Georges Perec: A Life in Words
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 in the holding camp at Drancy before being sent to her death at Auschwitz. After the war, Perec became the ward of his aunt and uncle, who raised him in comfortable bourgeois style. Such was the early history of the man who would later write (at the outset of a work subtitled The Memory of Childhood): “I have no childhood memories.”
The story of the child, as Bellos presents it, takes place in a world which vanishes; the story of the writer begins at the far edge of the chasm into which it dropped. Mute and passive, the child submits to what happens. The gap remains unbridgeable: there is no language for the distance separating German-occupied France from liberated France, poor Polish Jew from middle-class secularized Frenchman, the childhood in which his parents exist from the afterlife in which they don’t. If the parents persist at all, it is only through writing, through the words on his father’s death certificate, the inscription on his gravestone, the bureaucratic formulas on the French government document attesting to his mother’s disappearance. (The latter document is known as an acte de disparition; Perec would later write a novel called La Disparition, except that there it is the commonest letter in the language that vanishes.)
The child he once was is everywhere and nowhere in Perec’s writing. In his own person he appears nowhere; even in the unique fusion of fiction and memoir W or The Memory of Childhood, he is an irretrievable being whose life must be evoked through a sort of archaeological reconstruction. But clues to his existence are scattered about plentifully, as if he no longer had a voice and could speak only through signs, cryptograms, clues a spy might leave. The clues are as likely as not to be false, forged, reversed. At the beginning of W, Perec compares himself to “a child playing hide-and-seek, who doesn’t know what he fears or wants more: to stay hidden, or to be found.”
Bellos’s account of Perec’s adolescent years exudes an eerie sense of life proceeding as if nothing had happened. He attends a provincial boarding school, he spends holidays in England and Switzerland and Israel, he does splendidly in his baccalaureate exams but drifts away from the possibility of an academic career: as if the enormity of what had happened were to be glossed over once and for all and he were to merge anonymously into the crowd of his contemporaries, just another writer, another intellectual with a taste for American movies and Marxist politics. Perec’s most successful trick may have been to succeed in making himself blend into the wood-work of a Parisian scene dense with intellectual contention and overweaning literary ambition.
As we glimpse the young Perec in Bellos’s pages, he seems to adopt, as camouflage, the characteristics of a kind of writer we have all at some point known, or perhaps been. He lives in one of the great cities, migrating every few years from one inexpensive apartment to another. His friends think he’s an absolute genius but the critics shrug their shoulders. He’s written masses of unpublished novels, poems, playsâ€”and the books that he did publish failed to earn him much of a reputation; he showed great promise with his early work, but that was years ago. He hangs around on the fringes of the city’s intellectual circles, never in the limelight; he gets involved with political splinter groups without any real influence. He likes to drink; he smokes far too much; he’s in therapy. He goes to the movies a lot. He plays cards. He plays pinball games. He supports himself, year after year, as a glorified filing clerk in some sort of scientific research laboratory.
On some level he may have wanted to indulge in the possibility of passing for Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener or Kafka’s Joseph K, two of the literary characters who most preoccupied him. (He once described Bartleby as “a text I would have liked to write,” and, according to Jacques Roubaud, had acquired his self-image from three writers: “Kafka, Kafka, and Franz Kafka.”) Bellos enables us to imagine how easily he could have remained an unpublishable writer, condemned to inhabit the maze of his own game-playing without the company of a readership. Part of the game may have been to see how close he could come to being cut off from the rest of humanity, elaborating an endless text which would be its own audience, a labyrinth without an exit.
He was certainly capable of imagining an unreadable text and, on occasion of constructing one. An extreme example is the “great palindrome” which earned him an entry in the Guiness Book of World Records. It occupies two and a half printed pages2 and consists of two apparently quite different parts, each of which is revealed on closer examination to be the exact reverse of the other (see page 48). This prodigious object, although made of language, seems altogether mute and uncommunicative. It is a poetic black hole, a closed circuit in which each half reads its mirror image but from which no meaning can leak out.
The opacity and fragmentation of the most difficult modernist texts legitimize by their example any liberty that Perec has to take in order to adhere to his remorseless rule of composition. Bellos recounts that scholars who were shown an unattributed copy of the palindrome perceived it variously as the work of an inept student, an example of surrealist automatic writing, the jottings of a dangerously paranoid adolescent, or a text written under the influence of LSD.
The game that devours itself, the equation that cancels itself out, the story in which all the characters disappear: Perec is always tempted by such suicidal gambits, and his work is shot through with sudden dizzying perspectives of nothingness. Systems entrap, and games (especially the kind that Perec liked to play, bridge and chess and go), are themselves forms of entrapment. Perec constantly runs the risk of being trapped within his own systems: the ultimate game is to subvert the rules he has put in place, and methodically to dismantle his own method.
He was fond of quoting a maxim of Paul Klee: Genius is “an error in the system.” Perhaps it was his way of acknowledging that he needed a flaw at his core to protect him from his own genius for devising systems, to enable him to break out of the cul-de-sac of the Great Palindrome into the generative, open-ended mysteries of Life A User’s Manual.
Life is the most consummately puzzle-like of all Perec’s creations, and it begins appropriately with a small treatise on jigsaw puzzles which declares that “despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before.” The novel’s pivotal character, the eccentric millionaire Bartlebooth, seeks to achieve complete control over his existence by evolving a scheme in which “his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrary constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion.” For ten years he will study the art of watercolors; for twenty years he will travel the world and paint a series of five hundred seascapes in identical format, one a fortnight; each of the seascapes will be glued to a wooden board and turned into a jigsaw puzzle by a master craftsman; and for another twenty years Bartlebooth will assemble each of the puzzles, one a fortnight.
As each puzzle was finished, the seascape would be ‘retexturized’ so that it could be removed from its backing…and dipped in a detergent solution whence would emerge a clean and unmarked sheet of Whatman paper. Thus no trace would remain of an operation which would have been, throughout a period of fifty years, the sole motivation and unique activity of its author.
See "The Doing of Fiction," a 1981 interview conducted in English and printed in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 1 (Spring 1993).↩
In La Clôture et autres poèmes (Paris: Hachette, 1980).↩