The publication in 1965 of Georges Perec’s novel Les Choses: Une Histoire des années soixante(Things: A History of the Sixties, 1967), which was eventually translated into twenty languages from Catalan to Estonian, marked the beginning of a prolific career that produced more than twenty works during a decade and a half of sustained effort. His first published work, in addition to being awarded the Prix Renaudot, enjoyed enormous commercial success and continues to sell, in the original French version, tens of thousands of copies annually. Despite the diversity and radically inventive nature of Perec’s writing, it has received little critical attention.
Georges Perec: A Life in Words presents a captivating portrait of an enigmatic writer. David Bellos re-creates in minute detail the historical and social evolution of twentieth century France, and in particular of the literary world of the 1960’s and 1970’s, while being equally meticulous in recounting Perec’s development from the orphaned young boy, unremarkable in many ways, to the writer, mischievous and deeply committed to the ideal of originality.
Georges Perec was born to Icek (Izie) and Cyrla (Cécile) Perec, Polish Jews, on March 7, 1936, in Paris. He spent his first years in Paris in a multilingual environment, with French, Yiddish, Polish, and German being the most commonly used languages within the extended family and snatches of Russian, Czech, Hungarian, and Romanian heard in the streets. There is evidence that Perec understood and spoke some Yiddish and that he knew some words of Polish as well. In W ou le souvenir d’enfance (1975; W: Or, The Memory of Childhood, 1988), Perec recounts the rapture of his family when, at the age of three, he pointed to a Hebrew letter and called it by its name. This evanescent memory of the first letter of his life is one of the initial signs of his fascination with language and the written letter.
When France and Great Britain declared war on Germany after Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September, 1939, Izie Perec, thirty years old, was one of many thousands of Jews who quickly enlisted. In W, Georges Perec describes his father as a doughty fighter with foolish bravado. On June 15, 1940, Izie’s regiment suffered many casualties, and Izie himself was killed. The effect of this death on the young Perec, also known as Jojo, is not known, but for Izie’s wife Cécile, his mother Rose, and his sister Esther, it was a grievous blow.
Defeated and divided in 1940 and having no civil records identifying the Jewish community, France required Jews to declare themselves at police stations or, failing to do so, be liable for unspecified penalties. Perec’s uncle David Bienenfeld, an influential pearl dealer, declared himself, his wife Esther, and their two daughters. It is likely that at the same time Cécile declared herself and Georges at the local commissariat. By the end of 1941, 139,979 people in the Paris region alone had declared themselves to be Jews. The French police were now able to retrieve four categories of information regarding the registrants: name, address, nationality, and profession. This Tular Index greatly facilitated the first arrests of Jews in Paris in May, 1941, when 3,700 out of a possible 6,494 individuals received summonses requiring them to undergo an examen de situation. Those who responded were immediately interned in French camps at Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande. In this way, the prolonged persecution of Jews within French borders began.
During the occupation of France, Perec’s mother, interned at Drancy in January, 1943, was deported by order of the German authorities. At the end of the war, it was learned that Cécile Perec had been transported by cattle truck to Auschwitz, where she was taken with other Jews directly to the gas chamber. Without mother or father, Georges became the ward of David Bienenfeld.
In 1945, after the end of World War II, Georges returned to Paris from Vercors, a mountainous region in southeastern France, and settled with David and Esther Bien-enfeld and their children, Bianca and Lili, in the family’s comfortable apartment on Rue de l’Assomption in the sixteenth arrondissement. In the early years, Georges profoundly missed the affection of his biological parents. Nevertheless, he developed strong ties with Bianca, for whom he felt great brotherly affection. His relationship with his uncle David was more problematic; arriving in Paris at the age of nine, and not having had a father figure for six years, Georges was hardly nurtured by Bienenfeld’s rigidity and lack of warmth.
From 1948 to 1951, Perec attended boarding school at the Collège Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire at Etampes, about fifty kilometers south of Paris. During these years, Perec visited Israel during summer vacations and was introduced to classical music, modern painting, the works of the German writer Thomas Mann, surrealism, and the formally innovative modern novel of France, called the new novel. By the age of sixteen, Perec had been to England, Israel, Austria, and...
(The entire section is 2085 words.)