By Braulio Tavares
Georges Perec was born in Paris (March 7, 1936), and died in Ivry (March 3, 1982). He lived in Paris nearly all his life.
His father fought in World War II and was killed in 1940. While the Germans gradually took France over, Perec was taken to the country by relatives. His mother disappeared in Paris, near the end of 1942. Later, she died in Auschwitz. Perec, an orphan at six, was raised by his uncle and aunt.
He studied, served in the Army, married, contributed to a number of magazines, and in 1965 he was awarded the Prix Renaudot for his first book, the short novel Les Choses (The Things). From then on, he published more than twenty books, and no two of them were alike.
Perec was a member of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or "Workshop of Potential Literature"), a Paris-based group of writers founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François LeLionnais. Other well-known members were the Italian writer Italo Calvino and the American Harry Matthews. OuLiPo tries to expand literature by borrowing formal patterns from such other domains as mathematics, Logic or chess. Perec's own books range from novels to collections of crossword puzzles, from essays to parodies, from poetry to wordgames.
Perec was fascinated by palindromes, which are words or entire sentences that, when spelled backwards, still read the same: Live Devil or See, slave, I demonstrate yet arts no medieval sees. Perec created what is possibly the longest palindrome ever written, "ça ne va pas san dire," made up from more than five thousand words. (Which is online -- follow the link at the bottom of this page)
Palindromes, anagrams, wordplays and word games are ever-present in most of what Perec wrote. Another tour-de-force of his was a 466-word text where the only vowel allowed was A. He wrote that short-short story in French, although its title is in English: "What a Man!" It is the story of two characters: Andras MacAdam, e Armand d'Artagnan. Perec's fascination with vowels made him a master of the lipogram. Lipograms are texts in which one of more letters are not allowed to appear; thus, "a lipogram in Z" is any text in which that letter is absent. The text of the present paragraph, for example, may be considered a lipogram in the letter that stays between "J" and "L" (all other letters are featured in it). Raymond Queneau mentions lipograms composed by classical poets such as Pindar and Lope de Vega.
In 1969, Perec wrote the lipogrammatic novel La Disparition. The more obvious translation for that title would be The Disappearance, were it nor for the small detail that the novel is a lipogram in E. The US translation, by Gilbert Adair, was titled A Void. It is the story of the disappearance of a man; and in the world from where that man disappeared, the letter "E" disappeared as well, but nobody (except for the reader) notices the Kabbalah of substitutions, similes, distortions, variants and the endless tricks that such a Universe builds to fill that void. In that world where "Anton Voyl" in French, "Anton Vowl" in English, is searched in vain by his friends, the well-known soliloquy penned by one William Shakspar runs:
Living, or not living: that is what I ask:
If 'tis a stamp of honour to submit
To slings and arrows waft'd us by ill winds,
Or brandish arms against a flood of afflictions,
Which by our opposition is subdu'd? Dying, drowsing;
Waking not? (...)
A superficial description like this one may convey the impression that Perec was just a wonderful word-juggler, all "fireworks" and little substance. This is not the case. Although never overtly explored his Jewish origin or the loss of his parents in the War, those elements are ever-present under the surface of his works. The first impression conveyed by his texts is that of an "entomological eye", detachedly observing the behavior of strange, eccentric people.
Perec was always reticent as regards to his private life, but in 1973 he published a book where he recounts 124 dreams he had between May 1968 and August 1972. The book is La Boutique Obscure, loosely translated as "The Dark Chamber" or "The Obscure Box". His reports on dreams are tantalizing chunks of scribblings, without much intention to "retell a story." In 1975, he published an oddball volume of memories, W, ou Le Souvenir d'Enfance (W, or the Remembrance of Childhood). In it, he writes about his childhood years but, typically for him, that narrative is interspersed with chapters about a wholly different subject: the description of a Dystopian island, named "W", where life is dedicated to sport competitions.
Perec's single most important work is, arguably, the huge La Vie Mode d'Emploi -- Romans (Life A User's Manual -- Novels), published in 1978 and the winner of the Prix Médici. In it, Perec describes an apartment building in Paris, and tells stories about the people who live there. This is done within a complex structure through which Perec determined the number of chapters to be used, their length, their order of appearance, and a random series of elements which should appear in each one. Behind this intricate pattern, Perec proceeds to tell stories upon stories, employing a wide variety of techniques, and describing peoples, places and events with an incredibly richness of detail. The subtitle "Novels" defines the nature of the book, which consists in short stories embedded inside larger stories, and stories linked in parallel with others.
La Disparition and its translation A Void are the subject of thoughtful analysis in some parts of Douglas R. Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot (Basic Books, New York, 1997).
There is a Georges Perec issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Half of that issue is dedicated to Spanish writer Felipe Alfau.
The standard Perec biography was written by David Bellos.
French language studies about Perec are continuously appearing; a good one is Georges Perec by C. Burgelin (Éditions Du Seuil, 1988).
Braulio Tavares, 10 February 1999
More on Georges Perec
You may order Perec's works online through Amazon.com by visiting the Libyrinth's Georges Perec Bookstore.
Caitlin Pantos' paper, "Eternal Tableaux; Space, Time and Georges Perec" deals with Perec's manipulation of space and time to serve a unique and characteristic narrative purpose.
There are several French Perec sites: Je me souviens Georges Perec has a very extensive bibliography, Association Georges Perec outlines the Perec Association, and Mireille Ribière's page Entretiens et conférences contains some Perec interviews in French and English and a collection of French links.
Books and Writers maintains a Perec biography.
There are several good OuLiPo pages online, including the OuLiPo Page.
Yahoo News Search -- Searched Yahoo for artcles and news related to Perec.
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