W or The Memory of Childhood.
Reading W or The Memory of Childhood
In 1969, I was a subscriber to La Quinzaine litteraire. I had read Perec's previous works--Things, A Man Asleep; I was interested in Perec. I was therefore doubly curious when La Quinzaine announced that it would be publishing a "serial,' hardly typical of that austere journal. But as I read Perec's W, I soon became bored. I kept it up for a few episodes, then only glanced at the subsequent parts of this bizarre and finicky text, just to check that it was still stuck in the same rut. I've just got out my collection of La Quinzaine, and I now understand why I was then bored by a text which I now find overwhelming. On the cover-page of issue no. 81, beside the trailer for "the start of a serial novel by Georges Perec" there is ... [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]! A revolver, with the safety off!. It makes you expect a thriller, action, maybe an enigma, definitely an answer. At any rate, something light--Rocambole, Arsene Lupin, that sort of thing. Instead, I found a text that was self-evidently a parody, which you couldn't possibly read straightforwardly, a harebrained remake, a child of Jules Verne's Captain Grant on an outing to Kafka's penal colony! I couldn't see the connection with the revolver, nor could I see where the author was trying to go. Nor could he, apparently, since everything seemed to run into the sand.
Six years later. There I was faced with the same text a second time. But this time, the chapters of W alternated with childhood memories. The author seemed to wish the alternation to be respected by the reader. But the typography sets the two chapter-sequences off against each other quite starkly. It was like oil and water. Moreover, the switchback every six or seven pages from one series to the other runs counter to normal reading habits, breaks the inertia which is part and parcel of reading a novel for pleasure, and forces on you a tiresome form of mental gymnastics. Most people probably do as I did. First you try to play the game, then give up and read the two chapter-series separately and in succession. You lose the track at the beginning of part 2. In the first part, in fact, the reader's work is not too demanding: the relationship between the italic and roman texts is virtually transparent, the "stitches" between them are as plain as pikestaffs: two narrators, in search of their respective identities, tell their two stories. But in part 2, a massive gap suddenly opens up between the two series. The narrator-character of the "fiction" seems to have been swallowed up in an apparently external description of a nightmarish social system, whereas the memories of childhood carry on regardless. If the reader is a good reader, if he or she has learned from the to-and-fro of part 1, he or she will carry on with the game. In that case, he or she will perhaps notice the closing-off of everything to do with the mother in part 2 (whereas the narrator spoke so much of her in part 1, and you have to suppose that the child refugee at Villard-de-Lans carried on thinking about her), a closing-off that the reader will connect with the strange turn which the "fiction" takes. But let's leave the good reader to do the work which will lead to the threshold of the unbearable. The bad reader, untouched by the pedagogic assistance that Perec has provided, takes the two series one by one. He or she reads the fiction chapters in their sequence. He or she will be struck, if not entirely surprised, by the story's drift which moves, in a few chapters, from the Olympic ideal to a nightmare: the role of sport in fascist regimes is not exactly unknown. But the reader's unease and disgust are aroused as much by the story's teller as by the story told. You are unsettled by the scientific froideur, the cucumber-calm of the apparently impersonal narrating voice, as it describes imperturbably a system that is ever more abject--to the extent that you perceive the narrator as talking about something that exists. But since you also know full well that the author has invented what he has the narrator describe (even if he is inventing from lamentably well-established bases), you are horrified by his obsessive self-indulgence in playing such a game. This distressing impression is all the greater when you look at the drafts, where Perec elaborates on these sadistic structures in minute detail. For imagining W fatally involves a kind of coresponsibility: though it may be painful, it involves awakening the murderer that is inside you; it resuscitates the abject connection between victim and torturer.
At this point, I feel, in my turn, that I should be silent. My role is to indicate the gaps in the text, not to fill them in. The thematic relationship between the two series is made explicit by Perec at the end of the book. His adolescent fantasy of W was connected with the extermination camps where his mother probably died. This brief endnote merely confirms what the reader had already grasped for awhile. It has another, more secret function to close the tale with the appearance of having revealed the main point; but in fact it evades it. The bottom of it would be to know what function the drawings done at the age of thirteen fulfilled, to know what meaning to give to the illumination that Perec had in Venice in 1967, when the memory of his childhood drawings resurfaced; what was the sense of his planned serial, and of its evolution towards horror. At an early stage, Perec had in fact planned to give an explanation of all these questions, as we shall see. But he then decided to be silent. That is perhaps the sense in which W or The Memory of Childhood is a psychoanalytical autobiography: it is a montage of symptoms that leaves the reader to tackle the problem of interpretation. You can certainly grasp how the slow drift in the description of W figures a kind of self-therapy: Perec pretends to develop his teenage story in the language of teenage stories, but in fact he deciphers it by making it match its historical referent (Nazi camps) ever more closely. But he leaves under a bushel the function of teenage encoding and adult decoding, rather like the way he has the deaf-mute child, the original object of his search, disappear in the fiction. It is up to the reader to fathom this no doubt intolerable silence, to inhabit it with hypotheses. I said that I was perplexed by Perec's manic insistence on constructing W down to the last detail. I could also reflect on the beady system of identity-duplication set up in part 1. Or else I could see in W or The Memory of Childhood the visible tip of an enormous iceberg of grieving whose invisible mass presumably includes the tragic sense of guilt that is the survivor's lot.
Unease at the story's content, perplexity at the narrator's behavior. The good reader is the one who has the courage to go along with Perec to the end of a track towards an intolerable truth. The other reader (but who are we to throw stones?) may prefer to believe that the book becomes "tiresome" that it is "badly constructed." Such a reader may skip a few chapters to check at the end that his guess about W was right. The worst of it is that he or she could feel relieved on finding historically real Nazi camps--which at least get you away from the parable of W. That's when we should throw a stone.
In any case, the bad reader is punished. By reading the fiction, he's begun with the cake. Except at the crossing from part 1 to part 2, the fiction chapters connect up, and they are written smoothly, coherently. It's not at all like reading the childhood memory chapters one after the other: they all fall apart, or go lumpy, like a badly mixed packet-soup. There's scarcely any necessary sequence from one chapter to another. What there is above all is fragmentation, self-doubt, repeated self-interruption. Deliberate sabotage. The narrative discontinuity proper to childhood reminiscences is usually counterbalanced by thematic ordering and the art of writing. If that's what you were expecting, hard luck. Your disappointment will be even greater than if you had taken the revolver seriously. It's not different: it's the opposite. The whole of the childhood memory part seems to have been written to disappoint the specific horizon of expectations of the "childhood memories" genre. On two occasions, the "right kind" of childhood memory--of mother and school--arises in the text as a matter of regret [W 49 and 70]. The narrator has no memory of this kind and seems intent on an opposite strategy. He refuses to write decoratively in any way, to embellish the memory or to make it echo. The narrator is a hypercritical presence in the text, pinning down mistakes, approximations, elaborations, stripping memories bare, questioning them like an inquisitor, blinding them with spotlights of truth. The minutes of these cruel sessions are drawn up in neutral style. Readers can only be struck by the way the critical dynamic almost always stops short of anything that could be called reconstruction, or interpretation. However, W or The Memory of Childhood was drafted in its final form "under analysis" and it is the continuation of the psychotherapy that Perec underwent with Francoise Dolto in 1948. A total silence, which echoes, if I may use the expression, in "Backtracking": "I had to go back on my tracks, to travel once more the path I had trod and of which I had lost the thread. There is nothing I can say about that buried place. I know that it had a place and that its trace is for ever more marked in me and in the texts that I write" [TS 52]. What a temptation it would be, for a Freudian, to give the keys to the memory of the "golden key given by the father" [W 14]! Perec holds back, and that's just too bad for the reader, who presses on. Too bad for the "soppy little echoes of the Oedipus complex or of castration" [W 42] or for the "beginner's book of Oedipus" [TS 49]. Admittedly, Perec does sometimes stray into interpretation--nobody's perfect, after all. But the general direction is the opposite. The register of scrupulousness, far from enhancing the authentic (as it does in Stendhal, for instance), tends to haze it over and to dissolve it. I shall give the two most spectacular examples of this strategy which apparently seeks to represent memory as a hole or gap.
In part 1 of W or The Memory of Childhood, the system of footnotes, first used in chapters 4 and 6, is expanded to monstrous excess in chapter 8. Put in the middle distance by the device of self-quotation, the old texts in bold typeface presenting the father and the mother are explicated by twenty-six footnotes that end up being longer than the parental biographies themselves. The footnote cues are tiny and hard to locate without reading the text through again. The notes themselves are gathered at the end of the chapter, not printed at the foot of the page, and are set in the same point size as the main text. The conscientious reader has to limber up for a really unpleasant acrobatic exercise. You'll have skipped the footnote cues when you read the "old" texts; now, for each note at the end, you have to go back to find the passage that is being explicated, then return to the explicating note, twenty-six times in a row. I suppose that many readers read the notes in their own sequence, without checking back to the main text, which is still fresh in the memory. But then another acrobatic exertion begins: the notes have very varied functions with respect to the main text--corrections, criticisms, extensions on quite miscellaneous topics. They go off in every direction and leave the original construction in tatters. Far from allowing us to see Perec's parents in greater detail, with greater precision, the notes cover their image in a dim and uncertain haze, obscure them with a further language-screen. By making token notes on his own footnotes [W 41], Perec points to the powerlessness of language to fill the void. This tragical operation is the book's aim and it can only be understood in the context of the "excess" that overflows in the fictional chapters of part 2. The ever-obstructed path of memory stands in contrast to the smooth slope of the fiction into nightmare.
In part 2, Perec abandons footnotes and uses instead a kind of "hypermodulation" of language. He piles doubts and nuances on top of each other: "I remember ... I think ... I suppose now ... Today I know ... I don't remember ... I have a much clearer recollection of ... I think ... I think ... I remember ... perhaps ... in any case ... I don't think ... I think" [W 114-16]. I know of no other childhood reminiscence so monotonously overloaded with the signals of scrupulousness and subjectivity. It's like a passacaglia droning on beneath all the childhood memories of part 2. If you read these chapters one after the other, you can hardly fail to find them boring. It's nothing like Sido, or La Gloire de mon pere.... It's the opposite, in fact, the tragic opposite: an orphaned memory in a gray smock taking a vow of renunciation, refusing the grace of writing. Of course, Perec goes on with the orchestration of autobiography, connecting past and present here and there, noting starting points and recurrent features, making allusions to one or another of his works. But all that is done very discreetly, to the extent that we are quite surprised when an only slightly firmer tone seems to communicate a modest confession about the adult's emotional life ("henceforth only strange women will come unto you" [W 105]). Most of the time, Perec's blank and meticulous style dampens the vibrations, plays on the piano pedal.
Up to now, I've played the part of the bad reader, reading the two series separately. I confess that I was that bad reader once upon a time, whereas now I can no longer read this book without pain. Is it surprising that two negative reading experiences (a tiresome fiction, dull childhood memories) end up having such an acute impact? For "minus times minus" to make a "plus" all the reader has to do is to agree to get involved, and to construct the location whence the alternation of the two series draws its meaning: to give W a heartrendingly allegorical reading, and to experience exclusion in the gap between the two sets of chapters, each of which appears to take no notice of the other.
Perec did not hit upon this extraordinarily effective structure at his first attempt. It is the fruit of a bold speculation on reading practices. There are other texts by Perec based on similar calculations. Who would believe that readers could accept a book consisting of 480 sentences beginning with the same words? But that is what Perec did with Je me souviens (I remember), in imitation of Joe Brainard's I Remember (first published in part in 1970). The reader's memory, infected by contagion, continues the book after its end. But W or The Memory of Childhood and Je me souviens produce diametrically opposite effects: in the first case, a nightmare that you have to struggle to share; in the second, a euphoric chant that carries you along.
W, which became W or The Memory of Childhood, belongs to a set of autobiographical projects imagined by Perec around 1967-1969. In a long letter of self-presentation to Maurice Nadeau written in July 1969 [Jsn 51-66], Perec sets out the plan: there would be Lieux (Places) (descriptions and memories of twelve places in Paris carried out over a period of twelve years), L'Arbre (The Tree) (a description of his family tree, a tree-novel, a saga), and Lieux ou j'ai dormi (Places I have slept in), a catalogue of bedrooms, with the reminiscences attached to them, a kind of "vesperal autobiography," to use Perec's phrase. All these plans involve a process of garnering followed by one kind of montage or another. Perec wants to make meaning and feeling spring from a system of juxtaposition, to invite the reader to accept responsibility for the connections between the different elements, a connection left unstated in the text. Obviously there is an element of play in these experiments, but he indulges in them only in order to speak that which conventional forms no longer allow to be said, in order to escape from a silent death.
I have mentioned three of the four planned works; all three were abandoned or left unfinished. The fourth project was the only one that did not appear to involve montage. It was to be a serial novel, simply entitled W ...
Writing W or The Memory of Childhood
The book that came out in 1975 in French looks like the product of twin disasters, the stratified residue of two "failures" grafted onto each other. Twice in succession, first for the serial, then for the book, an enthusiastic, expansive, creative surge was shattered, sidelined, and shriveled, producing in the end extremely dense texts, which are also unbearable. The repetition is itself fascinating.
First burst: July 1969. It's best to let Perec speak for himself. He was highly excited by his plan. Of the four books he envisaged, W would be the one to be written first off. It would be an adventure novel, a novel of apprenticeship! and at the same time a way of talking about his childhood! and a kind of huge novel of "human-science fiction" so to speak!
The third book is an adventure story. It comes out of a childhood memory, or to be more precise, out of a fantasy which I developed at length around the age of twelve or thirteen during my first psychotherapy. I had forgotten it completely; it came back to me, one evening, in Venice, in September 1967, when I was fairly drunk; but the idea of turning it into a novel didn't arise until much later. The book is called W W is an island, somewhere off Tierra del Fuego. It is inhabited by a race of athletes wearing white tracksuits emblazoned with a big black W. That's about all I can remember. But I know I told the story of W a great deal (in drawings and speech) and that today, I can, in telling W, tell the story of my childhood. In theory, W was the third book to write; I had scheduled it for something like 1975 or 1977! But over the last six weeks I have more or less decided to get down to it straight away.... W, on the other hand, fills me with excitement: an adventure novel, a travelogue, a novel of education (Bildungsroman!), Jules Verne, Roussel, and Lewis Carroll! My first sketches, pastiches of The Children of Captain Grant, excited me a lot, but in the end I don't think they prove anything very much. Still in the track of Jules Verne, I then thought that since Jules Verne had sought to give a certain notion of the sciences of his day (positivism, scientism, the miracle of electricity, history of colonisation, etc.), I could entertain a similar ambition and aim to base my adventures and the description of the society of W on the principles of linguistics, computer science, ethnology, psychoanalysis (you could have guessed!), etc. But once the first flush of enthusiasm had passed, I advised caution to myself, recalling quite appropriately an old and somewhat similar project, Fragments d'un Ninipotch, which I couldn't keep up for more than six months (since then I've reread bits of it which are quite funny, bur I think it was pretty dreadful overall). [Jsn 61-62]
Perec goes on in the same rapid stride, and explains in the end that he had chosen a production-constraint, the constraint of serial composition. He wants to force himself "to invent afresh every day, to construct episodes each of which would successfully bring the preceding one to a conclusion and prepare the next, with mystery and suspense" It would be a bit much to do that on a daily schedule. But why not fortnightly, if Nadeau would like to publish the serial in La Quinzaine litteraire? Done. The first episode came out on 15 October 1969.
16 January 1970: La Quinzaine litteraire arrives, the reader opens it to find episode 7 of Perec's bizarre serial, and lights upon an announcement worthy of Dante. Not "Abandon all hope, ye who enter," but "Abandon all memory." It is worth quoting in full this strange text (strange in a serial, at least), which is also very moving in retrospect: "There was no story so far. Forget what you read: it was a different tale, at most a prologue, or a memory so distant that what follows cannot fail to submerge it. For it is now that it all begins, now that he sets off on his search" [La Quinzaine litteraire, no. 87]. The shadow of Jules Verne is dispelled for good. The idea of a utopian
novel in the manner of 1984 is finished for good. We are plunged into the horror of an allegorical tale which deals not with what might be, but with what was, in the manner of Animal Farm. Suspense is dispensed with, no more pleasure in playing consequences. All the partners in the adventure suffer, and show their suffering. Readers complain, Maurice Nadeau tells Perec of their unease, in the end, and suggests that he shorten the torture. But what the readers do not know is that the writer is suffering even more than they are. But they might have guessed it, for he misses his appointment with them in the issue dated 16 May 1970. La Quinzaine appears without an episode of its serial and informs its readers: "Georges Perec was late in sending in the next episode of his serial. He offers his apology to readers, who will be able to follow the story in our next issue." Why this stumble? Two things allow us to guess what it was. The chapter published on 1 May (chapter 26 of the published book) is without any doubt the most atrocious of all: it is the one that deals with "the conception of children" on W. The drafts also give us a more direct insight into the block that afflicted a writer who could not bear the horror of what he had to write. On 30 May 1970, he notes: "I can waste hours playing patience instead of writing W." Somehow or other, he managed finally to get his serial to its rather abrupt end; the last chapter appeared in the issue for August 1970.
What helped him to do so was that, probably from the beginning of the winter of 1970, and certainly from March 1970, he found a way of escaping from the anguish of an obvious literary failure. He cut his losses, accepted that his serial would peter out into horror, and hoped to recycle his experiment at a different level, by integrating it into a book which would tell both the story of his childhood and the story of how he wrote W.
Second burst: June 1970. He's been working on it since March, but now he's cracked it! On 30 May, Perec was stuck in a rut, as we saw; but on 12 June, he writes: "Beyond all its faults--of method, of aim--I feel that the book is coming together little by little, that its parts are joining, are articulating themselves, that a strategy of writing is slowly but very surely emerging from all these fitful efforts." The idea has come to him of blending the serial into a larger ensemble which explains it and makes its horror bearable. First of all he thought of putting two other sets after the story of W: his memories of childhood, and a history of the book itself. Then it occurs to him that the three sets of texts should not be laid end to end, but interleaved: one "fiction" chapter, then a childhood memory chapter, then a chapter of what he called "intertext" or "critique." As there were nineteen fiction chapters, the two other sets would similarly be sorted into nineteen episodes each. Perec drew up a sketch plan in fifty-seven chapters, giving a summary indication of contents. Then he had another idea: instead of having the chapters interleaved in a regular order (ABC, ABC, etc.), why not use a permutation device (ABC, ACB, BAC, BCA, CAB, CBA) used thrice over? In September 1970, he began, with some difficulty, to write his memories of childhood in a little black exercise book [reproduced in part in CGPII 159-69 and in smaller part in Jsn 9-14]. For already in August, at the end of the last episode of the W serial fiction, after thanking Maurice Nadeau and the readers of La Quinzaine litteraire for their patience, he had dared to announce the publication "in the course of the coming year" of the serial's further development in the form of a book entitled W or The Memory of Childhood.
Nineteen seventy-one: nothing! Nor did anything appear in the following years. It was not until 1975 that the book came out, and in a rather different form. Its genesis had lasted five years, but the result had been a shrinking. What emerged was not a nimble dance of three series, but a tragic and static confrontation of the first two series. What had happened? Why did the third series, intended in some sense to tell the story of writing's triumph over fantasy and horror, simply vanish? (1) The drafts give no direct insight into the reasons either for the deferral or for the transformation. In the absence of biographical knowledge, the only lead we have is that the maturing process of the text corresponds in time to the psychoanalysis begun in May 1971 and broken off in 1975, an analysis about which "Les Lieux d'une ruse" tells us so much and yet so little. Is there any relationship between the abandonment of the project first thought up in May 1970 and whatever it was that brought Perec back into analysis the following May? Is there a relationship between the completion of the book in 1974 and the abandonment of analysis in 1975? Probably yes, but it is not easy to say anything more.
On the other hand, the tragical shrinking of the book is obviously parallel to what had happened to the serial. In both cases, what disappears (amongst other things) is the story of a positive experience: in the serial, the story of Gaspard Winckler's journey of exploration--did he find the child? what happened when he got back to Europe?--and in the book, the story of Georges Perec's (self-)exploration through language and drawing from 1948 until the book's completion in 1974.
This tragic shrinkage is not only a form of "failure" (Perec used the word himself, when talking of the serial) but a solution to an aesthetic problem. In effect, the rapid disappearance, in the serial, or the only vestigial presence, in the book, of the mediating instance of the explorer-character obliges the reader to accept responsibility for the construction and interpretation of the tale. In the fiction-serial, it is the reader who has to imagine the relationship between the two parts, to stand in for the internal narrator, who has vanished; in the book, the reader also has to establish the link between the fiction and the memories of childhood. In a sense, there is no one at the wheel. There is no pole of identification for the reader, bereft of the paternal guidance provided by a classical narrator, thrust into the text like an orphan into deep water, and obliged to confront horror and anguish almost face-on. This is no epic in the manner of Jules Verne, it contains no positive experience of learning. A reader who stays the journey relives the narrator's own torture. It would have weakened the effect to depict this torture explicitly. If Perec had kept to the plan he imagined on 30 May 1970 and had written a chapter on "the difficulties of writing" to explain how he had cracked after composing the "conception of children" chapter, the latter would have been less atrocious, the reader would have felt less abandoned. Which is probably why Perec chose to crucify his reader: to be less alone himself.
Translated by David Bellos
(1) The discovery of the manuscript of the memory chapters (now in the Swedish Royal Library) after this article was written has allowed at least part of an answer to be given to this question. See D. Bellos, The "Third Dimension" of Perec's W ou le souvenir d'enfance. French Studies Bulletin 70.1 (Spring 1999): 1-3.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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