Georges Perec 1936–1982
French novelist, playwright, poet, scriptwriter, translator, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Perec's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 56.
Although regarded by many critics and contemporary writers as one of the most distinctive and versatile writers of the twentieth century, Perec described himself as totally without creativity. Several critics, while acknowledging that Perec's work shows the influences of other authors, insist it cannot be described in terms of any other author, that it is truly unique. Italo Calvino, an Italian novelist, regarded Perec as "one of the most singular literary personalities in the world, a writer who resembles absolutely no one else." Perec is perhaps the best known, and certainly one of the most innovative members of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OuLiPo), or Workshop of Potential Literature, a Parisian literary society founded in 1960 by novelist Raymond Queneau and mathematician François LeLionnais. The objective of OuLiPo was to create a synthesis of mathematics and literature, and to stimulate creativity through the application of rigorous and arbitrary constraints. This suited Perec, who was driven to literary discovery. In an interview with Kaye Mortley he said, "I would like to write science-fiction and detective novels and bandes dessinees [comic strips], cartoons, and music for operas—not music, libretto, and I want to do dramas and comedy and film scripts. I would like to work in all fields of literature…. I would like to have used all the words of the dictionary. That's impossible. That's my ambition." This desire to do everything encompassed style as well as genre. The critic Leon S. Roudiez observed that Perec's first four novels each seemed "like the first book of different writers."
Perec's parents were from families of Polish Jews who emigrated to France in the 1920's. Perec's parents were married in 1934, and he, their only child, was born in 1936. At the onset of World War II, Perec's father joined the French army and was killed in June of 1940. In 1942, Perec was evacuated to a Catholic orphanage in Grenoble. His mother remained in Paris where, in 1943, she and her sister were picked up in a raid and deported to the Auschwitz death camp. Raised by relatives, Perec studied sociology in college and began publishing literary reviews at the age of twenty. Even before joining OuLiPo, Perec showed an affinity for experiment in his writing. His first novel, Les chases: une history des annes soixante (1965; Things: A Story of the Sixties) is described as having a style similar to a sociological case study. The book was a runaway success. His next two novels enjoyed similar success, but then Perec, according to Gabriel Josipovici, "found himself at a dead end, unable to see any way forward. It was at this point, in 1967, that he was invited to join OuLiPo, and it changed his life." The rigorous linguistic constraints of the grourp—the incorporation of anagrams, acrostics, mathematical algorithms, as well as the revival of classical forms such as palindromes and lipograms, into the writing—provided fuel for the fire of Perec's creativity. In his first OuLiPian novel, La disparition (1969; A Void), Perec wrote a lipogram without using the letter "e." The execution was so masterful that several of the first critics failed to note this constraint. A subsequent lipogram, Les revenentes (1972; The Ghosts), used only the vowel "e." His next major novel, W, ou, le souvenir d'enfance (1975; W, or, The Memory of Childhood), used a style of alternating storylines in a manner that has inspired a wide variety of interpretations. La vie, mode d'emploi (1978; Life, a User's Manual), is regarded by most reviewers as his finest work, developing themes that reappeared in Je me souviens (1978; I Remember) and Un cabinet d'amateur (1979; An Art Lover's Collection.) He was working on a mystery novel, 53 jours (1989; 53 Days), at the time of his death in 1982.
Perec's first novel, Things, won the French Prix Renaudot and sold over 100,000 copies in France. It is the story of Jerome and Sylvie, a young couple working as market researchers, who become obsessed with things, with the material possessions they hope will define their lives. But their obsession with the tangible trappings of the good life (which they cannot afford) emphasizes their spiritual emptiness. La disparition was translated under the title A Void to maintain the lipogramatic avoidance of "e" in the original French, although a more accurate translation would be The Disappearance or, more morbidly, The Death. Both would be correct, as disappearance and death figure prominently in the plot and theme of the story. In addition to the disappearance of the letter "e", a main character Anton Voyl (A. Voyl—"voyelle" is French for "vowel") also disappears. The group of friends who search for him each die at the moment when they are about to speak a word with the banished letter "e" in it. In W, or, The Memory of Childhood Perec, in alternating chapters, tells two stories. In the first narrative, often described as allegorical, W is an island off the coast of Tierra del Fuego, which is at first described as Utopian, but progressively appears sinister and totalitarian. The second narrative is presented as an autobiographical tale of Perec's own childhood; yet early in the narrative Perec states "I have no childhood memories." This statement, and other similar ones, lead some reviewers to conclude that Perec is telling the reader that both stories are fiction and that all memories are allegorical attempts to make sense of the chaos of history and memory. Perec expands on the themes of history and mystery in Life, A User's Manual. The plot moves physically through a one-hundred apartment building in a mathematically determined manner and through the lives and histories of its residents, past and present, in a wild, disjointed fashion. A central metaphor of the novel is found in the story of Percival Bartlebooth, a resident who has constructed an elaborate but meaningless scheme to occupy fifty years of his life, yet dies unable to complete his plan, thwarted by the unknown vengeance of another resident. In a clear reference to Perec's earlier novel, Bartlebooth is trying to finish a jigsaw puzzle as he dies. The remaining space is shaped like an X (a letter who's metaphoric significance Perec has explored in other writing), but the only remaining piece is in the shape of a W.
Perec has been favorably received by the critics, although the focus of their praise has been as varied as the styles and subjects of his works. Many critics have been dazzled by Perec's gifted use of language. Justifiably so. The creation of a palindrome (a work that, letter for letter, reads the same backwards as forwards) 5,000 words long is an achievement nearly incomprehensible to most people. And, although several writers before and after Perec created novel length lipograms (works which do not use words containing a specific letter), it is a testimony to his masterful command of the language that several of the early reviewers of A Void heaped praise on the novel without even realizing that the letter "e" was never used in it. His incorporation of anagrams and acrostics into poetry, his bi-lingual poetry (poems created with carefully chosen words, so that they would be meaningful in more than one language), are further examples of his linguistic abilities. But many critics see beneath the surface flash of Perec's works a powerful merging of style and content. The sparse, restrained style of Things is regarded as a central metaphor for the empty lives of the main characters. The alternating, then merging, story lines in W, or, The Memory of Childhood is seen as a refutation of the defining of the present through history and memory. Karen R. Smith suggests Perec's meaning in W is that history is an attempt to apply allegory to events, to retroactively structure the chaotic past into a meaningful story that helps define the present. She observes that, in merging past and present, fiction and fact, Perec "collapses the boundaries that separate past from present. Without such boundaries, the past cannot be represented as a coherent whole, fixed in its relationship to the present and offering that present stable meaning." Other critics also see W as an attempt to deal with the loss of both parents to the Nazis. In Life, A User's Manual, Perec's most popular and acclaimed work, the complex but meaningless work to which the character Bartlebooth has devoted his life is seen as an attempt to superimpose meaning on life, an attempt which is doomed to failure by forces outside the character's control. 53 Days, Perec's unfinished mystery novel, received the most mixed review. Francis King felt that the novel was insufficiently completed to be worthy of publication, but "the trouble with genius is similar to the trouble with royalty: whatever it does is considered worthy of note." Other critics have praised 53 Days, suggesting that Perec, aware of his cancer and his limited time, planned this into the execution of the story. John Taylor said that "Perec, notorious for leaving little to chance, seems to have organized his novel in a way that would permit him, once he had completed several chapters and sketched out the others, to abandon it, at any subsequent stage, without unduly weakening its effect."
Les choses; une histoire des annes soixante [Things; a Story of the Sixties] (novel) 1965
Quel petit velo a guidon chrome au fond de la cour? [What Small Bike with a Chrome-plated Handlebar Standing in the Courtyard?] (novel) 1966
Alphabets (poetry) 1969
La disparition [A Void] (novel) 1969
Les revenentes [The Ghosts] (novel) 1972
La boutique obscure [The Dark Store] (novel) 1973
W, ou, Le souvenir d'enfance [W, or, The Memory of Child-hood] (novel) 1975
La vie, mode d'emploi [Life, a User's Manual] (novel) 1978
Je me souviens [I Remember] (novel) 1978
Un cabinet d'amateur [An Art Lover's Collection] (novel) 1979
53 jours [53 Days] (unfinished novel) 1989
(The entire section is 95 words.)
SOURCE: "All or Nothing," in Saturday Review, Vol. LI, No. 15, April 13, 1968, pp. 46-7.
[In the following short review, Easton discusses the plot and style of Les choses.]
This seems to be the era of the non-fiction novel—first Truman Capote's, then Norman Mailer's, and now, on a much smaller scale, one by Georges Perec. For while Les choses is subtitled "A Story of the Sixties," it is closer to a case history than to fiction. Jérôme and Sylvie, the young Parisian couple on whom the account centers, remain two-dimensional. Never once in the book's 125 pages do they speak for themselves; there is no dialogue. M. Perec tells the reader rather than shows him; one is not allowed to draw his own conclusions.
And yet the idea that M. Perec is exploring is fascinating and probably explains why Les choses won the French Prix Renaudot and, according to the publisher, sold 100,000 copies in France. The author is a sociologist who became interested in why young people are so avid for money. Jérôme and Sylvie are obsessed by a desire for material things, and this greed makes their lives sterile. "They succumbed to the signs of wealth; they loved wealth before they loved life."
Jérôme and Sylvie have been students. However, possessing no real scholarly motivation, they have given up their studies for relatively well-paying jobs as psycho-sociologists, doing...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
SOURCE: "Georges Perec," in French Fiction Revisited, Dalkey Archive Press, 1972, pp. 290-305.
[In the following essay, Roudiez analyses the subject and style of Perec's major works. He shows the emphasis of the author's early life and his association with the OuLiPo in the recurring theme of identity.]
By 1972, Perec was known for having produced four variegated works of fiction, each one seeming like the first book of different writers. Les Choses (1965; Things) is subtitled "Une histoire des années 60," a narrative that could make one think of Stendhal and his chronicle of the 1830s. If the reference was intentional, however, it could only have been ironical, for the two main characters (there is of course no "hero"), Jérôme and Sylvie, have no real ambition aside from acquiring the material "things" of the title. They are petty bourgeois who aspire to the comforts and pleasures of the upper bourgeoisie, and the narrative that describes their activities comes close to being sociological. Actually, Jérôme and Sylvie are both psycho-sociologists who go about polling people as to their desires, habits, preferences, and reactions to this or that advertisement. They neither like their job nor dislike it; it pays for the "things" they want and leaves them enough free time to look for them. They are moderately happy, although realizing that their happiness hangs by a thread. They have no...
(The entire section is 7884 words.)
SOURCE: "The Doing of Fiction," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1993, pp. 23-9.
[In the following interview from 1981, conducted in English, Mortley questions Perec about his theories of fiction.]
[Perec:] I began writing, I was twenty about. I am now forty-five and I think I learn how to write. I know how to write stories and even poetry and dramas, I could say, and it's my way of living in a sense. I can't imagine a life in which I won't spend some hours every day writing. I can't say exactly why I started writing. I can say now that I am in great familiarity with language and it's a kind of, I could say, struggle. I began with French language and fiction in which I try to do what I told you about the boy child with the alarm clock when I try to undo the letters and sentences and paragraphs and chapters and books and to reorganize the game.
When I was twenty about, there was some twenty authors I loved, I liked very much, and they drew a kind of puzzle between them. They were Michel Leiris and Jules Verne and Roussel and Flaubert and Stendhal and all of them were different but all of them had something in common—some frontières, borders, and I could draw a puzzle with them and somewhere in the puzzle there was a space in which I will myself move and then when I take my books, I think that all my books are different one from each other and all have something in...
(The entire section is 3412 words.)
SOURCE: "Celebrations In a House of Fiction" in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4413, October 30-November 5, 1987, pp. 1191-92.
[In the following review, Josipovici favorably reviews Life: A User's Manual, but finds fault with the English translation by David Bellows.]
As with most major artists there is an exemplary quality about the life of Georges Perec: the contingent and the arbitrary have been transmuted into the resonant and meaningful. He was born in France in 1936 of immigrant Polish Jewish parents and was an orphan by the age of six, his father killed in 1940 fighting for his adopted country and his mother deported by the Nazis in 1943. Brought up by an aunt, he became in some ways more French than the French, as evidenced by the chord his first, rather modest novel, Les Choses (1965) seemed to strike in the public and critics alike. But after two further novels, one in the manner of Raymond Queneau and the other in that of the young Sartre, he found himself at a dead end, unable to see any way forward. It was at this point, in 1967, that he was invited to join OuLiPo, and it changed his life. Suddenly he had a purpose, and his art blossomed. Its finest fruit, and what seems to me likely to remain one of the great novels of the century, was La Vie mode d'emploi, written between 1969 and 1978. He died of cancer in 1982, just short of his forty-sixth birthday.
(The entire section is 2853 words.)
SOURCE: "Pretzel," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 3, February 2, 1989, pp. 15-17.
[In the following review, Ford briefly summarizes several of Perec's works. He then provides a comparison of Perec's personal history to the events in W, or, the Memory of Childhood.]
These are the first of Georges Perec's wonderful and extraordinary writings to be translated into English. Perec has been a household name in France since the runaway success of his first and most popular novel, Les Choses (1965), which still sells twenty thousand copies a year. Les Choses describes, with a sociological exactitude justified in the novel's concluding quotation from Marx, the motivations and disappointments of an utterly ordinary middle-class couple in a consumerist culture. Sylvie and Jérôme are both public opinion analysts, as indeed was Perec at the time; they emerge as a kind of generically rootless Parisian couple of the Sixties, whose experiences and emotions are such that no one of that generation could help but identify with them. The book ties in neatly with, indeed was partly inspired by, Barthes's theories on the language of publicity, which were appearing around the same time; its precision and syntactical ingenuity aspire to Flaubert, a major figure in Perec's pantheon of favourite authors.
Until recently in England Perec was simply known as the crazy writer who first wrote...
(The entire section is 3878 words.)
SOURCE: "Doing Theory," in Paragraph, Vol. 12, No. 1, March 1989, pp. 56-64.
[In the following essay, Ribière questions the effectiveness and appropriateness of some of Perec's self-imposed literary constraints. Ribière suggests that, by not making clear what constraints were in effect in various works, Perec was working counter to the bond he wished to forge with the reader.]
Georges Perec stressed his concern for the practice rather than the theory of literature as witness two statements separated by an interval of eleven years:
La fonction de l'écrivain est d'écrire et non de penser; et même si l'on peut accorder quelque crédit aux réflexions qu'il lui arrive d'émettre sur sa production, elles ne sauraient en aucun cas constituer une théorie.
(The writer's function is to write and not to think; and even if one can give some credence to the comments he may happen to make on what he produces, these in no way can constitute a theory.)
Je n'ai jamais été à l'aise pour parler d'une manière abstraite, théorique de mon travail: même si ce que je produis semble venir d'un programme depuis longtemps élaboré, d'un projet de longue date, je crois plutôt trouver—et prouver—mon mouvement en marchant: (…) je sens confusément que les livres que j'ai écrits s'inscrivent, prennent leur sens dans une image...
(The entire section is 2612 words.)
SOURCE: "Funny Old Fame," in London Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 1, January 10, 1991, p. 18.
[In the following excerpt, Parrinder reviews a recent translation of Things and A Man Asleep.]
Once upon a time, before the Channel Tunnel was built, there were two contemporary French novelists. Georges Perec died in 1982 at the age of 45, and nobody in England who was not a French specialist had ever heard of him. With Philippe Sollers it was different. Editor of the avant-garde theoretical journal Tel Quel, and associate of literary and psychoanalytic thinkers such as Barthes, Kristeva and Lacan, his was a name of which no self-respecting British intellectual could afford to remain entirely ignorant—though his novels, so far as I can discover, were neither translated nor read. But as Sollers grew older he abandoned his youthful Maoism to become a worshipper of American capitalism and, finally, some sort of Catholic mystic. Tel Quel changed its name to L'Infini. And, since fame is capricious, in the last years of Mrs Thatcher's reign it was Perec, not Sollers, who—with the publication of David Bellos's translation of Life: A User's Manual—found a keen British audience.
There were logics in these things, as we shall see. Perec's reputation might easily have crossed the Channel two decades earlier. His first novel Les Choses was published in 1965...
(The entire section is 1300 words.)
SOURCE: "Held by the Dead Hand of a Dictator," in The Spectator, Vol. 269, No. 8576, November 21, 1992, p. 49.
[In the following review, King suggests that the posthumous publication of Perec's unfinished mystery novel, 52 Days, was the result of Perec's reputation as a genius, and that the work is without significant literary merit.]
Some people in this country and many people in France ascribe genius to Georges Perec. On the basis of his Life, A User's Manual ('a transcendent achievement' we were assured by the Daily Telegraph, 'one of the great novels of the century' by the Times Literary Supplement), they may well be right.
The trouble with genius is similar to the trouble with royalty: whatever it does is considered worthy of note. The result is that just as, say, Queen Victoria's knickers are regarded as collectable, so such things as Graham Greene's inconsequential dreams, Philip Larkin's life-hating and self-hating letters and a juvenile novel by Samuel Beckett are regarded as publishable. The latest and most dire consequence of this attitude is the appearance, nowhere near its conclusion and wholly unrevised, of the literary thriller on which Perec was working at the time of his premature death in 1982 at the age of 46.
Perec resembled Anthony Burgess in his fecundity, his versatility and—the consequence of these two things—his...
(The entire section is 1030 words.)
SOURCE: "The Sense of An Ending," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4678, November 27, 1992, p. 25.
[In the following review, Taylor notes the influences of Stendhal and his novel La Chartreuse de Parma, on Perec's unfinished mystery 53 Days.]
There is something poignant about the elaborate narrative structure of 53 Days, the novel on which Georges Perec was working at the time of his death from lung cancer in 1982. Racing against time (the title refers to the fifty-three days it took Stendhal to dictate La Chartreuse de Parme), Perec builds this increasingly paranoiac literary thriller into an intricate labyrinth of "nested narratives". Indeed, one of the seemingly insoluble murder stories making up the maze of tales involves a manuscript entitled The Crypt, which, like Perec's master novel, has been left unfinished; in any case, it mysteriously concludes with a blank page. Perec was able to draft only eleven of twenty-eight planned chapters, but Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud's reconstruction of the plot—from notes, outlines and sundry completed passages—suggests that inconclusiveness and indeterminacy are in fact the subjects of this fiction. Perec, notorious for leaving little to chance, seems to have organized his novel in a way that would permit him, once he had completed several chapters and sketched out the others, to abandon it, at any subsequent stage, without...
(The entire section is 774 words.)
SOURCE: "Georges Perec. A Void," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer 1993, pp. 200-01.
[In the following review, Malm suggests that the missing "e" in the lipogram A Void is symbolic of the loss of loved ones.]
It is impossible to convey the oddities and beauties of this text. There are plots within plots, mysteries within mysteries, times within times, shadows within shadows. The text is, in a sense, a whirlpool. Perec, in effect, wants to suggest that language (is there a world within a word?) is an attempt to convey consciousness; it is the "bond" that connects us (even though we take words for granted). By compelling us to understand that our very existence as social creatures depends on language, he forces us to hear and say and write with concentrated (consecrated?) understanding. As one "character" puts it: "dumb-struck, as I say you and I, although not totally grasping at this point what its [inscription] is saying to us, call at last boast of proving its validity as a signal, as a communication." But Perec also understands that we often deliberately deform communication. We use words as white lies, as political slogans. We construct to deconstruct crimes.
I assume that readers of this review know that Perec's text does not contain the vowel e. Why should he even attempt to make it disappear? Why is he so obsessive...
(The entire section is 541 words.)
SOURCE: "Allegory and Autobiography: Georges Perec's Narrative Resistance to Nostalgia," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 23, No. 3, Fall 1993, pp. 201-10.
[In the following review of W ou Le Souvenir d'Enfance, Smith focuses on the novel's allegorical structure. She suggests that Perec's intention is to show that the creation of a narrative is an attempt to give coherent meaning to the chaos of the past.]
In the context of Georges Perec's postmodern œuvre, which consists of novels that demonstrate through playful manipulation the pliability of language and narrative as media of communication, his autobiographical W ou Le Souvenir d'Enfance poses problems. Because it purports to reconstruct factual events of the past, it appears to draw upon a referentiality that is undermined by Perec's other, hyper-fictional, works. The form of W ou Le Souvenir d'Enfance, nevertheless, signals its departure from the conventions of the autobiographical genre. Its juxtaposition of apparent fiction and fact, of sincere and ironic discourses, of narrative and anti-narrative structures, revises the general premises of autobiography.
The book is made up of two texts that alternate chapter by chapter. The first, which describes the imaginary land of "W" (a boy's Utopia of athlete-citizens perpetually engaged in Olympian games) is obviously a fiction. The second, which...
(The entire section is 4312 words.)
SOURCE: "George Perec. Things: A Story of the Sixties/A Man Asleep," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 2, Summer 1994, pp. 233-34.
[In the following review, Pekar summarizes the plots of Things and A Man Asleep. He is particularly impressed by Perec's descriptions of the sleeping state.]
In looking over Perec's longer literary projects it's amazing how little each of them has in common with the others. Things, previously issued by Grove Press in a different translation as Les choses, is almost a sociological study centering on a deliberately gentricized, dilettante Parisian couple, Jerome and Sylvie, their constant search for consumer goods and quest to avoid dull, routine duties. They work at market research jobs during a boom in the 1960s, interviewing people about things they buy. Market research positions are not too secure, which our couple realizes; nevertheless they don't want to commit to more drudgery and consequently remain researchers for as long as possible.
What Perec shows them and their friends mainly doing is shopping. There is, in fact, so much description of material products that it's tempting to call Things a nouveau roman-type work. But there is too much explicit social commentary here for that. Perec is hard on the trendiness and bad taste of his young characters. In fact they even seem somewhat...
(The entire section is 609 words.)
SOURCE: "E-less in Gaza," in The London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 21, November 10, 1994, p. 6.
[In the following review, Sturrock favorably compares Gilbert Adair's lipogrammatical translation of La Disparition to Perec's original French text.]
We hear a lot about floating signifiers and how they bob anchorless around on the deep waters of meaning; we hear too little about sinking signifiers, or language items that have stopped bobbing and been sent silently to the bottom, if not for the duration then at least provisionally, while we see how well we can do without them. To scuttle a signifier in this way is to play at lipograms, an elementary language game that has been around for two and a half millennia. This lipo has nothing to do with fat, or with the world of the liposuctionist's hoover: it comes from a Greek verb meaning to 'leave out'. The lipogram is a piece of writing from which one or more letters of the alphabet have been excluded, preferably common ones if the game is to be worth playing. There is in theory no reason why there shouldn't also be spoken lipograms, or lipophones—indeed, I can imagine that, the bit once between their teeth, composers of lipograms find themselves talking lipogrammatically, either because they can't stop or because they think it will help them to keep their eye in.
The earliest lipograms are thought to have been composed in the...
(The entire section is 2336 words.)
SOURCE: "Tricky, Tricky," in The Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1995, p. 3.
[The following review discusses the effect of the e-less lipograms of Perec and his translator, Gilbert Adair.]
Snails. You'd want Gallic or Italian cooking to fix such a dish. You wouldn't call for it at lunch in Oslo, Omsk, Cardiff or Stuttgart; nor as an Alabama snail-fry with grits, nor smoking atop Oklahoma fatwood, nor in Cajun gumbo. And only a light hand such as that of this particular tricky and knotty Parisian author could bring off A Void: a total snail of a book in its spiral contortions, so that prying out its pith is both difficult and savory and (pry as you may) bits will always stay stuck within.
Eeeeeeeeeek. One paragraph is all I want to do of this. A Void does it from beginning to end, and much better (once the names of Perec and his translator, Gilbert Adair, are declared on the title page). Does what? Does entirely without the letter e. You didn't spot it just now? Neither did the critic for "Les Nouvelles Litteraires" when the novel was published in France in 1969. He judged it to be a political-existential mystery in the best contemporary style; he rated it "captivating and dramatic" though a bit artificial.
It was a review with a void in it, just like the novel. Unlike the novel, its void was embarrassingly involuntary. To assist English-speaking...
(The entire section is 1161 words.)
SOURCE: "Vanishing Act," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXV, No. 11, March 12, 1995, p. 11.
[Walter Abish is an author and critic. In the following review, he suggests that the lipogram format of A Void is more than just an arbitrary constraint. It is, rather, an integral part of the meaning of the story.]
Georges Perec's preferred representation of life was the elusive, artfully constructed conundrum—an unlimited mystery that engages the reader as much as it animates, in several of his books, the very characters. The customary, the everyday is subsumed by the question, why, how and to what end? Questions that never receive a satisfactory response. In Life A Users Manual, a tantalizing labyrinthine novel for which Perec received the prestigious Medicis Prize in 1978, Bartlebooth, an eccentric millionaire, masters watercolor painting to paint, over the next 10 years, 550 seascapes, which he then has made into jigsaw puzzles. Finally, once each picture is reassembled, "the seascape would be 'retexturised' so that it could be removed from its backing, returned to the place where it had been painted … and dipped into a detergent solution whence would emerge a clean and unmarked sheet of Whatman paper."
This intent, this effort to return to a former pristine state, exemplifies the machination of repression at work—for in Perec's books everything ultimately leads to...
(The entire section is 1296 words.)
SOURCE: "Read My Lipograms," in New York Times Book Review, March 12, 1995, pp. 3, 30.
[In the following review, Kincaid focuses on the playfull nature of the lipogram form, and offers several examples.]
"OAF! Pinbrain! Numskull! Big fat ninny! Nincompoop! Half-wit!… Moron! Lazy good-for-nothing!" That's a passage from our novel. Notice anything odd about it? Read it aloud—but don't yell it at somebody. Then sing this song (karaoke background helps). It's the opening of the well-known and affecting "You-Can't-Attain-It Fantasy":
To fancy that unavailing apparition!
To fight that dirt-tough bad guy!
To put up with that aggravating sorrow!
To run in many risky spots!
That stops before we hit the best line—"To just march right into Satan's pit in support of a good policy"—but you get the idea. The idea is to write without using an E.
The real idea is: "Only within severe, almost crippling restraint do we find freedom." (I'm sure that was said by Schoenberg, Joyce or another just as unlikely; but I can't find it in Bartlett's, so I'll attribute it to Madonna.) Georges Perec published La Disptirition in 1969, and now it's been translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void, with no E anywhere in either, although it's a...
(The entire section is 2141 words.)
SOURCE: "E-free," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4475, October 7, 1996, p. 28.
[Gunn favorably reviews Gilbert Adair's translation of A Void.]
Reviewers of Gilbert Adair's splendid translation of Georges Perec's La Disparition find themselves—appropriately enough before a novel so concerned with contradiction and paradox, with "masking and unmasking"—at both an advantage and a disadvantage. They have an advantage over the reviewers of the 1969 French original, because they are spared the possible embarrassment of reading and then reviewing the book without noticing its structuring principle and implicit subject: the lack, throughout its 285 pages, of the letter e. They are at a disadvantage, however, because such embarrassment, and an accompanying fear or panic at the loss of face, leads to the heart of the novel—for such nagging anxieties are the characters' daily bread.
Yet even for forewarned readers—and the British publisher is making such forewarning a selling-point—there are still feelings of loss. For it is impossible to read more than a sentence or two of the novel without strangeness insinuating itself. And knowing its ostensible location does not dispense with it. The breathlessness, the bristling at the back of the neck—both of the characters and of the reader—do not disappear. Strangulation, actual and metaphoric, abounds.
(The entire section is 1095 words.)
Bellos, David. "Literary Quotations in Perec's La Vie mode d'emploi," French Studies XLI, No. 2 (April 1987): 181-94.
Provides a detailed analysis of the mathematical constraits which governed Perec's use of quotatons from other authors in the structure of this novel.
Josipovici, Gabriel. "Georges Perec's Homage to Joyce and Tradition," The Yearbook of English Studies 15(1985): 179-200.
Josipovici argues that La Vie mode d'emploi is the finest novel in French since Becket. He compares its encyclopaedic structure to Joyce's Ulysses, Dante's Commedia, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Mathews, Harry. "Georges Perec," Grand Street 3, No. 1 (Autumn 1983): 136-45.
Discusses the plot and themes of Perec's works, and argues that his contribution to literature is unique, indescribable in terms of comparison to other authors.
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