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Transformations of constraint.

Let us start with two autobiographical fragments, from W or The Memory of Childhood:
 As for me, I would have liked to help my mother clear the dinner
 from the kitchen table. There would have been a blue, small-checked
 oilcloth on the table, and above it, a counterpoise lamp with a
 shade shaped almost like a plate, made of white porcelain or
 enamelled tin, and a pulley system with pear-shaped weights. Then
 I'd have fetched my satchel, got out my book and my writing pad and
 my wooden pencil-box. I'd have put them on the table and done my
 homework. [W 70]

and from the beginning of "Still Life/Style Leaf":
 The solid wood desk on which I am writing, formerly a jeweler's
 workbench, is equipped with four large drawers and a top whose
 surface, slightly sloping inwards from the edges (no doubt so that
 the pearls that were once sifted on it would run no risk of falling
 to the floor) is covered with black fabric of very tightly woven
 mesh. (1)

The kitchen table and the jeweler's desk--the childhood dream and the writer's workstation, precisely described--are both writing surfaces, and both are also products of prior crafting. By a metonymic leap, they tell us that transformation is perhaps the basis of all writing.

There are innumerable examples of transformation as a practice of writing in Perec. Here is a by no means exhaustive list:

* variations on poems by Verlaine ("Gaspard Hauser chante") and by Goethe ("Rambler's Lullaby') in "Microtraductions" (2) and The Machine respectively.

* lipogrammatic translations, such as the versions "without e" of Mallarme, Baudelaire, etc., in La Disparition.

* homophone games, in which a mispronounced and resegmented utterance produces a new narrative (in Voeux, brainteasers which Perec gave to friends as New Year gifts).

* hypograms, in which the sound of a proper name is smuggled into an otherwise innocent sentence (as in chapter 59 of Life A User's Manual).

* progressive semantic substitutions (in the manner of Stefan Themerson), which transform one sentence into another far removed from it (in P.A.L.F. the "Automatic Production of French Literature"). (3)

* anagram combinations, or beaux presents: texts composed solely of the letters of the names of the person to which they are addressed.

* combinatorial texts, presented either as matrices (like Queneau's 10 (14) Poems), or written out in full ("81 Easy-Cook Recipes for Beginners" [TS 69-86], for instance).

The principle of constraint is of course also fundamental to Perec. As he says in "Statement of Intent" "almost none [of my books] is assembled without recourse to one or another Oulipian structure or constraint." But there is no single, automatic relationship between the two mechanisms of transformation and constraint. You can have:

* transformation-texts not governed by a constraint (such as the homophone games);

* texts under constraint, but involving no transformation, such as "snowballs."

However, when transformation and constraint are conjoined, the notion of a rule-governed transformer naturally arises, and there can be no more spectacular example of this practice of writing than Georges Perec's heterogrammatic poetry--Ulcerations, La Cloture, and above all Alphabets. They are made from anagrams of a set of letters (ranging from eleven to fourteen in number), subjected to a serial regularity-no letter may be reused until the whole set is exhausted. But you can also imagine things the other way round-a constraint affected by a transformation. A number of such transformed constraints are the main object of this study.


The simplest type of transformed constraint is where the operations required by the constraint are not carried out properly. It's more a matter of deforming than of transforming them, really; Perec is not immune to muffs and glitches. For example, on two occasions he put into beaux presents letters which should not have been there; and in the "Compendium" in chapter 51 of Life A User's Manual, line 45 of this rule-governed panopticon of Valene's painting has 59 characters and spaces instead of the regulation 60. The English translation could easily be adapted to mimic the mistake:
 1 2 3 4 5

The scientist learning to lipread the deaf-mute's equations The line actually refers to a character called Kolliker who is deaf, dumb, and deprived of arms and legs--the very emblem of GAP--and an atomic scientist, whose very trade is SPLITTING. There is also a link between this line and poem number 45 of Alphabets, where the "presence of absence" is inscribed twice over in the words Tu as, orfelin ... ("Thou, orphan, hast.. "). Paradoxically, these strange glitches, which were manifestly not intended by Perec, do not weaken the web of meaning, bur give it greater density.

Free-fire Zones

Some constraints cover the whole textual space (a lipogram is a lipogram from start to finish, bar glitches), whereas others leave spaces within the overall structure of the text where no constraint holds sway. "81 Easy-Cook Recipes for Beginners" provides a clear instance of the "free-fire zone." The set of recipes is generated by a very simple device. Each one is made up of four sentences, for the preparation, the cooking, the second step in cooking, and the serving of a dish. Each sentence can take one of three forms:
Preparation A1 Take two fine whole fresh sole, skin and fillet them
 A2 Smear a pair of small rabbits with a generous
 coating of full-strength mustard
 A3 Take four sweetbreads, soak in lemon water, then
 drain and cut into thin slices

Cooking B1 Bake in the oven for 40 minutes, basting frequently
 B2 Cook in a casserole together with a few strips of
 bacon, sliced carrots, fresh tomatoes, and spring
 B3 Brown in a hot shallow pan, then lower the heat and
 leave to simmer

Second step C1 When half done, add half a pound of button mushrooms
 C2 To make the gravy, add a dash of vermouth to the
 C3 Remove from heat and then add two tablespoons of
 double cream

Serving D1 Lay out on a heated serving dish and sprinkle
 generously with X
 D2 Serve with Y
 D3 Serve with a separate jug of Z sauce

Sentences A, B, and C are fixed and recur unaltered in each recipe, but D has a special structure allowing for a variable and nonrecurrent feature. Every recipe is therefore doubly unique--as a particular combination of elements, and because it has, in the last sentence, a unique item, since the 27 Xs, 27 Ys, and 27 Zs are each different from the other.

This simple device allows the constraint to specify a zone which is not devoid of regulation, bur where the rules operate differently. In this case, the nonrecurrent element is motivated by the recipe's title.


The intentional and unintentional types of divergence discussed so far do not undermine the overall working of a structure or constraint. The same is not true of what Perec calls "clinamen" and on which be often commented: "When you set up a system of constraints, you have to have anti-constraint in it. You must--and it's very important--you must destroy the system of constraints. It mustn't be rigid, it has to have some play, it has to creak a bit; the system mustn't be entirely coherent: the clinamen is in Epicurus's atomic theory; the world works because there was an imbalance at the start." (4) Perec often brought in Paul Klee's dictum that "Genius is an error in the system" or referred to "the programming of chance" to explain his constant practice of skewing the sophisticated machines be had designed. The best-known example (because it was made known by Perec himself) is in Life A User's Manual. The novel's underlying structure is ah apartment house of 100 rooms, corresponding to a book with 100 chapters, but it is fundamentally transformed by the voluntary omission of one element. "It will be noticed" Perec said, "that the book has 99, not 100 chapters. The little girl who appears on pages 231 and 318 is entirely responsible for this." (5) Obviously, the little girl mentioned in line 106 of the "Compendium" before cropping up at the end of chapter 65 on the lid of a biscuit tin, where she is depicted munching the corner of a petit-beurre, is not so much responsible as a metaphor for the clinamen which subtracts from the apartment house its bottom left-hand cellar room, which is never seen and never described.

However, a less known and almost minor text, "243 Full-Color Postcards to Italo Calvino" [inf 33-67], shows Perec skewing a systematic constraint even more radically by means of a clinamen. This combinatorial text uses a principle identical to "81 Easy-Cook Recipes" but each postcard is the product of five operations (instead of four, for the recipes) which can be labeled: location, appreciation, use of time 1, use of time 2, greetings.

However, you quickly notice that the formal structure is subject to various alterations. First of all, the three variants of each sentence are far from obvious. Under localization, it's not too hard to identify hotel, town, and area: "We're at Hotel Beau-Rivage / A quick word from Urbino / We're crisscrossing the Costa Esmerelda." As for use of time 2, the three variants correspond to health (principally, remarks on sunburn!), activities, and encounters: "I've got sunburn / I caught a salmon / We've made heaps of friends" Greetings include love & kisses, thoughts, and the date of return: "Lots of love / Kind thoughts / We're back on the third."

On the other hand, it is very hard to unscramble the system of variants for the intermediate sentences, appreciation and use of time I. The reader is certainly aware of recurrent mentions of food, suntan, and the beach, bur not able to deduce any "grammatical" regularity from them. Moreover, the same variant of the same sentence seems to have several possible formulations: "We've put up at ... We're staying at... / We're at ... / Hotel ... / We found a place at ... We found a room at ... / We've got a room at ... / We're bedding down at ... / Our address: the ... motel / Our motel is called ... /" and so on. A similarly wide range of formulations occurs for town-location and for area-location expressions.

In like manner, the postcards extend the principle of the "free-fire zone" to all five of the basic operation-sentences, whereas the "easy-cook recipes" restricted it to a single sentence. Names of hotels, of towns, of areas and countries, sports and encounters, and dates of return are never the same twice over.

Finally, and again in profound contrast to the "recipe" text, the order and number of operations in the postcard text is not really ever stable. Compare this card with a "canonical" structure: "We're camping near Ajaccio. Weather tine. We're eating well. I got sunburn. Love & kisses." to one where the five operations come in a different order: "Divine weather, superb cuisine, marvelous people. We're staying at Hotel de Gascogne. Think of you often." Or to cards with operations in another order and one missing: "Everything is perfect at Hotel de la Mer. We go to the casino. Love." Or to an even shorter one, having only three of the five operations (location, use of time 2, greetings): "We're doing the West Bank. Sunburned as tomatoes. Affectionate thoughts." This is the point where the effect of the clinamen is to explode the basic constraint, so that, by force of transgression, the rule ends up becoming the exception. (6)

The clinamen brings a degree of play into a regulated system. On reflection, however, we can see that any text written under constraint is actually subject to two sets of rules. On the one hand, there are the formal constraints that can always be made explicit even if they cannot always be read in the text itself, the regularities which Jean Ricardou calls textures, (7) such as the absence of this or that letter of the alphabet, symmetricalities, as in palindromes, or word-length progression, as in alphabetical snowballs, etc. On the other hand, there are the no less constraining regulations of the language itself, which are always implicit but always present insofar as the text remains subject to the principle of representation--regulations that we might call scriptures, such as the rules of grammar, spelling, etc. The clinamen operates on textures in all the examples we have considered so far, but there is nothing to prevent it being applied alternatively to scriptures: that is to say, instead of bending constraints to fit the language, bending the language to fit the constraints. This rather special type of clinamen occurs essentially in texts written to a "hard" constraint, particularly lipograms, palindromes, and heterograms, and most frequently occurs as misspelling. Instances can be found in A Void (scrivain for ecrivain [writer], l'hasard for le hasard [chance], etc.), in Ulcerations (ciclone for cyclone, tiran for tyran [tyrant], clounerie for clownerie [clowning]), in Alphabets (orfelin for orphelin [orphan], asur for azur [azure]), in the Great Palindrome (ohcean for ocean, coulevrine for couleuvrine [cannon]). However, the very title of Les Revenentes (The Exeter Text) announces that the "cacographic clinamen" is less of a "bending" of the book's rule (to use only the vowel e) than its basic means of production of meaning.


The most spectacular superconstraints are to be found in Alphabets. The poems are, in the first place, "merely" heterogrammatic onzains: poems made from eleven permutations of eleven letters, each used once only in each permutation; but diverse additional regularities are imposed on them and shown off by the way the poems are laid out on the page. For example, poems 50, 125, and 162 are isograms on the initial letter (i.e., the same letter figures at the head of each of the eleven permutations); poems 78 and 123 are isograms on the final; poem 24 is an isogram on the diagonal (top left to bottom right), and poem 26 an isogram on the reverse diagonal. Poem 28 repeats the first line as an acrostic on the initial letter, poeta 3 repeats the last line as ah acrostic on the final letter; poems 41, 42, 43, 45, 106, and 198 combine an acrostic on the initial with a diagonal isogram. Moreover, the eleven poems that are based on ESARTUNULO+C have a special construction: the line-end letters occur in an order determined by the quenina of eleven (as revealed by Perec himself) in reverse order (which Perec did not reveal!).


Life A User's Manual plays around with its own, sophisticated set of constraints in a rather different way. Perec spoke about the machinery of his novel on various different occasions, and I shall repeat only those points which are necessary for my analysis. At the first level of analysis, Life A User's Manual implements the apparently paradoxical idea of a regulated clinamen. This is how it is done.

Each chapter of the novel can be likened to a syntagm of 42 elements each of which has been selected from a paradigm of ten alternatives. The 42 elements form a string which is unique to each chapter: for chapter 68, for example, the string is as follows:

1. Kneeling

2. Repair

4. Nabokov

3. Proust

5. Four persons

6. suppliers

7. printed announcement

8. establish a relationship

9. metal panels

10. herring-bone patterned woodblock floor

11. Revolution, empire

12. Russia

13. Louis XIV style

14. Table

15. Pages: 8

16. knife

17. girl 17 yrs

18. rat, mouse

19. knitwear

20. quilt

21. thread

22. sky blue

23. underwear

24. necklace

25. magazine

26. jazz

27. Baugin

28. Ubu

29. milk

30. meat, kinds of

31. radio

32. automata

33. ambition

34. print (engraving)

35. rectangle

36. cube

37. everlasting flowers

38. bronze

39. GAP in 5

40. WRONG in 4

41. Pride

42. Prejudice

The set of 42 paradigms is therefore something like an organized universal reservoir from which Perec takes material according to very strict rules defined by a structure called the "Graeco-Latin bisquare" The paradigms contain narrative-type material (number, age, sex, position and activity of characters, types of decor, etc.) as well as formal features (length of chapter, quotations and allusions to inscribe, etc.). Two of them have a very special role since they have recursive impact on the operation of the reservoir itself. These two "jokers" are entitled GAP and WRONG and consist of a list of ten numbers from 1 to 10. For each chapter, one of these numbers is associated with GAP and another with WRONG. Chapter 68, for example, has "GAP in 5, WRONG in 4."

These numbers refer to groups of four elements, since the 42 elements are split up into ten groups (the last two are special in a different way, by being exempted from the impact of the regulated clinamen). The formulation "GAP in 5" therefore means that one of the four elements of group 5 will not figure in the chapter, and "WRONG in 4" means that one of the four elements of group 4 will be replaced by another element from the same paradigm. Chapter 68 must therefore omit one of items 17 through 20; and must replace one of items 13 through 16 with another element from the relevant list. The underlying constraint is therefore doubly transformed; first, by the strict implementation of a mechanism that specifies to which group of elements GAP and WRONG must be applied; and second, by specifying not a precise element, but a group of four elements, the regulated clinamen incorporates a "free-fire zone" or, to put it another way, it enfolds its own undermining: you could call it retrobending. In the event, Perec decided to miss on quilt and to make the chapter not eight pages long but a few lines. WRONG allows the writer a further degree of liberty than GAP, for he decides not only which of the elements to get wrong, but also how he will get it wrong.

As attentive readers might have guessed already, the regulated retrobending clinamen can have a further delightfully recursive twist. GAP and WRONG themselves belong to the tenth group of elements (rank numbers 39 and 40). Each time the overall device throws up GAP and/or WRONG in 10. the writer may naturally decide to GAP the GAP or to WRONG the WRONG. It's hardly surprising that Perec yielded several times to the temptation of retrobending his already bent bends. The logic he uses is a bit special. In his operation of this device, a WRONG WRONG is not simply the right, bur WRONG applied to the wrong subset of elements. For instance, in Chapter 36, "WRONG in 10" is realized by "WRONG in 5 instead of 10" that is to say, an element of the fifth group is replaced by a different member of its paradigm: specifically, uniform, selected by the regular operating machinery, is replaced by suit. Some might like to see this as a deliberate inscription of the writer's antimilitarism, what's more certain is that it is a flagrant example of a recursive clinamen bending back on itself.

If we may coin the term metaconstraint for a constraint which modifies a constraint, then we can immediately distinguish two types: the metaconstraint that operates on itself, or autometaconstraint, as described above; or, as we shall now see, metaconstraints that modify some other constraint, which, in a way, you could call a heterometaconstraint. In Life A User's Manual, the selection of elements from a paradigm is obviously not left to chance, but is made according to a strict distributional rule based on the Graeco-Latin bisquare of order 10. The basic structure of the novel is a 10 x 10 grid overlaid on a cross section of the block of flats, each grid-location corresponding to one of the rooms made "visible" by the section. The grid has two main functions. In the first place, it determines the order of the book's chapters (each one is the description of one room) in a sequence worked out by a solution to the Knight's Tour problem; in the second place, it allows the application of the bisquare. This is the bisquare distribution used for lists 1 and 2, "Position" and "Activity":
 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0

1 1,1 7,8 6,9 5,0 0,2 9,4 8,6 2,3 3,5 4,7
2 8,7 2,2 1,8 7,9 6,0 0,3 9,5 3,4 4,6 5,1
 9,6 8,1 3,3 2,8 1,9 7,0 0,4 4,5 5,7 6,2
4 0,5 9,7 8,2 4,4 3,8 2,9 1,0 5,6 6,l 7,3
5 2,0 0,6 9,1 8,3 5,5 4,8 3,9 6,7 7,2 1,4
6 4,9 3,0 0,7 9,2 8,4 6,6 5,8 7,1 1,3 2,5
 6,8 5,9 4,0 0,1 9,3 8,5 7,7 1,2 2,4 3,6
8 3,2 4,3 5,4 6,5 7,6 1,7 2,1 8,8 9,9 0,0
9 5,3 6,4 7,5 1,6 2,7 3,1 4,2 9,0 0,8 8,9
0 7,4 1,5 2,6 3,7 4,1 5,2 6,3 0,9 8,0 9,8

The bisquare distributes around the grid two sets of numbers from 1 to 9 according to a rule that is simple to explain: every column and every row must include each of the numbers once and once only. Which is the same as saying that the constraint is a full combinatorial square of 100 pairs of elements taken from two lists of 10 elements each, distributed without the recurrence of any actual pair in the 100 locations of the grid. Applying this system to the 21 pairs of paradigms that make up his reservoir, Perec is able to fill every room of the block/chapter of the book: all he has to do is to use the elements selected from each pair of paradigms by the numbers on the relevant grid-square location for that chapter. But the clarity of such a structure is a measure of its rigidity, each room would only ever contain elements with the same rank-number in their respective paradigms. For instance, the room described in chapter 59, in the top left-hand corner of the block, would consistently have the first element of every one of the lists, since the bisquare selects for it the numbers 1,1. To avoid this awkwardness, Perec had recourse to a metaconstraint that uses one of the features of the bisquare. By permutating either the columns or the rows of a bisquare you can alter the contents of the grid-locations without jeopardizing the principles of exhaustivity and nonrecurrence. So to get the greatest variety possible, Perec used, for each pair of lists, a different bisquare, generated by the application of a permutational device to the original distribution. The device is obviously not a matter of chance: it is an algorithm which Perec called a "pseudo-quenina of order 10" in the one published text where he mentioned it (quite bafflingly, as it happens), and a "decina" in the manuscript notes for the novel. I shan't describe it in detail here, but will make two main points. First, a metaconstraint is a kind of superconstraint, since it is a supplementary regularity, but it is a second-order supplement, since it affects a different object. For example, the superconstraints in Alphabets (acrostics, rhyme patterns, quenina) affect the same material as the basic constraint of the heterogram, namely the eleven letters. But in Life A User's Manual, the "pseudo-quenina of order 10" does not operate on the paradigms of ten elements, but on the constraint which itself distributes those elements. Secondly, the metaconstraint is a transformation of a prior constraint. As its name suggests, the pseudo-quenina is derived from the quenina, a species of permutational rule that Raymond Queneau developed from a study of the sestinas of the medieval troubadour Arnaut Daniel. As mentioned above, Perec used the quenina in Alphabets, but not without making his own modification to it. In Life A User's Manual, he transformed it further. For reasons which only mathematicians can grasp, the quenina permutation cannot be applied to a set of ten: if you try, you'll find that the seventh element refuses to budge, which is obviously a spanner in the works of a machine designed to prevent things ever recurring in the same position. (The third, sixth, and ninth elements also behave pigheadedly by coming back to their initial positions at regular intervals.) What Perec did was to cobble together a pseudo-quenina, which he called a decina, and which, though it alters the rules of permutation, does exactly what he wants it to do in sets of ten. It looks like this:
1 2 4 8 5 0 9 7 3 6 1
2 4 8 5 0 9 7 3 6 1 2
3 6 1 2 4 8 5 0 9 7 3
4 8 5 0 9 7 3 6 1 2 4
5 0 9 7 3 6 1 2 4 8 5
6 1 2 4 8 5 0 9 7 3 6
7 3 6 1 2 4 8 5 0 9 7
8 5 0 9 7 3 6 1 2 4 8
9 7 3 6 1 2 4 8 5 0 9
0 9 7 3 6 1 2 4 8 5 0

In sum, the list of 42 elements to insert in each chapter of Life A User's Manual is the end product of a highly complex interaction of multiple constraints and clinamens, to which you have to add, under constraints, several less formal supplementary rules, and, under clinamens, the relatively frequent omission of elements required by the structure. It can all be laid out roughly as follows:


Pragmatic Conclusion

"And the Lord, who seeth all, saw right through that one," says the disillusioned narrator of Perec's Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard? We could easily come to adopt the same position at the end of our rather and ride around convoluted constraints with variable geometry.

Of course you can read Perec with pleasure and joy in complete ignorance of the quenina, the bisquare, and other such subtleties; overmuch attention to Perec's writing procedures may also obscure the text itself, which is something the author himself seems to have feared. But despite this, it seems to me that elucidating the constraints and their transformation, analyzing the complex relations between rules and their bending, attempting to see what is at stake in Perec's implausible balancing act does in the end illuminate the ramifications of a writerly procedure and really does help us to read his texts in a better way, by making us read them otherwise. I would like to conclude therefore with a number of general observations that might serve as the rudiments of a pragmatic approach to Perec.

The transformation, the bending, or the temporary suspension of a constraint does not in any sense imply the abandonment of a self-conscious method of writing based on a fundamental refusal of the rule of chance: if chance comes into it, it comes in under a rule. As we have seen, such rules are most often modified not "from below" (by being forgotten or missed) but "from above," by the overlay of one or more supplementary relations. If a system of constraint is sufficiently rugged and well-structured in itself, it can integrate less regulated elements that enrich the whole. Constraint aims less to abolish chance than to ascribe to it a place where it can give meaning. Without chance, you're likely to end up with "reciprocal jamming amounting to a draw" the most common outcome of the game called "Feedbackgammon" that Perec neatly inserted into chapter 27 of Life A User's Manual. But without markers, all you have is the formless and unsayable:
 What marks this period especially is the absence of landmarks:
 these memories are scraps of life snatched from the void. No
 mooring. Nothing to anchor them or to hold them down. Almost no way
 of ratifying them. No sequence in time, except as I have
 reconstructed it arbitrarily over the years: time went by.... There
 was no past, and for very many years there was no future either,
 things simply went on. You were there.... Things and places had no
 name, or several: the people had no faces. [W 68-69]

Writing is what seeks to arrange signs on the incoherent blankness of a page so as to make a sense, without ever reaching saturation: somewhere in the puzzle there will always be a gap, a clinamen:

I feel confusedly that the books I have written are inscribed and find their meaning in the overall image that I have of literature, but it seems to me that I shall never quite grasp that image entirely, that it belongs for me to a region beyond writing, to the question of "why I write" which I can never answer except by writing, and thus deferring forever the very moment when, by ceasing to write, that image would visibly cohere, like a jigsaw puzzle inexorably brought to its completion. ("Statement of Intent")

Elsewhere, Perec made no bones about one of the other reasons that led him to bend his systems of constraints--his wish to "hide his structures" He confessed that the idea of removing a chapter from Life A User's Manual occurred to him "so that no one would be able to reconstitute the system which would then only exist for [him]." Things were in reality a little less simple, because the copious authorial commentaries that he made on the novel served to dissipate the obfuscation to a considerable extent. The clues released in "Quatre Figures pour La Vie mode d'emploi" make it quite an easy matter to reconstitute the distribution of the chapters, to identify the spot where the clinamen enters, and to work out that the spot itself is far from innocent. On the other hand, real difficulty arises with the bisquare, and the original version, published together with an example chapter list (for chapter 23), is a veritable trap for the textual archaeologist. Perec's release of partial information is a perfect example of the "double cover" mentioned in Marcel Benabou's article above. The writer plays a kind of hide-and-seek with his reader, and in this game the transformation of constraint is part of the hiding. But I think Perec's aim is less to deceive his reader than to protect him from the illusion that he has found something. Life A User's Manual has two epigraphs: "Look with all your eyes, look," from Jules Verne; and "The eye follows the paths that have been laid down for it in the work," from Paul Klee. Because I never really applied them properly, I failed to read these two injunctions correctly. Despite appearances, they do not reduce reading Perec to a mere mirror-image of Perec's writing process, as I once believed. They demand an effort of intense observation and construction from the reader which is equivalent (but not identical--that was my error) to the efforts made by the writer painstakingly weaving his web of signs. Thence comes a kind of Perecquian ethics of reading. It is becoming ever more clear that Perec's whole oeuvre is like a gigantic effort to assemble and connect what was brutally cut off by History "with its capital H" in the gloom of 11 February 1943. Perec holds his reader to be neither unworthy nor entirely incapable of making an effort that is, I repeat, not identical, but analogous to his own.

"Nothing is granted me, everything has to be earned, not only the present and the future, but the past too--something after all which perhaps every human being has inherited, this too must be earned, it is perhaps the hardest task." When Ewa Pawlikowska quoted these lines from one of Kafka's letters to Milena, Perec replied: "I think that corresponds exactly to what I could state on my own behalf."

Nor is anything given to the reader confronting Perec's extraordinarily complex work: but there are at least many things to be constructed, even if, in the labyrinth of meandering rules and the startling traps of unsuspected clinamens, there is nothing that can ever be considered established once and for all.

Adapted and translated by David Bellos

Editor's Note: In 1969, whilst at the Moulin d'Ande in Normandy, Georges Perec composed a huge palindrome, the longest by far in French, a language which does not lend itself easily to phrasing which can be read from left to right AND from right to left. "9691. Edna d'Nilou ..." earned Perec a posthumous place in the Guinness Book of Records and it also draws attention to one of the abiding structures of all Perec's work, from his unpublished stories before Things to his unfinished detective novel: reversibility. Many other writers have been interested in mirrors and reflections, but Perec's concern with mirror-texts was more than merely formal. For whenever a work has two parts that represent each other in reverse, as in a palindrome, there is a third terra, a "something else" that exists as the product of the gap or difference in between. In the following passage from his recent novel The Great Fire of London, Jacques Roubaud pursues the most bewildering of Perec's "palindromic supplements" the letter reversal that connects W or The Memory of Childhood to Life A User's Manual, as he ponders the "Project" of his own novel.


(1) Georges Perec, "Still Life/Style Leaf," trans. Harry Mathews, Yale French Studies 61 (1982): 299.

(2) In Change 14 (1973).

(3) See "Le Dossier PALF," in CGP III.

(4) Conversation in Warsaw with Ewa Pawlikowska, in Litteratures 7 (1983): 69-76.

(5) "Quatre Figures pour La Vie mode d' emploi," L'Arc 76 (1979).

(6) Since this article was written, Bernard Magne has been able to study Perec's preparatory notes for "243 Full-Color Postcards" and has given a fuller account of them elsewhere.--Ed.

(7) Jean Ricardou, "Pour une theorie de la recriture," Poetique 77 (1989).
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Author:Magne, Bernard
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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Shakespeare and Gender: A History.
Globalizing Africa.
Globalization and change; the transformation of global capitalism. (reprint, 2004).
From socialism to capitalism; eight essays.
Transformations of late Antiquity; essays for Peter Brown.
Sonic transformations of literary texts; from program music to musical ekphrasis; nine essays.
Preparing multicultural teacher educators: toward a pedagogy of transformation.
Critical management studies at work; negotiating tensions between theory and practice.

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