W, or the Memory of Childhood

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

“Georges Perec,” the narrator of this fictional autobiography, begins his reminiscences with the disconcerting admission that he remembers almost nothing of his early life as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France. “Up to my twelfth year or thereabouts, my story comes to barely a couple of lines: I lost my father at four, my mother at six; I spent the war in various boarding houses at Villard-de-Lans.” In a way, he says, he was excluded from the need for a personal history by History with a capital H: The bare facts of the war served to answer any questions put to him.

When, in his thirties, Perec tries to reconstruct the events of his childhood, the best he can do is to recall details of an elaborate fantasy world that he created for himself at the time. In his imagination he would escape to an uncharted island off Tierra del Fuego known simply as W (or double-ve in the original French, a pun on the phrase “double life”). W was home to a noble culture that valued athletic prowess above all else. Life there was one glorious Olympiad.

Perec devotes alternating chapters of the book to his real life and to the make-believe world of W. He finds that as he mentally re-creates W, more and more fragments of his wartime experience emerge from his subconscious. Nevertheless, the “big picture” never quite comes into focus. What happened to him and his family remains a mystery. Perec’s memory of W, on the other hand, becomes increasingly...

(The entire section is 412 words.)