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, plays—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.

Bartlebooth himself is a mirror image of the unseen author, who as godlike puzzler seeks nothing less than to create the world from scratch, in this instance by populating and furnishing the Parisian apartment building where Bartlebooth lives. Perec lays out a 10×10 grid in which each of the hundred spaces (except for one which is significantly left blank) represents a room, hallway, or staircase. Each space is a chapter, and the order of chapters is determined by an adaptation of the knight’s move in chess. The rooms are minutely described and are furnished from pre-established lists of elements—food, toys, quotations, motives, fabrics, books, animals, feelings, and so forth—allocated in accordance with a mathematical formula.

The aim would appear to be the reinvention of the novel as a self-regulating machine. Yet the complex set of rules (so complex, in fact, that their ramifications are still being worked out by devoted Perec scholars) is undermined by a counter-system of built-in “flaws” and “gaps.” If the purpose of systems is to fill in the blanks, for Perec the blank is what prevents the system from achieving the completeness that kills. The blank or gap is also himself; he glosses his surname as Hebrew for “hole.”

To the perfect puzzle the solution is death: he can keep the game alive only by failing to complete it. The novel’s crucial event—in a sense its only event, since when it occurs we realize that everything that has come before represented a single frozen instant of time—is Bartlebooth’s death in the midst of trying to fill in the last blank space in the four hundred and thirty-ninth puzzle.

Play can reverse a situation, just as a single stone in a game of go can transform a board from black to white. Turning things inside out, play transforms trap into playground. In a dream recorded in La Boutique obscure (“The Darkshop”) (1973)3 , Perec’s collection of 124 dream transcriptions, a concentration-camp torture device metamorphoses into something “not so terrible as all that, and anyway I escape from the threat, it doesn’t come to pass.” At the end of the same dream Perec concludes: “You can escape (sometimes) by playing.”

Perec generated systems constantly: the alphabetic grids out of which he constructed poems, the variant methods for arranging his library or inventorying the objects on his desk, the catalogue raisonné of non-existent paintings in his novel Un Cabinet d’amateur, the sophisticated card-indexing system he oversaw for the research laboratory where he worked for seventeen years, the card file he maintained on the members of the radical group with which he was associated in the early 1960s. To Perec it may have appeared a matter of course to devise, through trial and error, a systematic method for creating literary masterpieces.

“I have read Moby Dick,” he stated to a publisher in 1959. “It is not worth writing if one is not aiming for a work of that calibre.” By 1965, having won a major prize and fleeting celebrity for his first novel, Things, Perec’s tone grew more confident: “My literary ambition goes so far as to make me imagine that one day I will write a Magic Mountain, a Joseph Andrews or Remembrance of Things Past” In an interview the year before his death he spoke of how the authors he had loved at age twenty—“Michel Leiris and Jules Verne and Roussel and Flaubert and Stendhal”—created the possibility for his own writing: “All of them had something in common—some…borders, and I could draw a puzzle with them and somewhere in the puzzle there was a space in which I will myself move.” All the writing of the past constituted the state of play on the board, and Perec’s job was to find the openings that remained, the moves that were still possible.

The dimensions of the Perec canon attest to how methodically he applied himself to that job. Bellos’s enumeration of his writings takes up thirtyone closely-printed pages, a list encompassing novels, memoirs, stage plays, radio plays, film scripts, poems, opera librettos, book reviews, travel pieces, lectures—not to mention his weekly crossword puzzles for Le Point, which have been collected in two volumes. Even in a career curtailed at an early age, Perec came remarkably close to realizing his stated goal: “To run through the whole gamut of the literature of my age without ever feeling I was going back on myself or treading ground I had trod before, and to write every kind of thing that it is possible for a man to write nowadays.”

By “every kind of thing” Perec meant just that. The writers whose words are directly incorporated into Life A User’s Manual range from Rabelais, Sterne, and Stendhal to Proust, Nabokov, and Malcolm Lowry, not to mention Agatha Christie, the science fiction novelist Theodore Sturgeon, and Roger Price (the American humorist and Mad contributor who created Droodles and Mad Libs). He absorbed all those influences and more, steeping himself in the ephemera which teem in the pages of Life A User’s Manual: a hardware catalog, a movie house flyer, a prospectus for a real estate development, a recipe, a glossary of obsolete words.

Like Lope de Vega, he was a “monster of nature.” Prolific in ingenuities, he became an inventor of genres for whom the humblest occasion was an opportunity to explore new territory. He was ready to undertake a comic serial advertising Eveready batteries, broadcast over Radio-Abidjan, which he turned into a freewheeling and surreal adventure story encompassing hundreds of episodes; to write a movie adaptation of Jim Thompson’s crime novel A Hell of a Woman (filmed by Alain Corneau as Série Noire), which he interpreted as a variant of the Orpheus myth, with a central character akin to Büchner’s Woyzeck; to turn the branching steps of a computer algorithm into the scenario for his play The Augmentation (1970). (By turning a flow chart of the steps to be followed by a hapless employee asking his boss for a raise into a series of yes-or-no questions, with each answer precipitating a different narrative trail, Perec anticipated the structure of a whole generation of video games.)

The books for which Perec is known in America (when he is known at all)—Things (1965), A Man Asleep (1967), W or The Memory of Childhood (1975), Life A User’s Manual (1978)—become even more remarkable when seen in the context of his total output. In his garden of forking paths, there is a continuity that links the most ambitious structures to the most apparently trivial pastimes. Joking and puzzle-making were the finger exercises of his imaginative work.

He lavished care on the self-published booklets that he gave to friends as New Year’s gifts, intricate suites of what used to be called brain-teasers.4 The game might be, for example, to concoct puns on the names of jazz musicians: “They tried to convince me of the existence of God. But it was useless.” Answer: Je ne crus pas [I did not believe] = Gene Krupa. Or: “One day I attended a lecture by René Char. At first I thought he was reading, but I soon perceived that his eyes were not looking at the lines of the book on the table, and that he knew his poems perfectly.” Answer: Char lut par coeur [Char read by heart] = Charlie Parker.

He was also fond—as someone who through his lab job had been exposed to more than his share of technical monographs—of creating elaborate burlesques of scientific writing,5 complete with diffusion maps, wave charts, and extensive bibliographies of imaginary texts. The best known of these, written in English, is a study of the effects of throwing tomatoes at opera singers, exploring at length “a positive feedback organization of the YR [yelling reaction] based upon a semilinear quadristable multi-switching interdigitation of neuronal sub-net-works functioning en désordre (Beulott et al., 1974).”

With its heroic list-making and propensity for elaborate formal constraints, its desire to squeeze in every stray item of knowledge, every genre of story, every category of object, every rhetorical device, Perec’s work evokes medieval comparisons. We can imagine him as a scholiastic compiler of digests, an Isidore of Seville or Ramon Llull resurrected as a mischievous clerk creating eccentric path-ways in the heart of twentieth-century bureaucracy, or as a free-lance secret agent perpetrating one of the baroque con games that figure so prominently in Life A User’s Manual.

In 1967 Perec became a member of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) at the invitation of its guiding spirit, Raymond Queneau; his colleagues in that unique literary group would include Jacques Roubaud, Harry Mathews, and Italo Calvino. OuLiPo, defined by Bellos as “a research team that aimed to fashion new tools for writing and to refurbish old and forgotten ones,” took its inspiration equally from the abstract languages of mathematics, logic, and computer science and from the world repertoire of literary forms ranging from the ancient Greek lipogram to the Japanese renga. “An Oulipian,” Perec said, “is a man who doesn’t take literature seriously but who takes it as a play, as a game, but we think that game and play are serious things.” Games and constraints—“systematic artifices, formal mannerisms (that which, in the final analysis, constitutes Rabelais, Sterne, Roussel)”—would henceforth figure more overtly as the engine of Perec’s writing.

But method had always been crucial. His first novel, Things, with its portrayal of young Parisian intellectuals gradually abandoning idealistic politics for bourgeois consumerism, was read as an exercise in sociological realism or (particularly in Eastern Europe, where it was widely used as a textbook) as an indictment of the hollowness of capitalist society. It could however be more accurately described as a transformation of the market research questionnaire into a literary medium. Characterization was achieved through a meticulous cataloguing of what the characters ate, drank, bought, wore, watched, or liked to do with their friends on Saturday night:

Their flats, flatlets, lofts, two-roomed conversions in dilapidated houses…were very similar: the same dirt-encrusted sofas, the same allegedly rustic tables, the same heaps of books and records, old glassware and old jars used, indiscriminately, for flowers, pencils, small change, cigarettes, sweets and paper-clips.

A Man Asleep, his account of chronic depression taken for a confessional novel even though couched oddly in the second person, was in fact to a large degree a collage of passages from Kafka, Melville, Joyce, Dante, and many others, stitched together so seamlessly as to make them unnoticeable.

His OuLiPian summum—it saw daylight in 1969—took constraint (in lipogrammatic form) to its limit.6 La Disparition—you might call it Vanishing in translation—sounds at first similar to an ordinary book:

Anton Voyl couldn’t nod off, finally had to switch a lamp on. His clock said almost half an hour past midnight. Issuing a profound sigh, Anton sat up, with his back against a cushion. Picking up a book, Anton had a look at it, scanning its words, but of its story caught only a confusing imbroglio; a word Anton didn’t know got in his way again and again.

But a crucial part is missing, and La Disparition acts out a hunt for that missing thing, a thing known only for a frightful quality:any human who looks for it must finally stop short abruptly, losing all sign of vitality. If any finds out what it is that’s lacking in this book’s world, at just that instant of coming to know, a dark amorphous mass (miasma? conspiracy? random cataclysm?) curtails him. So bit by bit all La Disparition’s cast fall victim to assassination, or fall sick—or just vanish, in a sort of Biblical “translation.”

Caught up in La Disparition’s arbitrary law, all in it must stay blind and unknowing, or fall away from its domain: no midway point, only totally in it or totally out of it. Its law cannot find outward form or vocal pronunciation—that is its law’s own law, its crucial constraint. To say what that constraint is—but that’s a final taboo, fatal to transgressors. Around that vacant midpoint, La Disparition’s author must marshal a potpourri of a vocabulary that’s archaic, slangy, polyglot, or simply a fabrication: a crazy quilt of oddly mingling words, strung out astonishingly.

This novel, dispensing with the letter “e” for three hundred pages, was his most extreme exercise in literature as game. (As a result, the book defies literal translation: or rather, it requires two separate versions, one for strict meaning and one which, like the two paragraphs above, respects the lipogrammatic constraint. American readers will finally have an opportunity to sample at least one approach when Gilbert Adair’s translation, under the title A Void, just issued in England by Harvill, is published here by HarperCollins in 1995.) Perec regarded the lipogram as a technique for liberating the imagination: “constraint degree zero, after which everything becomes possible.” Despite the book’s relentlessly playful surface it has finally a somber feel. The game that must be played out to the end begins to resemble an implacable grinding down, a war of attrition against the dictionary. What is most unexpected about La Disparition is not the brilliance of Perec’s verbal maneuvers but the underlying gravity with which he approaches his self-imposed task.

Yet the OuLiPian aspect of Perec can function as another kind of camouflage. The constraints and rules of play may have been nothing more than a fruitful working method, a means to an altogether different end: his own peculiar variety of the realism he admired in Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. It is one of the paradoxes of Life A User’s Manual that its metafictional, self-canceling apparatus leaves the reader planted firmly in the world.

According to Perec, Life A User’s Manual had its origin in a drawing by Saul Steinberg. The Art of Living, which shows simultaneously all the activity going on inside an apartment building. He blows it up into a three-dimensional model functioning somewhat like the Renaissance mnemonic theory elucidated by Frances Yates in The Art of Memory, in which knowledge is remembered by being associated with the rooms and furnishings of an imaginary building. What Perec seeks to remember by means of his memory theater, however, is not general ideas or spiritual symbols but simply the casual baggage of life: the opening of a restaurant, a summary execution, mining operations in Africa, the installation of an elevator, a bicycle race, a philosophy examination. By its own fantastic and circuitous route Life arrives at a tone that is ultimately more Balzacian than Borgesian, a sense of irremediable presence.

What Perec shares with Balzac is the furniture, the clothes, the shop fronts, the casks in the cellar, the prints hanging in the sitting room. In his literary game of hide-and-seek, he doesn’t only hide: he also finds. A major part of his writing consists of the patient description of what is in front of him: Things was already an exhaustive inventory of his and his friends’ belongings and pastimes, and in subsequent projects he enumerates the objects on his work desk or the people and cars passing by the cafe where he is sitting.

In what proved to be one of his most popular books, Je me souviens, Perec jotted down a series of disconnected memories, neither too personal nor too important, but simply the sort of random trivia that fills everyone’s head. Perec borrowed his form from an underappreciated American work, the late Joe Brainard’s I Remember (1970), in which every sentence begins with those words. But where Brainard uncannily evoked the texture of a Middle American childhood and adolescence through minute details, Perec limits himself more austerely to a catalog of cultural detritus, resolutely refusing any larger social or autobiographical meaning as he immerses himself in the real world of unedited information:

I remember that Claudia Cardinale was born in Tunis (or at any rate in Tunisia)…that my uncle had a device for sharpening his razor blades…that the palindrome of Horace—Ecaroh—is the title of a piece by Horace Silver…That De Gaulle had a brother, named Pierre, who was director of the Paris Fair… that Christian Jaque divorced Renée Faure in order to marry Martine Carol.7

It might be the scripture of a post-industrial cargo cult devoted to information that falls from the sky. Perec still believes, on some level, that to name something is to make magic. The items that cling to memory in Je me souviens are magical because they are arbitrary and have no visible function. After all the toying with annihilation, a stubborn literal-mindedness becomes evident. He wants above all to savor the realness of things, the residue of sights and sounds and smells invoked in the seventeenth chapter of Life A User’s Manual:

A gesture, a noise, a flicker, a young woman singing operatic arias to her own piano accompaniment, the clumsy clickety-clack of a typewriter, the clinging smell of cresyl disinfectant, a noise of people, a shout, a hubbub, a rustling of silks and furs, a plaintive miaow behind a closed door, knocks on partition walls, hackneyed tangos on hissing gramophones, or, on the sixth floor right, the persistent droning hum of Gaspard Winckler’s jigsaw…

Here material life reassures with its accumulation of street signs and architectural elements, of carpets and settees and of paintings to set them off, of themes and anecdotes for the paintings to illustrate. By dealing with the palpable, writing does the job for which it is suited: suited because the words it uses are themselves palpable, things in a world of things and sharing their limitations. For Perec, language is at home in the world—at least as much at home as anything else. It is because they share the same substance that things can be reduced to words, just as words can be reduced to the letters of which they are made, letters like the X and M and W which recur in Perec’s writing as inexorably as classical Fates.

The letters may be parts of a divine cryptogram, as suggested by the “vertiginous preoccupations” of the Kabbalists whom Perec cites in his “History of the Lipogram.” Then again they may just be letters. In any event, the writing exists, and for Perec that is its value: that by writing he participates in the real. In W he wrote of his parents: “Writing is the memory of their death and the assertion of my life.” The moves of his fantastic games maneuver us into a contemplation of the mundane, as if this—the banal fact of existing—were the only true fantastic. Life A User’s Manual, his modern Arabian Nights, is in the end a way of putting the most insignificant aspects of things on display.

He sits in a cafe and like a child ticks off the people that walk by, the cars that pass, the intrusions of dogs and pigeons. He breaks apart his own puzzle and by the gesture lays bare elementary mysteries of time and space: that people disappear, that a building changes its function utterly in the course of years and yet is the same wood and brick, that the room emptied of its inhabitant continues to harbor his traces, his books, his chairs, his collection of trinkets and souvenirs.

Beyond the blind mechanisms of chance, beyond the self-perpetuating mazes of human system-making in resistance to chance, Perec through his writing wrests the narrowest margin of freedom: the bare freedom to transcribe the fact that he exists, he breathes. His struggle for that freedom imparts to his writing a heroic dimension: he is fighting for his life, a life which is also the reader’s. “Every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before.” The intensity with which he imagines an identity between writer and reader is the ultimate source of his work’s mysterious power. Out of all the writings of an era of literary games and metafictional gambits, his books and fragments seem to hold most surely the secret of a lingering fascination.

This Issue

November 3, 1994