BOOK REVIEW / Rococo modernism: a user's manual: 'Georges Perec: A Life in Words' - David Bellos: Harvill, 35 pounds
Sunday 02 January 1994
Perec's paternal grandparents were Polish Jews. They emigrated unwillingly to France with two of their three children in the 1920s to escape the grotesque restrictions that were put upon their lives. (Jews were unable to practise medicine or attend the lyceum; they were even forbidden to walk in public parks.) In 1934 Perec's father Izie married another Polish Jewish immigrant, Cyrla or Cecile Szulewicz, and Georges was born on 7 (or perhaps 5) March 1936. The young family lived in Belleville, which was then a predominantly Jewish quarter.
When war broke out in September 1939, Izie Perec joined the Foreign Legion, and was killed in action in June 1940, six days before the Franco- German armistice. The first arrests of Jews in Paris took place in May 1941, and there were further arrests in August. Soon after, Georges was sent to relatives near Grenoble in the so-called zone libre, where he had to learn to conceal something that he did not yet understand - the fact that he was Jewish. His mother remained in Paris with the rest of her family. She got a job in a factory and wore the yellow star. Her own attempt at escape failed, and in January 1943 she was arrested and interned at Drancy. On 11 February she was deported to Auschwitz in a cattle-truck train with 998 Jews on board. Of those who arrived alive, 196 were selected as workers and the rest were immediately gassed.
Given the circumstances, Cecile's death could not be finally confirmed. An acte de disparition or 'certificate of disappearance' was issued in 1947, and this was followed by a 'special' death certificate in 1958. Like so many orphans of the shoah, Perec never had a chance to mourn his mother properly. Her death was years in the past before it was established, and grieving which has no clear beginning has no end. This is not a stylish exaggeration, or a neat half-truth. It is a hard fact about the process of human mourning, and the conditions of its successful completion.
Events that took place before Perec was seven constitute the core of his biography. Bellos is right to say that his life was 'a life in words', and the deep motor of those words was his past - his loss, his anger, his weight of uncertain memory. He had an irrational sense of guilt, common among survivors of a catastrophe. 'Je suis un mauvais fils', he used to say.
After the war he was taken into his aunt Esther's family and well looked after in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, but he continued his intense imaginary relationship with his parents. He perpetuated it by writing, transforming it into a matter of life in the present. 'Writing is the memory of their death, and the assertion of my life,' he wrote in W or the Memory of Childhood, his painfully oblique and apparently intentionally unreliable record of his youth. 'Si j'ecris leur histoire, ils descendront de moi' (if I write their history they will be my descendants): this quotation from de Vigny supplied the epigraph for a history of his family that remained unwritten at the time of his death from cancer in 1982, at the age of 41.
These facts may give a false impression. Perec was not glumly obsessive. He grew up in Paris, a gifted and erratic student, a chain-smoker, an impressive drinker, a lover of good food and jazz, a pinball addict, a routine but essentially apolitical left-winger. He struggled to write, experienced profound depression, fell in love, travelled quite widely, failed to complete a degree at the Sorbonne. He was a literary activist, a joiner of groups and groupuscules, a planner of magazines, a drafter of manifestos. In 1957-59 he did his two years' National Service in a parachute regiment, acquiring his 'wings' and a contract from Gallimard for a novel that was eventually rejected.
On leaving the army he took temporary jobs in market research, and in 1960-61 accompanied his girlfriend Paulette Petras to Sfax in Tunisia where she had a one-year teaching post (they had to get married in order for Perec to obtain a residency permit). The trip was not a success, and on their subdued return Perec got a full-time job as a scientific archivist in a laboratory specialising in neurophysiological research. Here he exercised his remarkable and manic taxonomical gifts until 1978, as an employee of the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), receiving little more than the pay of a typist and pursuing a career in film, radio and literature that would have exhausted three less energetic men.
He played increasingly ingenious verbal jokes on the research team and developed a manual information storage-and-retrieval system that was much admired and imitated. His publication 'Experimental Demonstration of the Tomato-
topic Organisation in the Soprano (Canatrix sopranica I)' detailed patterns of neurophysiological response in sopranos subjected to tomato pelting under experimental conditions. It circulated all over the world in copies of copies of copies and led to the only recorded instance of a CNRS commission granting itself an adjournment for laughter.
He persevered with his other fictions, his 'wanting-to-be-Flaubert'. His first book went through five or six versions before appearing as Things in 1965 and winning the Prix Renaudot. He followed it with A Man Asleep in 1966. Given his geographical location, he theorised about writing with unusual sanity, arguing impressively for a return to realism against the Sartrean call for 'committed' literature, on the one hand, and the tedium of the 'new novel', on the other.
In 1967 he joined OuLiPo, a group of French writers and mathematicians who specialised in the application of formal constraints to writing, producing palindromes, 'lipograms', acrostics and a multitude of other ingenuities. 'Perec's Great Palindrome' was about 500 words long in both directions, and secured him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. His greatest lipogram was a 320-page novel, La Disparition (1969), written without a single occurrence of the letter 'e' (the most common letter in French as in English). La Disparition echoed his mother's acte de disparition in its title, and silently informed the dedication of W or the Memory of Childhood (1975) to 'E'. When his cousin Ela asked whether 'E' stood for her, he granted that it did, and for Esther her mother. But 'E' and 'eux' (them) are homonyms in French, and 'E' stood for eux, the disappeared, his parents.
Bellos records Perec's literary output, his macro-acrostics, his crossword puzzles, his radio plays, his film scripts, his musical collaborations, his amicable separation from Paulette, his affair with Suzanne Lipanska, his friendship with Harry Mathews and turbulent happiness with Catherine Binet. As the book goes on he devotes an increasing amount of space to explaining the details of Perec's Oulipian exercises. He sets out the complex principles that govern the writing of Life: A User's Manual (1978), Perec's best known work.
Oulipians argued among themselves about the status of the formal constraints they adopted. Italo Calvino held that the text-generating tricks and mechanisms should be acknowledged and identifiable in the finished product. Harry Mathews disagreed. He thought that they were like scaffolding used to put up a building, indispensable in construction and redundant on completion, irrelevant to a work's meaning and understanding. Perec took a middle course. At one point he regretted that he had revealed some of the algorisms underlying Life: A User's Manual. But his balanced view seemed to be that there was no harm in acknowledging and taking pleasure in the formal constraints so long as their outcome could be enjoyed by someone who was unaware of them.
It has been said that there is freedom in consciousness of necessity, and Perec clearly derived comfort from submission to schemes that made almost impossible demands on his ingenuity. He practised a kind of rococo modernism, in which apparent arbitrarinesses and excesses were in fact a matter of functional necessity. But he also respected the crucial constraint just mentioned: in order to count as a success, a novel like Life: A User's Manual had to tell a story that could be appreciated without any knowledge of the underlying Oulipian mechanisms.
Taken as a whole, Perec's writings are densely and obliquely self-referential. He is immensely protective of his own early ideas. This suggests an egotistical man, but Perec was profoundly and instinctively modest, and by far the strangest and most moving thing about his work is the way in which it records an obsession with himself, his history and his own literary productions that is devoid of any selfishness or egotism.
The explanation lies in his bereavement. He has an uncompletable task of mourning and commemoration. He writes for his parents. He draws on what he has from them, and all he has from them is himself and a few unclear memories. He is their principal holding in the world, and he mines himself and his past without any self-regard. He resuscitates his childhood story of 'W', which carries his confused conception of the concentration camps. In itself the story is bleak and of little interest. Placed in context it is bewilderingly sad.
Bellos's biography lays all of this out. The tragedy is apparent, but so is Perec's resilience. He could be difficult and he often felt insecure, but he was for the most part convivial, cheerful, generous, courageous, and astoundingly energetic. A Man Asleep and W or The Memory of Childhood have sad subjects, but Things and Life: A User's Manual are full of detail and attachment to life. They celebrate the 'endotic' and 'infra- ordinary' (as opposed to the exotic and extraordinary), in Perec's terminology. And yet even these two books are afflicted with unhappiness and absence. They have a troubling, second-order coldness.
Perec's life was ordinary in many respects, full of ordinary happinesses and disappointments; it brought him many fulfilments and he lived it well. The fact remains that it was founded on unassuageable grief, and that this grief could
not be excluded from any of the writings that it necessitated.
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