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.
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?