Georges Perec Essay - Critical Essays

Perec, Georges


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."

Principal Works

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]...

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Elizabeth Easton (review date 13 April 1968)

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;...

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Leon S. Roudiez (essay dale 1972)

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...

(The entire section is 7884 words.)

Kaye Mortley (interview date August 1981)

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...

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Gabriel Josipovici (review date 30 October-5 November 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 2853 words.)

Mark Ford (review date 2 February 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 3878 words.)

Mereille Ribière (essay date March 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 2612 words.)

Partrick Parrinder (review date 10 January 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 1300 words.)

Francis King (review date 21 November 1992)

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.


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John Taylor (review date 27 November 1992)

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,...

(The entire section is 774 words.)

Irving Malin (review date Summer 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 541 words.)

Karen R. Smith (review date Fall 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 4312 words.)

Harvy Pekar (review date Summer 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 609 words.)

John Sturrock (review date 10 November 1994)

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...

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The Los Angeles Times (review date 12 February 1995)

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...

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Walter Abish (review date 12 March 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1296 words.)

James R. Kincaid (review date 12 March 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 2141 words.)

Daniel Gunn (review date 7 October 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 1095 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 143 words.)