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Georges Perec: A Life in Words

by David Bellos
Godine, 802 pp., $45.00

In his monumental biography of the French writer Georges Perec (whose life outwardly was anything but monumental), David Bellos has realized in full the implications of his subtitle: A Life in Words. Literary biographies all too often shuttle warily between the life and the works of their subjects. On the one hand, psychology and gossip; on the other, synopsis and the handing out of grades. With Perec, as Bellos makes clear, life and work are not separable entities.

Perec’s life was not a long one: he died of cancer in 1982, four days short of his forty-sixth birthday. Yet it turns out that eight hundred pages are barely enough to sketch the complexity of Perec’s engagement with language and writing, an engagement that Bellos traces with an alertness and precision worthy of the heroic translator of Perec’s masterpiece, Life A User’s Manual (1978), an extraordinary novel, or compendium of novels, whose riot of surface detail is matched only by the complexity of its structural underpinnings. Life was for all its singularity no isolated outburst, but rather the culmination of a meticulously executed lifelong program of writing. The mechanics of plotting and drafting, the layerings of allusion and tricks of structure, the concoction of hidden puns and purposely misleading indexes here assume their proper dimensions as major events in Perec’s intimate linguistic life.

In a body of work both profuse and obsessively intricate, Perec staked everything on the “doing of writing” that he defined as his chief concern1 : writing as practice, as habit, as “a kind of inertia that makes me go on with something that began sufficiently long ago for the question to be no longer ‘what makes me write’ but ‘how far have I got in my schedule?”‘ It is Bellos’s considerable achievement to have turned his account of those painstaking incremental labors into a continually absorbing exploration of writing as a mode of being. He makes it possible to grasp how the child orphaned by World War II and the Holocaust became the writer for whom the world at any given moment might hinge on a concealed anagram or a footnote designed to lead astray.

Perec’s parents were working-class Polish Jews who had made their separate ways to France in the 1920s and were married in Paris in 1934. His father worked in a foundry, while his mother opened a hairdressing salon on the ground floor of the building where they lived in Belleville. Perec was born in 1936. At the outbreak of war, his father joined the Foreign Legion and was killed resisting the German invaders in June 1940. At some point in the following year Georges was evacuated by the Red Cross to Villard-de-Lans, near Grenoble, where he remained for the duration of the war with the family of his uncle; while enrolled in a Catholic boarding school, he was baptized as a further protective measure. His mother remained in Paris until 1943, when she was arrested by the French authorities and interned…

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