August 22, 2019

The Utter Originality of Georges Perec

“Even if Georges Perec had not written a novel without the letter “E”—“La disparition,” later rendered into “E”-less English as “A Void”—he would still be one of the most unusual writers of the twentieth century. Among his works are a treatise on the board game Go, a radio play about a machine that analyzes poetry, an autobiography cast in the form of a novel about a city of athletes, an approximately five-hundred-word palindrome, a crypto-Marxist anatomy of consumerist Paris, a scrupulously researched history of a wholly fictional painting, a deeply eccentric bucket list (“buy a number of domestic appliances” and “travel by submarine” are among the entries), a memoir composed of four hundred and eighty stand-alone sentences that all begin “I remember,” a novella in which the only vowel used is “E,” a lyric study of Ellis Island, and, from 1976 until his death from cancer, in 1982, a weekly crossword puzzle for the newspaper Le Point. It would be hard to disagree with Italo Calvino that Perec “bears absolutely no resemblance to anyone else,” or with Perec himself, who said, in an interview a few years before his death, that he had never written the same thing twice.

Far from a mere collection of nutty pirouettes, Perec’s writing often confronts the most disturbing historical realities. The loss of both his parents at an age when he barely knew them—his father killed by a German bullet, his mother sent off to Auschwitz, both dead before Perec was nine—seems to have become more laceratingly painful the older he got. The missing “E” throughout “La disparition” is phonetically indistinguishable from the pronoun “eux”—“them” (“they” are missing)—and the title is taken from the acte de disparition, the official document that Perec received from the Ministry of War Veterans telling him that his mother was last seen alive in February of 1943. The novel about an island-city of athletes turns out to be a thinly disguised conceit about a concentration camp. The lyric study of Ellis Island is a mournful counterfactual about what might have been had his parents—and many others—made it across the ocean. Perec was heir to the mighty Raymonds—Roussel and Queneau—and, like those grandmasters, he unlocks strange, convulsive worlds made of words, yet his severest formalism is inseparable from an acute sensitivity to human suffering. Still, is it possible to write about unimaginable cruelty with the infantine levity of a jigsaw puzzle?

Perec’s first published novel, “Things: A Story of the Sixties,” from 1965, chronicles the ups and downs (mostly downs) of Jerome and Sylvie, a young professional couple striving to attain status in the “strange and shimmering world, the bedazzling universe of a market culture.” The first chapter’s exhaustively itemized description of the chic apartment that they imagine one day acquiring is an early indicator of Perec’s love of taxonomic catalogues and taste for making lists. When Sylvie gets a job teaching in a Tunisian school, the couple sees a chance to escape the rat race of consumerism only to find themselves in a labyrinth of ancient streets, where their own worries over money seem decadent in a place so poor. A few Parisian things—a row of Pléiade editions, a record player and some LPs, an antique nautical map hung on the wall—keep them clinging, with a different kind of desperation, to hopes for a luxurious future. What prevents the novel from being a mere indictment of crass materialism (though it is that) is Perec’s power of noticing thin shades of the quotidian, making it read like a precursor to such hyper-observed novels as Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine.” The book also has a strange, beguiling tone, somewhere between an engagé documentary and an archaeology of taste.”

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