Georges Perec Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."