References to books by Georges Perec not fully available in English are given under these title abbreviations:

inf l'infra-ordinaire. Paris: Le Seuil, 1989.

Jms Je me souviens. Paris: Hachette, 1978.

Jsn Je suis ne. Paris: Seuil, 1990.

LG L.G. Une histoire des annees soixante. Paris: Seuil, 1992.

EC refers to Georges Perec, Entretiens et conferences, edited by Mireille Ribiere and Dominique Bertelli. Paris: Joseph K, 2003. Two volumes. CGP refers to volumes of the Cahiers Georges Perec:

I: Paris: P.O.L., 1985.

II: Number 21 of Textue1 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.

In articles translated from French, interpolations by the translator are put in italics in square brackets.

SOURCES

"Back to Basics" first appeared in issue no. 23 of La Bibliotheque oulipienne (Paris: 1984), p. 43. [c] Harry Mathews.

The essays by Gilbert Adair, Andrew Leak, and Patrizia Molteni were written for the original Perec number of the Review of Contemporary Fiction. The essay by Rob Halpern was written for this reissue. David Bellos's introduction has been revised for this reissue.

"Commitment or the Crisis of Language" was first published as "Engagement ou crise du langage" in Partisans 7 (November-December 1962): 171-182. This translation follows the text in L.G. Une aventure des annees soixante (Paris: Editions du seuil, 1992). Translation [c] Rob Halpern, 2009.

"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] David Bellos.

"Statement of Intent" first appeared as "Notes sur ce que je cherche" in Le Figaro, 22 November 1978. This translation also appears in TS.

"The Doing of Fiction" has been broadcast on Radio Helicon (Sydney, Australia) several rimes, and also in fragments by France-Culture, in Intercalaires pour Georges Perec, March 1982. It has been reprinted in EC II: 244-262. [c] Estate of Georges Perec.

The Machine was first published in German as Die Maschine, translated by Eugen Helmle. Stuttgart: Reclam's Universal-Bibliothek, 1972. This translation [c] Ulrich Schonherr, 2009.

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 Bourreau 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 Lavai, Quebec City, PQ, 1991), volume 23, pp. 9-26. This translation@David Bellos.

NOTES

(1) Claude Burgelin, Georges Perec. Paris: Seuil, 1988.

(2) David Bellos, Georges Perec. A Life in Words. Boston: D. R. Godine, 1993; David Gascoigne, The Games of Fiction: Georges Perec and Modern French Ludic Narrative. Berne: Peter Lang, 2006; Kimberly Bohman-Kalaja, Reading Games: An Aesthetics of Play in Flann O'Brien, Samuel Beckett and Georges Perec. Urbana-Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2007; Alison James, Constraining Chance: Georges Perec and the Oulipo. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009.

(3) "Perec avant Perec" Ecritures 2 (1992) in summary form; at greater length in Georges Perec: A Life in Words.

(4) Warren Motte, Jr., Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature (Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1986) is a good introduction to the group and its work; The Oulipo Compendium, edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie (New York: Exact Change, 1998), is a store of treasures not to be missed.

(5) Hannah Higgins and Douglas Kahn, editors, Mainframe Experimentalism. University of California Press, forthcoming.

(6) The original manuscript, now at the Kungliga Biblioteket in Stockholm, had not been discovered when Lejeune wrote this essay. See my "Perec en Suede" Bulletin de l'Association Georges Perec, 34 (1998) and "The Third Dimension of Georges Perec's W ou le souvenir denfance," French Studies Bulletin 70.1 (Spring 1999) for further details.
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Author:Bellos, David
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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