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by Bamber Gascoigne

Georges Perec (1936-1982)


French novelist, poet, essayist, dramatist, and literary innovator, who gained fame with his formally complex and puzzling works after the nouveau roman had lost its experimentalist freshness. Perec's most famous books include La Disparation (1969, A Void), written without the letter e, and La Vie mode d'emploi (1978, Life: A User's Manual), about the residents of an apartment building.

"It was in the final months of his life that the artist Serge Valene conceived the idea of a painting that would reassemble his entire existence: everything his memory had recorded, all the sensations that had swept over him, all his fantasies, his passions, his hates would be recorded on canvas, a compendium of minute parts of which the sum  would be his life." (in Life: A User's Manual, 1978)

Georges Perec was born in Paris into a family of Polish Jews. He was the only son of Icek Judko and Cyrla (Schulewicz) Peretz, who had emigrated to France in the 1920 and settled in Belleville, a working class area in Paris. The surname was originally a Hebrew word, but as the family scattered around the world, it had mutated into "Perez," "Peres," "Perutz," "Peiresc," and in France "Perec".

When the war broke out, Perec's father enlisted in the French army and died in a field hospital in 1940 of untended wounds,  the very last day of fighting, "after being wounded in the abdomen by machine-gun fire or a shell splinter.'' Other members of family, including Perec's mother, were killed in the Nazi concentration camps. Cyrla Peretz was first taken to a camp in Drancy and from there she was probably sent to Auschwitz.

From 1942 Perec was brought up by his paternal aunt Esther and her husband David Bienenfeld, who was a successful pearl trader. In 1945 they formally adopted their nine-year-old foster child. After graduating from a Catholic boarding school, Perec studied history and sociology at the Sorbonne and started to write reviews and essays for the Nouvelle Revue Française and Les Lettres Nouvelles. He never got a degree. At the Étampes Lycée he enrolled in Jean Duvignaud's philosophy class. Duvignaud encouraged Perec to write and became his mentor in the Parisian literary scene.

In 1958-59 Perec served in the army. After discharge, he married Paulette Petras and lived for a few years in Tunis, where his wife worked as a teacher. His first novel, on which he spent three years, was rejected by one publisher. Perec rewrote it, but when Gallimard withdrew from the project, Perec stowed the manuscript in a suitcase. The work, Le Condottière, was found decades later after his death.

From 1962 to 1979 Perec was employed as a poorly paid archivist at the Neuropsysiological Research Laboratory attached to the Hôpital Saint-Antoine. A nearly suicidal love affair with a wealthy older woman, Suzanne Lipinska, prompted him to take up analysis with Jean-Bernard Pontalis from May 1971. This was also the period when he systematically recorded his dreams, which were collected in La Boutique obscure: 124 rêves (1973, La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams). At the end of his diary Perec included an index of themes and motifs:

      A Jerry Lewis-type gag, 81
      Gags in the style of Lucky Luke, 59
      The classic gag where the balloon salesman is carried away by his
      balloons, 110

Perec's pyschoanalyst dismissed the  dream-texts as too polished to bring them into discussion. Most likely referring to Perec, Pontalis wrote in an article about an analysand, who "dreamt . . . in the way he composed crosswords, or played patience, or solved jigsaw puzzles . . . or devoted himself to games of writing.  ('Manual for a Sad Life (Georges Perec),' in Paths to Contemporary French Literature, Volume 1 by John Taylor, 2005, p. 177)

By the time La Boutique obscure was finished, Perec and Suzanne had already separated. After leaving Andé, he visited Paulette occasionally and had brief affairs. Still emotionally attached to the place, he wrote:  "But I feel I am getting away from  it even if I am not yet mobilized by other places, faces or passions. There's even the beginning of a convalescence, perhaps, at last, the real beginning." (Georges Perec: A Life in Words by David Bellos, p. 503, 1993)

In the late 1960s, Perec started to write in collaboration with his translator Eugen Helmle and the musician Philippe Drogoz a series of radio plays. Die Maschine (1972) analyzed a poem by Goethe from a pseudo-scientific point of view, utilizing an arithmetical substitution game. In the 1970s he became interested in cinema. Perec's first film, co-directed by Bernard Queysanne, was based on his novel Un Homme qui dort. It won the Prix Jean Vigo in 1974. The Lieux (Places) project, which he began in January 1969 and abandoned in 1975, centered on twelve Parisian location; he planned to describe them meticulously - in situ and from memory - and record their aging in the period of twelve years.

From 1976 Perec made crossword-puzzles for the magazine Le Point. The success of La Vie mode d'emploi enabled Perec to devote himself entirely to writing. In 1981 he was a writer-in-residence at the University of  Queensland, Australia. Outside relatively small avant-garde circles, his fiction was almost totally unknown in the country. During this period he worked on a project "to write a book in fifty-three days," but did not get very far with it. While in Syndey, he pursued poetry.

Throughout his writing career, Perec used three special typewriters: an Underwood Four Million, his companion for two decades, an IBM golf-ball machine and an Olivetti ET 221. (Afterlives of Georges Perec, edited by Rowan Wilken and Justin Clemens, 2017, p. 227) Perec died of cancer at the age of forty-six on March 3, 1982. His final novel,  Cinquante-Trois Jours (53 Days), a homage to the low-brow detective stories, contained references to an unfinished manuscript, The Crypt. Perec only completed the first eleven chapters, but left notes how the riddle would be solved – at the end there is a writer called GP who has accepted a challenge to create this book. The title of the novel refers to the time it took Stendhal to write Charterhouse of Parma.

The last six years of his life, Perec lived with the director Catherine Binet, whose film  Les jeux de la Comtesse Dolingen de Gratz (1981, The Games of Countess Dolingen) he produced. This visually impressive drama was partly based on Bram Stoker's short story 'Dracula's Guest' (1914). "When it's all over, one recalls a pleasurable experience without having a clue to what really was going on." (Vincent Canby, The New York Times, April 20, 1982) Perec died before the premiere of the film.

"Before, there was nothingm or almost nothing; afterwards, there isn't much, a few signs, but which are enough for there to be a top and a bottom, a beginning and an end, right and a left, a recti and a verso." (in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, 1998)

Perec entered the French literary scene with Les Choses (1965, Things), which won the Prix Renaudot and sold 100,000 copies. Two years later Perec joined the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OuLiPo), a group of writers and mathematicians founded by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. OuLiPo became Perec's intellectual home. The group devoted to exploring the creative potentials of formal rules, and specialized in anagrams, palindromes, mathematical word games, and other puzzles. Perec's longest palindrome - a sentence or a word which reads the same both ways - consisted of more than 5,000 words.

Experimenting with the lipogram - a text which one or more letters of the alphabet may not appear - Perec produced La Disparition, a 200-page detective novel (in some sources 311-page novel), in which the central puzzle deals with the disappearance of the e from the alphabet. (But the letter appears outside the main text.) La Disparation was largely composed at Suzanne Lipinska's house at Le Moulin d'Andé, a refuge for artists and writers. The Australian satirist Ryan O'Neill has claimed that Perec stole the idea for the book from a work by the fictional avant-garde writer, Arthur RuhtrA, founder of the Kanganoulipo. Arthur did not use the letter c. in his own novel Long Time No See. ""I should have known," he wrote in a letter published in Le Monde denouncing the French writer. "After all, Perec is an anagram of creep." (Their Brilliant Careers: Winner of the 2017 Pennington Prize by Ryan O'Neill, 2016)

Perec's translator, Gilbert Adair, managed to replicate the feat in English, although the pioneering work is Ernest Vincent Wright Gads, a novel with over 50000 words, written in English without the letter E. "But the paradox of liberating fetters is not one that will puzzle us, not when we think of the way we all narrow our options in order to expand our horizons in everyday life. Think of the new possibilities you have found in denying yourself, no matter what, the use of the far right lane; in never humming a tune whose lyrics employ "baby" or "girl" or "doncha know"; in going one day at a time without using the P-word (pr*bl*m*t*c)." (James R. Kincaid in The New York Times, March 12, 1995)  

Later Perec used all the saved e's from La Disparition in Les Revenentes (1972), which was written without the vowels a, i, o, u, but contained e. Espèces d'espaces (1974) examined spaces around and outside us, from one's bed to the universum. Perec's starting point was how letters, words, and lines fill a blank sheet of paper, forming a kind of space: "before, there was nothing, or almost nothing; afterwards, there isn't much, a few signs, but which are enough for there to be a top and a bottom, a beginning and an end, a right and a left, a recto and a verso."

W ou le souvenir d'enfance (1975, W or the Memory of Childhood) is an exceptional Holocaus narrative, in which chapters of childhood memories alternate with chapters of a fictional story. "I have no memories of childhood," Perec confessed. He compares his isolated memories with photograps, and imagines comforting scenes from his unfulfilled childhood: "As for me, I would have liked to help mother clear the dinner from kitchen table. There would have been a blue, small-checkered oilcloth on the table, and above it, a counterpoise lamp with a shade shaped almost like a plate, made of white porcelain or enamelled tin, and a pulley system with pear-shaped weights. Then I'd have fetched my satchel, got out my books and my writing pad and my wooden pencil-box. I'd have put them on the table and done my homework. That's what happened in the books I read at school." The fictional material consists of a story of a false identity and a dystopia set on an island called W, somewhere off Tierra del Fuego. Aryans have created on the island a totalitarian society. It based on a bizarre conception of sports, in which men are separated from women, children from their mothers, and losers receive grisly punishments. In the end the two complementary narratives unite when Perec refers to a book, which describes how sporting competition was developed in concentration camps into a vehicle of destruction.

Life: A User's Manual was awarded the prestigious Prix Médicis. It has over 100 interwoven stories which concern the inhabitants of a large Parisian apartment building situated at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier. The structure of the novel is governed by chessboard of ten squares by ten, knight's moves, algorithms, and principles which the author only knows. The building was inspired by a Saul Steinberg drawing of a New York apartment house with its façade removed. One of the characters is Percival Bartlebooth, an English millionaire, who decides to bring artistic and formal control of his life to its outermost limits: he would study watercolor painting with Serge Valene for ten years, then he would travel the world for 20 years and paint pictures of different ports. The watercolors are cut into jigsaw puzzles in Paris. The rest of his life-plan, 20 years, Bartlebooth reassembles the jigsaws, which finally are dipped into a detergent solution until nothing else is left but a blank paper. However, Bartlebooth dies before he has finished all 500 of his jigsaw puzzles. Perec reveals nothing of Bartlebooth's childhood; the final pieces are not put together.

For further reading: The Poetics of Experiment by Warren Motte (1984); Perec ou les textes croisés by J. Pedersen (1985); Pour un Perec lettré, chiffré by J-M. Raynaud (1987) Georges Perec by Claude Burgelin (1988); Georges Perec: Traces of His Passage by Paul Schwartz (1988); Perecollages 1981-1988 by Bernard Magné (1989); La Mémoire et l'oblique by Philippe Lejeune (1991); Georges Perec: A Life in Words by David Bellos (1993); Georges Perec: Ecrire Pour Ne Pas Dire by Stella Béhar (1995); Georges Perec Et I'Histoire, ed.  Carsten Sestoft & Steen Bille Jorgensen (2000); Elämät sanoissa: eletty ja kerrottu epäjatkuvuus Sarrauten, Durasin, Robbe-Grillet'n ja Perecin omaelämäkerrallisissa teksteissä by Päivi Kosonen (2000); 'Dreaming the Self, Writing the Dream: The Subject in the Dream-Narratives of Georges Perec,' in Subject Matters: Subject and Self in French Literature from Descartes to the Present, edited by Paul Gifford & Johnnie Gratton (2000); 'La vie mode d'emploi by Georges Perec: the Archive as a Game,' in Narrating from the Archive: Novels, Records, and Bureaucrats in the Modern Age by Marco Codebò (2010); 'Disordered Sentences: Georges Perec, Roland Barthes, Wayne Koestenbaum, Luc Sante,' in Reading Style: a Life in Sentences by Jenny Davidson (2014); Les choses, modes d'emploi: comment on lit Georges Perec by Jacques Leenhardt (2014); Memory Across Borders: Nabokov, Perec, Chamoiseau by Sara-Louise Cooper (2016); The Afterlives of Georges Perec, edited by Rowan Wilken and Justin Clemens (2017); Mémoires de l'oubli: William Faulkner, Joseph Roth, Georges Perec et W.G. Sebald by Raphaëlle Guidée (2017); Original Copies in Georges Perec and Andy Warhol by Priya Wadhera (2017); ''Miksi joka päivä ei tapahdu mitään? Jäännökselliyyden potentiaalisuus Georges Perecin arkipäiväisyys- projektissa' by Mikko Mankinen, in niin & näin nro 98 syksy (3/2018); Menetelmällisen kirjallisuuden antologia, toim. Teemu Ikonen (2019); 'Postcards for Georges Perec,' in Talking to Strangers: Selected Essays, Prefaces, and Other Writings, 1967-2017 by Paul Auster (2019) 

Selected works:

  • Les Choses: Une histoire des années soixante, 1965
    - Les Choses: A Story of the Sixties (translated by Helen R. Lane, 1969) / Things: A Story of the Sixties (translsated by David Bellos, 1990)
  • Quel petit vélo à guidon chromé au fond de la cour?, 1966
    - Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back Yards? (in Three by Perec, translated by Ian Monk, 1996
  • Un homme qui dort, 1967 (film in 1973, with Bernard Queysanne)
    - A Man Asleep (in Things: A Story of the Sixties, translated by Andrew Leak, 1990) 
  • Art et la manière d’aborder son chef de service pour lui demander une augmentation, 1968
    - The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise (translated by David Bellos, 1990)
  • La Disparition, 1969
    - A Void (translated by Gilbert Adair, 1995)
  • Petit traité invitant à la découverte de l'art subtil du go, 1969 (with Pierre Lusson et Jacques Roubaud)
  • Les Revenentes, 1972
    - The Exeter Text, Jewels, Secrets, Sex (in Three by Perec, translated by Ian Monk, 1996
  • Die Maschine, 1972
    - The Machine (radio play,  translated by Ulrich Schönherr, 2009)
  • La Boutique obscure: 124 rêves, 1973
    - La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams (translated by Daniel Levin Becker, 2012) 
  • Espèces d'espaces, 1974
    - Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (translated by John Sturrock, 1997)
    - Tiloja/Avaruuksia (suom. Ville Keynäs, 1992)
  • Ulcérations, 1974
  • 35 variations sur un thème de Marcel Proust, 1974
    - Variations, variations, Variationen (tr. 1997)
  • Les Lieux d'une fugue, 1975 (film)
  • W ou le souvenir d'enfance, 1975
    - W, or, the Memory of Childhood (translated by David Bellos, 1988)
    - W eli lapsuudenmuisto (suom. Päivi Kosonen, 1991)
  • Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien, 1975
    - An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (translated by Marc Lowenthal, 2010)
  • Alphabets, Galilée, 1976 (illust. by Dado)
  • Je me souviens, 1978
    - Memories (in Myths & Memories, translated by Gilbert Adair, 1986)
  • La Vie mode d'emploi, 1978
    - Life: A User's Manual:  Fictions (translated by David Bellos, 1987)
    - Elämä: käyttöohje: romaaneja (suom. Ville Keynäs, 2006)
  • Les mots croisés, 1979
  • Un cabinet d'amateur, 1979
    - A Gallery Portrait (in Three by Perec, translated by Ian Monk, 1996)
  • Alftred et Marie, 1979 (film-script)
  • 'Ellis Island,' 1979 (in Catalogue pour des Juifs de maintenant, ed. Luc Rosenzweig)
    - 'Ellis Island. Projektin kuvaus' (suom. Päivi Kosonen, Parnasso nro 6-7 / 2017)
  • La Clôture et autres poèmes, 1980
  • Récits d'Ellis Island: Histoires d'errance et d'espoir, 1980 (television film with Robert Bober)
  • Théâtre I, 1981
  • Epithalames, 1982
  • Catherine Binet's Les Jeux de la Comtesse Dolingen de Gratz, 1980-82 (prod.)
  • Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien, 1982
  • Penser Classer, 1985
    - Thoughts of Sorts  (translated by David Bellos, 2009)
  • Les mots croisés II, 1986
  • "53 Jours", 1989 (ed.  Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud)
    - 53 Days (translated by David Bellos, 1999)
  • L'infra-ordinaire, 1989
  • Vaeux, 1989
  • Je suis né, 1990
  • Cantatrix sopranica L. et aitres écrits scientifiques, 1991 (with  Harry Mathews)
    - Cantatrix Sopranica L. : Scientific Papers (translated by Antony Melville, Ian Monk & John Sturrock, 2008)
  • L.G.: Une aventure des années soixante, 1992
  • Le Voyage d'hiver, 1993
    - Winter Journey (in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, translated by John Sturrock, 1997)
    - Talvinen matka (suomennos, jälkisanat: Sami Sjöberg, 2017)
  • Récits d'Ellis Island, 1994 (with Robert Bober)
    - Ellis Island (translated by Harry Mathews, 1995)
  • Beaux présents belles absentes, 1994
  • Three by Perec, 1996 (translated by Ian Monk)
  • Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, 1997 (edited by John Sturrock)
  • Cher, très cher, admirable et charmant ami-- : correspondance, Georges Perec-Jacques Lederer (1956-1961), 1997
  • Entretiens et conférences, 2003 (2 vols., edited by Dominique Bertelli and Mireille Ribière)
  • Le Condottière, 2012
    - Portrait of a Man: (le Condottière) (translated by Davic Bellos, 2014)  

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