Perec: The Magic of Words

Lovely, disturbed Georges

This is Georges Perec, one of the greatest of all experimental writers and quite probably a genius. I used to show my students this picture because it always made them laugh, but then I would tell them his life story, one of the most poignant in the history of French literature.

Perec was born in 1936 to a Jewish family who had only recently settled in France. When the Second World War came his father quickly signed up and died in the early days of fighting. The rest of his extended family scattered at the approach of the Nazis. But Perec’s mother and grandmother clung onto their home despite the poverty, the lack of work for Jews and the increasing menace. Aware of the danger, Perec’s mother got hold of a ticket for one of the last few trains evacuating children to the countryside. She took Georges to the station, bought him a comic book and waved him off on the train. He was never to see her again. It seems that she returned home and simply waited to be rounded up.

The rest of the war was a dangerous time for the evidently Jewish Perec, silently willed by all around him to forget his race and his past. He was a sorry little child, malnourished and suffering from rickets and a permanent cold. We do not know at what point he realized his mother was never coming to fetch him home, because the knowledge was lost to Perec himself. But the reality of what had happened to his family was definitely something that sunk in, something that at some level he knew. He grew up feckless and miserable, doing badly in school despite his cleverness and never quite settled with the aunt and uncle who became his guardians.

Only writing held out some possibility for him. From an early age he knew that this was what he wanted to do, and he remained devoted to literature all his life. In a letter to a close friend in 1958, he admitted that his need to write rose from the loss of his parents. Writing was not exactly restitution, for “there are wounds too deep ever to heal over entirely.” But there were spaces between “what we were, what we are and what we could have been without the war”, and these gaps were the places that creativity and writing were to be found. But quite what this meant was far from obvious. Perec spent most of his early 20s depressed and apathetic, doubting his talent, suffering from low self-esteem and high standards. “I’ve not got the facile talent of Minon Drouet or Françoise Sagan,” he wrote, “nor the genius of Stendhal, nor the craft of Flaubert, nor the brilliance of Barbey d’Aurevilly, nor Gide’s profundity, nor Malraux’s elevation, nor Hemingway’s heart…” He ended in a cry of despair: “I am a bad son and a poor historian. Where will I find hope?”

Where he found hope was in play. He was an avid crossword puzzler, a lover of card games, a devotee of adventure films. He found a job in a laboratory as a scientific archivist, and he produced a vast index of research materials that he would regularly subvert, typing reports up in the shape of a diamond or a triangle on the page, larding his index cards with spoonerisms, misspellings, and multi-lingual puns. He knew he’d have to do them over properly, but his sense of fun got the better of him. Perec had heartfelt optimism in the possibilities of language, in its richness and flexibility. It was a stroke of good fortune when at an early stage in his career he was invited to join OuLiPo, an experimental group who linked poetry and mathematics together. It was a kind of research group in itself, imposing mathematical constraints on language in order to foster an unusual form of creativity.

When Perec joined the group he was suffering from some of his worst ever writer’s block. But they introduced him to a form of creative writing that would prove revitalizing: the lipogram, or a text that has been written with one letter of the alphabet missing. To break his block, Perec decided to set himself the toughest and most creative challenge of all – to write a whole novel as a lipogram, and to omit the letter ‘e’, the most essential letter of the French language. Perec had discovered a writers’ community, la maison Andé, where he spent long weekends. It became a game that he obliged his fellow writers to play, a kind of social joke to see if they could come up with a whole sentence without a single ‘e’ that sounded natural.

Gradually, through the joint efforts at the writer’s commune and his own unstinting application, Perec wrote the novel, the experience providing him with a period of uplifting and enlivening creativity. Although the novel itself is dark, in a way that corresponds perhaps to the violence done to the French language in its creation. It is called La Disparition – the disappearance – and it concerns not just the disappearance of the main character, but of all his friends, one by one, as they set off to look for him. There is no resolution or reparation in this novel, as so often happens with Perec: what goes missing in his imaginative world tends to stay lost forever.

What are we to make of these multiple losses? There’s the loss of the essential element of the alphabet, and the loss of the characters in the story, and the absence of a conclusion.  Well, all Perec had left of his mother was the Acte de Disparition, the notice given by the government that she had been taken to the camps and never returned. The gaps in the text, as Perec anticipated, were the places that he could write about his parents in oblique and convoluted ways. He had no memories of them, nothing to say about them, no story to tell. Only loss and absence themselves could accurately express what remained in his heart and his mind.

Fond of cats, was Georges

Play was a serious matter for Perec, whose external impishness masked a deeply troubled, isolated inner self. La Disparition is a typical example of the way he wrote poignantly about his life and its intolerable losses without evoking them directly at all.  And so we return to the question of genius, which Perec certainly had, although he denied it strenuously himself, insisting there was nothing but craft in his writing, simply game-playing and technique. But some are born to genius, and some have genius thrust upon them. The uniqueness of Perec’s writing came about because he had an impossible story to tell, a story of trauma that he experienced unknowingly. How to write about the vital and damaged part of the self when there is nothing at all to show for it? Perec deformed language to evoke a more profound kind of truth. And he assuaged his sense of isolation with collaborative efforts. When we look at Perec and his life and work, we cannot think of creativity as being an isolated gift, as a lone shaft of inspiration that falls on one striving individual. Perec required creativity to deal with his circumstances; he involved other people in his imaginative play and it afforded him his most cherished experiences. And in this way he suggests a more interesting truth about creativity. Isn’t it tightly bound to the context in which we find ourselves, and the obstacles we encounter there? And isn’t it the very place where we suffer intolerable gaps and stitch ourselves back together?

24 thoughts on “Perec: The Magic of Words

  1. Coincidentally, I’m reading an issue of _Review of Contemporary Fiction_ from 2009 that’s devoted to Perec. The essayists haven’t yet gotten to _A Void_ (_La Disparition_ in english, translated without using the letter e), but have concentrated so far on earlier novels: _Things_ and _A Man Asleep_, each posing their own questions.

    On the lipogram and other constraints, OuLiPo believes that a sonnet, let’s say, has a particular form that poets acknowledge and adhere to. This is a conscious constraint. So why not choose other conscious constraints and see what can come of them? The play Perec (as well as Raymond Queneau, and others) enjoyed might profitably work against the “obstacles” you refer to, and perhaps, for a time, make the “intolerable gaps” easier to bear with. Harry Mathews, one of the few u.s. writers allowed in the group, often speaks of the enjoyment and encouragement he got from the group, and his friend Perec.

    Thanks for this piece. And it’s always good to see Perec’s photo.

  2. Great post. I’m sure that now everybody’s on amazon buying a book by Perec. 🙂 Why do I have the impression that I’m surrounded by him these days? I’m linking your post to my review of Les Choses.

    I have a request : Can you write one like this on Romain Gary, whose life is at least as tragic and interesting as Perec’s life? Plus, they have the same biographer. Maybe someone in the English-speaking world will read him… (je sais, j’exagère un peu en demandant ça)

  3. I’m afraid he is one of those writers who leave me totally cold. Intellectually as well as emotionally. I’m not sure whether I read the wrong books. I haven’t read La Vie Mode d’Emploi. The playfulness is appealing.

  4. As usual, fantastic post Litlove. This idea of a lipogram and Perec are new to me, but serindipitously I will be reading (with Cornflower Books) in October “Ella Minnow Pea” by Mark Dunn, which is a “progressively lipogramatic epistolary fable” according to Wikepedia.

  5. I was wondering if La Disparition had been translated into English without an “e” and JB has answered me in his comment. I have not read Perec but I have one of his books, maybe two on my TBR pile somewhere. Which ones they are, don’t ask. I’ve seen that first photo of him before and it never fails to make me smile, the wild hair and the bug-eyes.

  6. And in this way he suggests a more interesting truth about creativity. Isn’t it tightly bound to the context in which we find ourselves, and the obstacles we encounter there? And isn’t it the very place where we suffer intolerable gaps and stitch ourselves back together?”

    That is worded perfectly, Litlove. Yes–I’m going to copy that into my journal.

  7. Oh I HAVE heard of him, after all! I hadn’t heard any of the incredibly tragic stuff, but I’ve heard of La Disparition. I think I read about it when I was reading reviews of Ella Minnow Pea. I wonder if — have you read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle? — I wonder if Dodie Smith had him in mind (the writer’s block and the love of puzzles) when she was writing Rose and Cassandra’s father.

  8. Oh my, I never knew Perec had such a tragic childhood! I very much enjoyed Life A User’s Manual but never thought to consider the playfulnes in it as a method of coping with inarticulable truths or past traumas. Excellent post.

    I remember last year a bunch of my blog friends read the English translation of La disparation and thought it didn’t hold up to Life A User’s Manual – do you have an opinion on whether it’s better in French? Either way, I picked up a copy of Les choses in Paris, and this post has rekindled my enthusiasm to read it!

  9. The idea of a book full on unresolved disappearances and losses mirroring those in the author’s life, the fabric of society and the language of the book itself is quite brilliant. Only a genius could pull that off well. I have a son who only very recently moved out who would find this very compelling. I do too. (Anything authentic that resonates of the holocaust pulls me in too).

  10. It seems that many great writers have a background that is tragic or in some way flawed. It seems that great creativity often comes from circumstances such as the ones he found himself in. I have to admit that I am not at all familiar with his work but will add him to my list of authors to seek out in the future.

  11. Beautiful, and very-very interesting!
    Thinking about this “pain-thing”: … I would believe traumatic events, like the ones Perec experienced, to be something one didn’t really want to get in touch with, being too painful, one would seek to try to forget? But then, by forgetting, the “pain-thing” pops up in another language, as for example – if you are really lucky in the midst of your misery – in art???
    I don’t believe all writers have to experience traumatic events, just as experiencing something traumatic doesn’t necessarily make you into an artist. But I do believe that good art has its own voice. And also; that the artist have to make room for her personal tone, which might be strange and unrecognizable even to the artist herself, to make something exceptional.

  12. That is a wild picture, but before I read all of your post it crossed my mind that he looks like he could have a great laugh over a good joke and by the sounds of things I was right. He did have an awful childhood, though, which makes you wonder how people do keep any sort of sense of humor. Experimental novels always scare me a little, but I like the sound of his playfulness. And I like the idea of a cross between math and literature, too! Maybe someday I’ll try him–anyone who loves cats is cool in my book.

  13. Mister Litlove thinks I should mention that the post here was taken from the book I wrote last year. It’s sort of sitting around doing nothing at the moment and I might take bits from it now and again, if you are enjoying them.

    JB – Absolutely – creativity is fostered by obstacles, just as love is. I wish I had my own personal maison d’Ande nearby I could visit – by all accounts it was a wonderful location for writers. Have you read A Man Asleep? I love that one, although probably my favourite of all the Perec’s I’ve read has been W or the Memory of Childhood. He’s a special writer, I think.

    Emma – oh Romain Gary!! What a fab idea. I love his writing so much and you’re quite right, his life was amazing. Definitely, I’ll write about him. And thank you for linking to this post! I must come and look at your blogroll, because I’ll bet you know some cool European lit sites (including your own, of course!).

    Caroline – we can’t really help what we like and what we don’t. It’s always a cause for much celebration that so far, we’ve been able to enjoy this huge range of published books to that there really is something for everyone. I can’t get on with Boris Vian, although loads of people adore him. It’s okay – live and let live, I say!

    Ruthiella – oh boy, Ella Minnow Pea is the quintessential lipogrammatic novel! I’d love to know what you make of it – let me know if you can.

    Stefanie – I love that photo so. You cannot help but smile when you see him. I’d love to know which Perecs you have – W or the Memory of Childhood and A Man Asleep are my favourites – so far. I have Life: A User’s Manual still to read. I would be so curious to know what you make of him!

    Lilian – now that’s a lovely compliment – thank you!

    Jenny – I HAVE read I Capture the Castle, and it had never crossed my mind before, the link between the father and Perec, but surely there must be some influence, even if only along the lines that the experimental authors were some of the most tormented! Perec’s a funny one, in that his work is really quite obscure, and yet his name is often a little bit familiar.

    Emily – the lipogrammatic novels aren’t my favourites, in all truth. They’re clever but inevitably they lose a little something. My favourite Perec is W ou le souvenir d’enfance, which is an amazing one, grips you by the throat at the end. I do like him in French, whatever the book, as he’s one of those authors with incredible style. I’m not sure how well it would come across in translation. I haven’t read Les Choses, but it was a big hit when it came out, quickly became a cult classic. I’d love to know what you think of it.

    Squirrel – you and your son should have a look at W or the Memory of Childhood. In my opinion, the best Holocaust novel ever written. Ever. It absolutely blew me away when I read it, and I’ve written about it and lectured on it since. You know, one of those books that stays with you for the rest of your life. And I’d love to know what you think of Perec, if you do get to read him.

    Kathleen – he’s a strange one is Perec. Peculiarly readable, for all his tricks. I’ve been looking into author’s lives a lot recently and it is amazing how many of them emerged from tragedy or lived in extraordinary ways. It’s been fascinating!

    Alexander – thank you!

    Nivedita – that is so kind of you! I’d love to know what you think of him!

    Sigrun – I completely agree – you don’t have to be traumatised to be an artist. I think what’s unusual about Perec is that there is no ‘event’, no moment, not even any particularly period of days and weeks when his trauma occurred. Paradoxically, he may have felt better if there had been an isolated incident he could feel pain over. But he didn’t. All his work is an attempt to portray nothingness, absence, loss, not pain exactly. But Perec is a good example of how emotions go underground and come up in different disguises, that’s for sure!

    Melissa – oh thank you, that’s so kind of you to say!

    Kinna – thank you so much! What a lovely comment.

    Danielle – Perec is odd, as in he is quite ‘difficult’ and yet I find him strangely easy to read. The one I’ve been recommending is W or the Memory of Childhood, which has the most ‘story’ of any of Perec’s work, and is my favourite. But you’d want to pick the right moment for him, save him until you really feel like reading something different. I do think he was a sweetie, though, with an extraordinary sense of humour considering all he went through. I completely agree about the cat love!🙂

    • Absolutely! I’ve only read: Life A User’s Manual, your essay – as usual – makes me want to read more, much more!
      And please – do give us more from the book!

  14. Wow, what a story! That part about buying him a comic and putting him on the train brought a lump to my throat. And so sad that in his twenties he described himself as a bad son – why? for surviving when his parents didn’t?

    I haven’t read anything by him, but will take your recommendations of W or The Memory of Childhood and try one of them soon.

  15. Andrew- no don’t feel bad at all! When I read your first comment, I realised how extremely misleading my sentences had been. I sort of refuse to put quotation marks around book titles because the MHRA convention is to italicise – which I can’t do in a comment….. (or I could if I had any knowledge of HTML, but you know all about that). And I think you get to the heart of it when you talk about Perec surviving when his parents didn’t. It was a dreadful case of survivor guilt, which is strangely powerful. Poor Perec, but such art he created!

  16. I have Life: A User’s Manual on my shelves, and I’m very eager to get to it, one of these days (or years). He sounds SO interesting, and I love the idea of playfulness in fiction. It’s fascinating to know what lies behind the playfulness, and your ideas about creativity are really interesting. We do tend to think of it as very individual and as coming out of no context at all — just our empty minds, I guess.

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