Books: Lipogram man: Hugo Barnacle on the remarkable French novelist Georges Perec, who made light work of formal games

One of the nightmares book reviewers have is that they may one day make a mistake like the original critics of Ulysses who commented derisively in passing on the mock-heroic title and never noticed that the whole book was patterned on the Odyssey.

In France the all-time foo-foo record was set by Rene-Marill Alberes, reviewing Georges Perec's novel La Disparition for Les Nouvelles litteraires on 22 May 1969. 'La Disparition is a raw, violent and facile fiction,' wrote Alberes. 'A man disappears . . . Another man disappears . . . and - you must have guessed this - Georges Perec is too crafty to supply any conclusion . . . The mystery remains entire, but the novel is finished; that is the contemporary form of 'literary' detective fiction . . .'

The little thing Alberes failed to spot is that La Disparition was written entirely without using the letter E. Though Perec had already won the deeply major Renaudot Prize for his first published novel, Les Choses (Things), in 1965, his translator and biographer David Bellos calls this unintended tribute 'his greatest triumph to date'. The commonest letter of all ruled out, and he makes it look natural.

A text with one letter of the alphabet deliberately omitted is called a lipogram. Lipograms on X are easy, on E next to impossible. On the face of it, it seems a fairly silly thing even to attempt. Perec had been invited to join Raymond Queneau's elite experimental writers' group, OuLiPo (Italo Calvino was another of its members), and he undertook the lipogram as an assignment to further the group's work on new formal tools for writing. Bellos claims the constraint of E-lessness liberated Perec's imagination after a blocked period. He wrote the book on a great high. He made all his friends think of E-less sentences, and strangely they didn't mind, he was so enthusiastic.

He did not tell them, apparently, about the piece of paper in his desk drawer. He had been orphaned during the war, his father killed serving with the army in 1940, his mother taken by the Nazis during a round-up of Parisian Jews in 1943. Perec, just seven at the time, was hiding out in the Grenoble area with the aunt and uncle who from then on brought him up.

The post-war French government did not grant death certificates in cases like his mother's: she was deported to Auschwitz aboard Convoy 47 and was not among the 14 survivors of that convoy who were freed by the Red Army in 1945, but, despite the obvious presumption of murder by gassing, what Perec received was simply a certificate of disappearance, headed in large letters Acte de Disparition.

E is the most feminine letter in French; but, as Bellos points out, it is pronounced as 'eux' ('them'), and when Perec dedicated a later book 'To E' he admitted to a cousin that he really meant 'them'. 'They', his father and mother both, are the missing, the disappeared element; but what a cryptic way to write about them.

Bellos is very thorough in describing Perec's traumatic early influences, and the incredible array of mathematical and formal devices he used to generate his extraordinary works, but some factors seem to be underplayed. One might be Perec's brain itself. The man was ambidextrous: perhaps, as he suspected, from being born left-handed and forced at school to write right- handed, but all his life he could never tell left and right apart. Mirror images and reversals form the basis for much of his work.

He was obsessed with stories and structures in which the second half contradicted and undid the first. He followed this principle when he wrote the world's longest palindrome, a mindbending 1,000 words. His radio plays used stereo to allow simultaneous conflicting voices, never dialogue. The central image of his great novel, Life A User's Manual, is the millionaire Bartlebooth's hobby of painting watercolours, having them made into jigsaws and then, when the puzzles are solved, gluing the pictures together again, peeling them off, returning them to the places where they were painted and dipping them in detergent to leave only blank paper. To Perec, everything cancels.

Bellos takes issue with critics, notably Anthony Burgess in the Independent, who found Perec's work too calculated, unemotional and cold. In fact Perec seems to have possessed both emotional and logical faculties of great power, but he did use the logic to bank down or disguise the emotion. Bellos himself says that in Life, featuring the entire population of a Paris apartment block, only two characters really interest Perec: the writer and reader. It shows. There is a majestic, formal deadness to the book, for all its anecdote and incident. Nowhere in his oeuvre does Perec look into a character's mind.

The other underplayed factor must be Perec's sex life. Given recent trends in literary biography this is rather a relief. Though Bellos says Perec 'had problems on that score', the number of affairs discreetly mentioned comes to a respectable total, and Perec achieved three fairly long-term relationships with only three nervous breakdowns along the way, which is better going than some can manage. Still, Bellos does not fully describe how much Perec's output depended on his happiness with women. The chronology is there, the conclusions not.

After a grim stalled start and then national service with the Paras, of all the outfits for a knock-kneed Jewish intellectual to find himself in, the prizewinning Things was the fruit of Perec's marriage to Paulette Petras. Once that faltered, he hit a bad slump. His affair with Suzanne, the rich hostess of a writers' retreat, produced the high that gave him La Disparition and more. Next a worse slump. In 1975 he met the beautiful film-maker Catherine Binet, gave up analysis and wrote the huge, intricate text of Life at phenomenal speed.

Life is set at a single point in time, just before 8pm on 23 June 1975. It was the moment Perec kept his first date with Catherine. Bellos does not remark on the mechanical extension of James Joyce's idea of setting Ulysses on the day of his first date with Nora Barnacle; he does for once do some justice to the connection between women and work by quoting Perec's explanation to Catherine, 'It's when the old man dies', a characteristic double reference to Bartlebooth and to Perec's old self.

The new, happier Perec had only seven more years of books and film scripts and crossword puzzles and poems before he died of lung cancer in 1982. His posthumous fame is still growing, and Bellos's ample, deservedly generous biography can only help it along.

Georges Perec: A Life in Words by David Bellos, Harvill, pounds 35

(Photograph omitted)

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