A Categorically Great Writer

Few writers since James Joyce tired so quickly of literary forms as Georges Perec. When the Frenchman died, 30 years ago this Saturday – and just four days shy of his 46th birthday – he left some seven novels (plus one unfinished) and a whole panoply of other texts – screenplays, radio plays, essays, literary reviews, compilations of crosswords (which he compiled for the magazine Le Point), acrostics, inventories, and indefinable forms he himself concocted. If Perec could not find a form into which he could shoehorn his literary intentions, he would invent one. Hence we have short epigrammatic pieces such as a selection of 243 imaginary postcard greetings; a description of everything Perec saw while sitting at Café de la Mairie on Paris’ Place Saint-Sulpice over three days in October 1974; an inventory of everything he ate (or ‘ingurgitated’) the same year; advice on how to ask your boss for a raise. While Borges distilled his long hours perusing medieval arcana in the National Library of Argentina into limpid texts of often perplexing brevity, Perec shaped his own manically atypical forms from the everyday routine of office work and urban living.

Having dropped out of the Sorbonne where he was studying for a history degree, Perec worked as an archivist in a science laboratory for most of his adult life, retiring from it only after the success of his most famous novel, Life: A User’s Manual, in 1978. It was a job that appeared to suit him temperamentally and the daily task of classification and taxonomy influenced his writing more and more as his career progressed. Sometimes it seemed that he used classification for writing as an exercise just simply to get the thoughts rolling – common enough practice: William Burroughs would often counter writer’s block by just writing about some random object. Where Perec was different however was he allowed these exercises to develop into publishable pieces; in one case (‘Think/Classify’) he even abandoned his efforts to turn his thoughts on classification into a polished essay and just published his preparatory notes. To people in the English-speaking world, where strictly demarcated publishing norms are esteemed and literary playfulness frowned upon, it might seem shoddy practice. In France though, with its tradition of literary ludic games, things are different. One of the most notable proponents of this was OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or ‘Workshop of Potential Literature’), a group founded by mathematicians and writers interested in exploring the common ground between their two métiers. Among the most famous literary members were Italo Calvino and Raymond Queneau. The young Georges Perec also joined and would base his most audacious literary accomplishment on the group’s precepts.

In 1969, Perec published La disparition, a book-length lipogram (a literary text with one or more words of the alphabet omitted) that ran to over 300 pages. Written for a bet, the book left out the French language’s most commonly used letter, ‘e’. The narrative itself is a rollicking crime parody, which follows a group of friends as they search for the missing protagonist Anton Vowl. The lately departed Gilbert Adair translated it into English in 1992 (as A Void). Still not finished, Perec then went on to write a novella using no vowels but ‘e’, called Les revenentes (translated into English as The Exeter Text – Jewels, Secrets, Sex), which, admittedly, took a lot more orthographical liberties than its longer cousin. Another example of Perec’s dizzying textual versatility is the 5,556-character-long palindrome he composed, and which, not surprisingly, nobody has ever succeeded in translating intact.

But it was not all fun and games. Perec’s work definitely got lighter as he got older but his early novels were dark and brooding, befitting a man who lost both his parents during the war. He was born to immigrant Polish Jews in 1936 and spent the first few years of his life in the working-class neighbourhood of Belleville in north-eastern Paris. On the outbreak of war, his father enlisted in the Foreign Legion and died of shrapnel wounds shortly before France’s capitulation in 1940. His mother sent the young Georges to live with his aunt and uncle in Grenoble before she was herself deported in 1943, never to be seen again, probably dying in Auschwitz. The events are recounted, in fragmentary form in W, or The Memory of Childhood. In this book, the autobiographical narrative is alternated with a fantasy tale of an unknown island, based on a story Perec conceived at the age of 13, which only serves to heighten the poignancy of his own loss.

Perec’s literary breakthrough Things: A Story of the Sixties is a short laconic account of a young Parisian couple’s consumerist lifestyle during the trentes glorieuses. It won him the prestigious Prix Renaudot, but it is undercut with a bitter sadness, which was further evident in his next novella A Man Asleep. This is a thinly-veiled autobiographical tale of a student dropout who goes off the rails into nightmarish isolation and depression. It was adapted for the cinema by Perec in 1973 and is very much the flipside of Things, something that was grasped by the British publishers Harvill, who issued the two books as one volume in 1987. Harvill also released that year Life: A User’s Manual, the massive, door-stopping novel which established Perec’s reputation outside of France. It tells the tales of the occupants of a Haussmanian apartment building in the centre of Paris over three generations. The novel is schematic and the characters not always terribly well-rounded but it is a fascinating puzzle and a masterful piece of popular story-telling. Years later, elements of it were borrowed wholesale for the hit film Amélie, and you get the impression that Perec would have been a generous enough sort to be forgiving of that treacly confection.

For the 30th anniversary of his death, Gallimard – the publishing house Perec so wanted to be published by, but never was during his lifetime – is bringing out La Condottière, a previously unpublished work that he wrote in his early twenties. It is a crime novel about a celebrated art forger, that appears to anticipate Arturo Pérez-Reverte and which has an echo in Perec’s own short piece ‘A Gallery Portrait’. You’d like to think that, in the manner of one of his characters, Perec might have hidden unpublished manuscripts across the world, their locations to be found via fiendishly difficult riddles.

Had he not died of lung cancer at a relatively young age, Perec would now be a man of advanced years and would probably find much to fascinate him in the modern age. Perec knew that writing and reading were practices that spill over well beyond the page of a book or a newspaper; they find their form in shopping lists, statistical tables, bookies’ slips, invoices, telephone directories and dictionaries. He knew that there is a lot more to be read in everyday life than in mere words – we read when we try to decipher the form of racehorses or football teams before placing bets, when we study the work roster to try and find a colleague to cover our shift, when we try to orient ourselves on emerging from the Metro or Subway in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, when we are scanning supermarket shelves looking for that elusive container of detergent or bag of wholewheat flour. Were Perec alive today, he might be trying to weld Sudoku to a new literary form, or he might be running ingeniously fake Twitter accounts, or he might be ruminating on why certain Vélib stations, where Paris’ rental bikes are stored, are always empty and others always full and what happens to the bikes that are in neither place. Such considerations might be trivial indeed but we are worse off for not having a Georges Perec to look into them.

Originally published by France 24.