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Ben Sonnenberg

Georges Perec
Author(s): Harry Mathews
Source: Grand Street, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Autumn, 1983), pp. 136-145
Published by: Ben Sonnenberg
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25006566
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Harry Mathews

Ttalo Calvino once wrote of Georges Perec that he was

"so singular a literary personality that he bears abso
lutely no resemblance to anyone else." Perec was not
only original; as with Kafka and Raymond Roussel, his
originality cannot be defined, or even suggested, through
comparison with other writers. In his work there are many
traces-references, even direct quotations-of the authors
he admired, among them Kafka and Roussel; but it is
difficult to find passages that can be described as Kaf
kaesque or Roussellian, and no easier to identify traits
that might allow us to recognize in Perec the disciple of
Melville or Nabokov, of Lowry or Thomas Mann, or even
of Raymond Queneau, all of whom he held in the high
est esteem. If Flaubert is undeniably present through
out Perec's first novel, Les Choses, the exception is only
apparent: Flaubert here is not an influence but a deliber
ately chosen object of imitation, the results of which are
put to unquestionably original use.
Perec's two most highly acclaimed books, Les Choses
and La Vie mode d'emploi, earned him the reputation of
being an almost scientific observer of contemporary so
ciety; but his work is essentially intimate. Still other writ
ings-La Disparition and the texts he produced as a mem
ber of the Oulipo-led many observers to think of him as
a verbal acrobat, an impression belied by the candor of
every page he wrote, even the most formally complex.
Both misinterpretations are perhaps inevitable conse
quences of Perec's originality-an originality which is to
be found neither in his subject matter nor in his style
nor even in his renewal of available traditions and forms,
but which lies rather in his primordial approach to his
art. What Perec did was to reimagine and reinvent the
act of writing itself. How radical his approach was can be
seen in the extraordinary role played in his work by that
basic unit, the letter: not only in La Disparition but in


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such works as W and La Vie mode d'emploi, it is used

in a variety of formal and narrative ways to express the
emptiness, the absence, the sense of death that lie at the
center of Perec's literary enterprise.
Perec was the offspring of one of the greatest disasters
in history ("L'Histoire avec sa grande hache," as he said
History with its capital ache): the attempt at genocide
that produced the concentration camps of the forties.
It was in reacting to the personal consequences of this
disaster that Perec discovered his originality. Deprived
of a family and a community he could call his own, he
found in literature a medium where he could literally re
create his origins. Of a book reread many times during
his adolescence he wrote: "I began using it almost as an
individual past-it was a source of things to remember, of
things to keep thinking about, of things I could count on."
Of his parents he said: "If I write, it is because they left
their indelible mark on me, whose sign is the written
word: writing is the remembrance of their death and the
affirmation of my life." Elsewhere he speaks of writing
as "a scrupulous attempt to preserve something, to make
something last..."
There is little point in separating Perec's writings into
what is autobiographical and what is nominally fictitious.
His work is of one piece-the transcription of a rare intel
ligence and sensibility united in the crafty and straight
forward attempt to refashion a world where nothing could
be relied on by assembling and disassembling those things
of the world that we call letters and words, poems and


Georges Perec was born in Paris on March 7, 1936. His
parents were Jews who had emigrated from Poland ten
years earlier. He was orphaned young: his father was
killed during the Battle of France in June 1940; his mother
was arrested in 1942 and died in a concentration camp,
perhaps Auschwitz. From 1942 to 1945 Perec lived with
relatives who had taken refuge in the French Alps near
Grenoble; after the war, he returned with them to Paris.


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He was admitted to the Sorbonne nine years later; his

studies were irregular. He began earning his living as a
public-opinion analyst. Later, he was hired by the Centre
National de Recherche Scientifique as a research librarian
specializing in neurophysiology, a position he held until
1979, when the success of La Vie mode d'emploi encour
aged him to live entirely by his pen.
Writing had attracted Perec early. By 1955 he was con
tributing reviews and commentary to literary magazines.
His career as a novelist began in 1965 with the publica
tion of Les Choses, which was hailed as a masterpiece and
won the Prix Renaudot. Many other works were to follow,
even more remarkable for their variety than for their
abundance: six novels, several plays and collections of
poetry, autobiographical works, and a book-length essay.
With the film Un Homme qui dort (Prix Jean Vigo, 1974),
adapted from one of his novels and directed by himself
and Bernard Queysanne, Perec initiated a second career.
He was also a celebrated compiler of crossword puzzles,
and in that capacity he was, after 1976, on the staff of the
weekly magazine Le Point. His last published work was
"L'Vlternite," a poem printed in a limited edition in 1982.


With Les Choses, Perec made a spectacular appearance
on the literary scene. The reputation of the book has sur
vived its initial success: it has been reprinted and trans
lated many times; extracts appear regularly in school and
university textbooks. Those honors are based partly on a
The book concerns the difficulties of a young couple,
Jer6me and Sylvie, in the Paris of the early sixties. After
graduation, they eke out a marginal life in the midst of
a world obsessed with material well-being; more exactly,
it is they who become obsessed with the objects of ele
gance and luxury (the Things of the title) that the world
offers them. They yearn to possess these things, and at the
same time they refuse to submit to the time-consuming
demands of professional careers. Finding their situation
impossible, they try to escape it by leaving France and

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settling in Tunisia, where they end up leading unsatis

factory lives in a postcolonial small town.
Les Choses has often been read as a sociological case
history, as almost a tract denouncing consumer society;
to some extent that interpretation gave the book its fame.
But from the outset Les Choses also impressed readers by
its structure and style. Its use of time and tense typically
illustrates Perec's artistic powers. The first chapter, the
description of a fashionably "perfect" city apartment, is
written entirely in the conditional tense; the last chapter,
an epilogue in which Jer6me and Sylvie hypothetically re
turn to Paris, is entirely in the future. Between those two
"unreal" time zones, the bulk of the story is related in the
past definite and imperfect, in sentences of such Flau
bertian inexorability as to exclude all possible alterna
tives. Because the grammatical structure corresponds to
the situation in which Jerome and Sylvie find themselves,
it transforms a detached, apparently cold story into a
touching personal drama. Perec says of his two characters,
"Nothing human was unknown to them." Jer6me and
Sylvie are the incarnations of a basic human dilemma (of
which consumer society is merely a particular context):
they desire a world they cannot accept because it has been
imposed on them.
We find in Les Choses traits that were to become typi
cal of Perec's style, notably an almost compulsive pen
chant for accumulation. In his next work, Quel petit velo
.. ., a rambunctious account of the efforts of some more
or less bohemian Parisians to keep a drafted friend from
being sent to Algeria, Perec introduces two new tech
niques: the exhaustive application to everyday language
of a corpus of rhetorical forms (inspired by one of Roland
Barthes's courses and also, no doubt, by the newspaper
chapter in Ulysses), and a systematic repetition of words,
phrases and sentences that provides a lively counterpoint
to the narrative. For all its charm, Quel petit velo ... re
mains a minor work, but Perec's use of repetition was to
acquire an extraordinary resonance in the major work that
followed, Un Homme qui dort. That book tells the story
the absent story-of a student who drops out of not only

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college but life. In order to escape the tyranny of time and

space, he gives up family and friends and fills his days and
nights with indifferent acts, wandering through the streets,
going to movies he does not bother to choose, playing
game after game of solitaire. By pretending that nothing in
his life is of any importance, he tries to deny the very fact
of having been born in the world. Perec renders his pro
tagonist's attempt to immerse himself in emptiness by me
ticulously recounting the moments he spends between
sleep and waking (moments when his will can no longer
protect him), as well as by detailing his futile activities:
out of their almost stagnant repetition, a slow, hallucina
tory music evolves, until finally, recoiling from the night
mare into which his experiment has led him, the young
man turns back toward life. What follows is neither a tri
umph nor a rebirth, only the plain acceptance of his
existence among others-a moment at once flat, poignant
and serene.

Un Homme qui dort was published in 1967. That same
year, Perec started what was to be his most perplexing
work, La Disparition, a novel written entirely without the
letter e.* (The frequency of e is even greater in French
than in English.) A written work that excludes one or
more letters is an ancient form called a lipogram. Perec's
interest in such rare and difficult modes led to his elec
tion, in 1967, to the Ouvroir de literature potentielle, or
Oulipo. The event was for him a capital one; he was to
declare years later that he considered himself "an off
spring of the Oulipo." The Oulipo was founded in 1961
by Franois Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau; it is a
small group of writers and mathematically oriented scien
tists devoted to inventing and rediscovering "constrictive
forms," procedures and structures so peremptory in their
demands that no one using them can avoid subordinating
his personal predilections to them. (It is impossible for

* See Harry Mathews, "Vanishing Point," The Avant-Garde Tra

dition in Literature, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Buffalo, 1982).

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anyone avoiding the letter e, for instance, to say what he

normally says the way he normally says it.) The Oulipo
provided Perec with an ideal context in his search for new
and complex tools: an amiable laboratory where ingenu
ity, rigor and game playing are encouraged. The consum
mation of his Oulipian exploration was to come ten years
later with the completion of the monumental La Vie
mode d'emploi.


In the meantime, Perec abandoned the novel (with the
exception of Les Revenentes, a work complementing Le
Disparition in that e is the only vowel used). He pub
lished a series of autobiographical works: La Boutique
obscure, the record of his dreams over a three-year period;
Especes d'espaces, an essay on the notion of space, start
ing with the written page, proceeding thence from bed
to room to the world at large; W ou le souvenir d'enfance;
and Je me souviens (suggested by Joe Brainard's I remem
ber series), a captivating compendium of facts that once
were common knowledge but have since been largely for
gotten. (Perec's first poems date from this period; the
most remarkable collection of them, La Cl6ture, is also
autobiographical.) Of those works W is doubtless the
most considerable. It is part fiction, part autobiography:
Perec sets the resources of imagination against those of
factual reconstitution so as to invoke through their reper
cussion an excruciating, literally unspeakable subject. A
strange tale-at first of mystery, then of pseudo satire and
finally of visionary horror-alternates with the painstak
ing and often painful reconstitution of the author's early
years. The tale, whose apparent subject is a utopian so
ciety grotesquely dedicated to the ideals of Olympic com
petition, and the autobiographical chronicle, which cen
ters on the loss of the author's parents, move towards a
point of intersection that is never quite reached: the
product of capitalism gone mad that was the Nazi con
centration camp. The relation between the two strands is
never made explicit; it is no less heartrendingly expressed.


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Perec's longest and most ambitious novel was, like Les
Choses, acclaimed upon its appearance (it was awarded
the Prix Medicis). Nine years had passed between the
conception and completion of La Vie mode d'emploi.
Perec had mentioned his project in Especes d'espaces: "I
have imagined a building ... that has had its facade re
moved ... so that from ground floor to roof all its rooms
on the street side are instantaneously and simultaneously
visible." Elsewhere he wrote, "The entire book was con
ceived as a house whose rooms would fit together like the
pieces of a puzzle." In the novel, the rooms are those of a
Parisian apartment building; associated with them are
the lives of their present and former tenants. The book
thus assembles a multitude of biographies, alternately
touching, peculiar, silly, and tragic; critics have compared
it to Balzac's Comedie humaine.
The puzzle not only played a role in the conception of
the book; it also appears in the central story around which
the other narratives revolve. Percival Bartlebooth, a rich
eccentric who has spent years traveling around the world
solely to complete a series of five hundred watercolors,
has commissioned Gaspard Winckler, a skilled craftsman,
to transform the paintings into jigsaw puzzles; Bartle
booth will subsequently reassemble them. At the begin
ning of the novel we learn that Winckler has died after
completing the task. Bartlebooth will also die, but before
he manages to solve the final puzzle. Serge Valene, a
painter who has closely followed the activities of the
other two, is engaged in working out a puzzle of his own,
one that bears a striking resemblance to La Vie mode
d'emploi: he is painting the building in which he lives,
without its facade, so as to portray what is happening in
each room. He too will die before his work is finished.
In these three characters Perec presents us with a com
plex portrait of the artist, as well as of man in his social
and economic roles. There is first of all Bartlebooth, the
inventor of elaborate and difficult procedures, the one
who gives orders, a generous, distant, obsessively orga
nized man; then Winckler, who must submit to the pro


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cedures in order to execute them, the subordinate whose

genius transforms five hundred puzzles into a single grand
design, someone obsessed, because of his subordinate con
dition, with thoughts of vengeance and death; and finally
Valene, compassionate, solitary, like Bartlebooth an in
ventor of demanding forms but one who assumes them
freely. Crystallized around these three lives, the book in
all its profusion becomes a masterly demonstration of the
origins and consequences of the creative act.


After La Vie mode d'emploi, Perec published only two
book-length works in prose: Un Cabinet d'amateur, a no
vella about a collection of doubly fictitious paintings, and
Recits d'Ellis Island, a voice-over commentary for a film
by Robert Bober in which, for the first time, Perec dis
cusses his Jewishness. He left an unfinished novel, "52
Two things about Perec's work strike us when we con
sider it as a whole: its abundance and its dependence on
exceptionally strict procedures. It is essential to realize
that the strictness makes the abundance possible. Every
writer who confronts a world without meaning and under
takes to transform it through language must answer the
questions: Where do I begin? What right have I to speak
at all? Perec's circumstances gave these questions special
urgency. He was an orphan, and a Jew for whom Jewish
ness meant not a community of language or tradition but
"silence, absence, doubt, instability, anxiety . . ." Being
Jewish meant "owing one's life entirely to chance and
exile." Faced with such deprivation, Perec was forced to
invent a place to start from: what he chose was the au
tonomy of complex structures, later subsumed in the
Oulipian notion of constrictive form. (It is worth point
ing out that Perec's early works are as formally exacting
as his post-Oulipian ones; the procedures are only harder
to describe.) The choice freed him from the agonizing
problem of self-expression. (How can you express your
self when history has confiscated your voice?) Constric
tive forms speak for themselves: they bring their own


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justification with them; there is no limit to what they can

say. In La Disparition (a book crucial to Perec's achieve
ment in its demonstration of the productive power of
deprivation), he explains: "To my mind you can find in it
a Law for writing today: and to gain insight into a thrust
of imagination that has no limit, nourishing its own growth
in colossal outcroppings, you must (you must only) sub
mit to using no word gratuitously... to having, contrarily,
all words function as products of a constraint, of a canon
that is in total command!"
The abundance of Perec's work is itself a "colossal out
cropping"; the expression also reminds us of his habit of
repetition and collection. Clearly the goal of that habit
is not gratuitous accumulation but rather inclusion: it
expresses Perec's desire to expand his world as he creates
it. Such a goal conforms to the proliferation of stories in
La Vie mode d'emploi, and we can see how it could lead
as well to the extravagant visions that in certain of his
books take us to the brink of delirium-the Gargantuan
mirages of Les Choses, the invasion of the freaks in Un
Homme qui dort, the erotic explosion of Les Revenentes,
or the subterranean world imagined in La Vie mode d'
These visions, which almost burst the fabric of Perec's
fiction, remind us how fragile that fiction is. Perec knew
perfectly well that even if he committed himself utterly
to remaking the world through writing, his new world
would be no less doomed than the one into which he had
been born; and he leaves the reader with no illusions on
that score. His books end in emptiness. The final pages of
La Vie mode d'emploi are perhaps the most shattering of
all: we learn that the entire novel has taken place during
the moment of Bartlebooth's death, and the book turns to
dust in our hands (everything that has passed is only fic
tion; fiction is only what is past). The canvas painted by
Valene, the author's counterpart, remains empty. The con
cluding paragraph of Un Cabinet d'amateur, his last work
of fiction, similarly undoes everything that has gone be
fore: "Thoroughgoing inspections soon revealed that the
majority of pictures in the collection... were indeed false,


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no less false than the majority of details in this chronicle,

conceived merely for the pleasure, merely for the pang,
of make-believe."

After an illness of several months, Georges Perec died

of lung cancer on March 3, 1982, in a hospital in the sub
urbs of Paris.


Les Choses (Things), 1965 (Juillard)
Quel petit vllo d guidon chrome au fond de la cour? (What
little bike with chrome handlebars at the far end of the
yard?), 1966 (Denoel)
Un Homme qui dort (Man in a Dream), 1966 (Denoel)
La Disparition (Vanishing Point), 1967 (Denoil)
Les Revenentes [sic] (The Revengers Retern [sic]), 1972
La Vie mode d'emploi (Life and Use), 1978 (Hachette)
Un Cabinet d'amateur (A Cabinet Picture), 1979 (Balland)
La Boutique obscure (Night Shopping), 1973 (Denoel)
Espdces d'espaces (Species of Spaces), 1974 (Editions Gali
W ou le souvenir d'enfance (W or Childhood Memory),
1975 (Denoel)
La Cloture et autres podmes (Enclosure), 1980 (Hachette)
Recits d'EUis Island (Chronicles of Ellis Island), 1980 (ldi
tions du Sorbier)
ThMdtre I, 1981 (Hachette)

Almost all these titles are in print or soon to be reprinted.

Little of Perec's work has been published in English (though
there may be more than is listed here). A translation of Les
Choses by Helen Lane appeared in 1968 (Les Choses, Grove
Press, New York, o.p.). Two short extracts from Un Homme
qui dort can be found in Paris Review, No. 56, 1973, and
other pieces in Yale French Studies, No. 56, 1961, and Sub
Stance, No. 29, 1981.

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