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That Ephemeral Thing

Life A User’s Manual

by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos
Godine, 581 pp., $24.95

Nearly ten years after its publication in Paris, Georges Perec’s monumental La Vie mode d’emploi has at last been published in this country as Life A User’s Manual in David Bellos’s elegant translation. Where for the French the novel came as the culmination of a distinguished twenty-year career, for most Americans it coincides with their discovery of its author. They could hardly pick a better place to start; although I must, at the outset, declare my opinions in this matter altogether partial. Two chapters of this translation of Life are my doing; Perec and I were close friends—I am biased in favor of his work simply because it is his. I hope that the familiarity underlying this bias will make it possible for me to provide useful information for Perec’s English-speaking readers.

Georges Perec was born in 1936 of Polish Jews who emigrated to Paris in the Twenties. By the age of six he had lost both his parents. His father died during the fall of France in June 1940. Arrested in 1942, his mother was deported to an unidentified death camp. Perec spent the occupation years with relatives who had taken refuge in the Vercors, a mountain region south of Grenoble. He became the ward of his father’s sister and brother-in-law and returned with them to Paris after the war. In the mid-Fifties he sporadically attended the Sorbonne, then worked for a time as a public-opinion analyst. In 1962 he was hired by the Centre national de la Recherche scientifique as a research librarian specializing in neurophysiology, a job he held until 1979, when the success of La Vie mode d’emploi led him to try earning his living exclusively as a writer. He died of lung cancer on March 4, 1982, three days before his forty-seventh birthday.

By the time he was twenty, Perec was publishing reviews and commentaries in literary journals, including the NRF. He completed several unpublished novels before making a spectacular debut with the appearance in 1965 of Les Choses, the story of a young couple fascinated by luxurious visions of a consumer paradise but incapable of committing themselves to the routine of money-making careers. The novel earned Perec a reputation as a kind of sociologist, which he did his best to debunk the following year with his second book, Quel petit vélo à guidon chromé au fond de la cour? (“Which little bicycle with chrome handlebars at the back of the courtyard?”), an impudent novella describing the efforts of a group of young Parisians to keep a friend from being shipped out to Algeria. In the same year appeared Un Homme qui dort, a hallucinatory account of the ultimate dropout, a student who attempts to give up not only school but the entire world. In 1967, shortly after his election to the Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians (about which more later), Perec published his most notorious (and probably least read) novel, La Disparition.

During the next ten years Perec produced little fiction. His most interesting work of the period, W, ou le Souvenir d’enfance, is half autobiography and half fantasy: the book’s chapters alternate between Perec’s attempt to reconstitute his childhood and the fictitious description of a grotesquely utopian society, both lives converging on a common point, the historical reality of the Nazi extermination camps. In 1978 La Vie mode d’emploi was published, his bestknown and admired work.

Autobiography, or at least concern with autobiography, underlies much of Perec’s writing, even in those works in which it is least obvious. (The obvious instances—Perec was a public-opinion analyst like the young couple in Les Choses; tried to stop a friend’s transfer to Algeria like the gang in Quel petit vélo…?; became a total dropout like the protagonist of Un Homme qui dort—are at best examples of how a novelist transforms firsthand material into narratives.) While La Disparition and Life A User’s Manual are not overtly autobiographical, I think they can be read, among other ways, as products of Perec’s preoccupation with autobiography or, perhaps more accurately, of his obsession with the autobiography he felt he could never write.

Two passages in which Perec writes about himself may help to explain what I mean. The first, from W, describes how his lost and ever-present parents inform his writing:

I do not know if I have nothing to say; I know that I say nothing. I do not know if what I might have to say remains unsaid because it is unspeakable (the unspeakable is not ensconced in writing, it is what instigated it long before). I know that what I say is blank and neutral, a sign for all time of an annihilation for all time….

That is what I say, that is what I write, and nothing else is to be found in the words I inscribe…. It would do me no good to track down my slips (for example, I wrote “I committed” instead of “I made” concerning my mistakes in the transcription of my mother’s name) or to day-dream for two hours about the length of my father’s greatcoat…. I shall never find anything…besides the last reflection of a speech absent from the written word, the outrage of their silence and my silence. I do not write in order to say that I will say nothing, I do not write in order to say that I have nothing to say. I write. I write because we lived together, because I was one among them, a shadow among their shadows, a body next to their bodies. I write because they left in me their indelible mark, whose trace is writing. In writing their memory is dead. Writing is the remembrance of their death and the affirmation of my life.

Perec once said that he had been deprived not only of his mother and father but of their deaths. They had been taken away from him behind his back.

Perec considered his Jewishness as another condition of deprivation. In the commentary he wrote to the film Chronicles of Ellis Island, he contrasts his attitude with that of the director, Robert Bober, to whom being Jewish “means continuing to reaffirm one’s place in a tradition, a language, and a community”:

What I find present [on Ellis Island] can in no way be called references or roots or remnants, rather their opposite: something shapeless, on the outer edge of what is sayable, something that might be called closure, or cleavage, or severance, something which in my mind is linked in a most intimate and confused way with the very fact of being a Jew….

[Being a Jew] isn’t a sign of belonging…. It seems closer to a kind of silence, emptiness, to being a question, a questioning, a dubiousness, an uneasiness, an uneasy certainty, and looming beyond that, another certainty…: that of having been labeled a Jew, Jew therefore victim, and so beholden for being alive to exile and luck….

In some way I’m estranged from myself; in some way I’m “different”—not different from others but from “my own people”: I don’t speak the language my parents spoke, I don’t share whatever memories they had. Something that was theirs and made them what they are—their culture, their experience, their hope—was not handed down to me.

The pretexts of writing, for Perec, are “silence,” emptiness, and death: “I know that I do not say anything” means not “I have nothing to say” but rather “nothingness cannot be said.” But if silence and emptiness seem a reasonable response to the historical deprivation to which Perec found himself condemned, how then explain the abundance of his output? Why did he become a writer in the first place?

A partial answer to the last question can be found in another passage in W, in which he describes his experience as an adolescent reader. Speaking of Dumas’s Vingt ans après, he tells of reading it over and over again to make sure all its familiar details are still in place: “I not only felt that I had always known them but that they had almost provided me with my own story: [they were the] source of unfathomable memory, of perpetual renewal, of certainty.” As an adult, he finds in rereading the books he loves the joy of “complicity and, beyond even that, of kinship restored at last.”

Many of us who are not orphans have had the experience of literature as “family,” even if we can only guess at its intensity in Perec’s case. However, the experience suggests also one origin of Perec’s desire to write: since the sense of loss and of being lost is inexpressible, what can you say in its place? How can you say anything at all?

Instead of struggling to find an answer to these questions, Perec sidestepped them, by becoming what used to be called a formalist, ignoring history, looking for things to do inside language, inside writing. Instead of trying to find words to describe the world, he tried to invent interesting ways to use words in their own right. He set himself “precious” tasks. In Les Choses, for instance, he methodically explored Flaubert’s method of using syntax for stylistic purposes (Perec’s opening chapter is written entirely in the conditional tense, the final one in the future tense), using the advertising pages of glossy magazines as his subject matter. The book was read as a realistic commentary on the perils of the consumer society. There is no denying the vividness and authenticity of Les Choses; but it must also be said that the subject of the book became “real” as it was invented in the arbitrary tasks the author set himself, without which he might not have written the book at all.

Perec’s approach to writing was conveniently codified when, in the mid-Sixties, he became, as later did Italo Calvino and the present writer, a member of the Oulipo—the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature, a group of literary and mathematical persons founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François LeLionnais. The Oulipo’s original intention was to find out ways of using mathematical structures in writing; eventually the notion of mathematical structure was replaced by the more general one of “constrictive form.” By constrictive form is meant a structure or procedure that is precisely definable and rigorous, often dauntingly so. Albert Mobilio neatly described Oulipian activity in a recent article in The Village Voice:

Unabashedly arbitrary in conception, Oulipian constructions nontheless adhere to an internal logic. Formal constraints spur the imagination to thrive within strict limits similar to those of sonnets and sestinas. Of course, language presents its own brick wall of rules: grammar and available vocabulary. Self-contained and ingeniously coherent, Oulipian sub-systems derange the grid and impose a fresh, idiosyncratic order that mirrors language’s own arbitrary nature.

Perec distinguished himself at many levels of Oulipian experiment, which has ranged from the trivial (spoonerisms) to high art (Calvino’s reader-writer chapters in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler). Such difficult abstract procedures appealed to him as a writer of fiction because, I suggest, they take formalism to its extreme limit in providing ways of composing that are empty, autonomous, and self-propagating. Empty in that they presuppose no particular content, thus finessing the question of what to say, of how to deal with history; autonomous in that they require no justification beyond obedience to their rules; self-propagating in that, through a simple application of those rules, works are almost automatically generated. Oulipian procedures offer a clear escape from the paralysis of writer’s block, or, in Perec’s case, a deep sense of historical displacement. More positively, the procedures can become tasks as inspiring as the creation of any hero or heroine. Several years ago in another context the composer David Del Tredici declared: “For whatever reason, you emotionally embrace a technical process because it excites you, and the restriction really is a way of defining your personality. You have to fill the severity with a lot of passion.”

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