Georges Perec’s Je me souviens: a participatory text
By Andrew Hodgson.
Memory is more than a theme in the writing of Georges Perec, it appears the very crux of his writerly drive. His texts chase after objects, images and people on the cusp of disappearing, of passing into the undocumented past, and thus – Perec seems to fear – on the precipice of having never existed at all. This breaks down into three elements, in a reaching for staid cultural or physical objects on which the past may be ingrained: celebrities, train stations, roads. And again in a tragic comprehension that celebrities die, their fame expunged, buildings are demolished, repurposed or rebuilt, and roads renamed, rerun. The third is the interplay of the façade of stasis and inevitable disintegration in quotidian life; what seems so essential, undeniable, indefatigable in the now as a forgotten past in waiting. The present here is always a moment awaiting its silent, redundant position in relation to a future gazumper forever two steps ahead.
These nodes and their relation appear throughout Perec’s work, the most well-known example is Anton Voyl in La Disparition (1969). The text reads as detective fiction, in which the reader searches for what is not there, a vowl. This was followed up with the loss of a,i,o,u, though by then e had returned, in its conceptual sequel, Les Revenentes (1972). And again the virus spreads from language to character in Quel petit vélo à guidon chromé au fond de la cour? (1966) where our page-representative, our “junomme”, seems on the verge of disappearing:
There was this dude, he was called Karamanlis, or something like that: Karawo? Karawasch? Karacouvé? Well anyway, Karawhatever.
It is this frenetic liminal slippage between potentially existing and potentially not that again permeates through language and characterisation, and to the core of Perec’s narrative structures. To look too, to the chessboard living, breathing building in La Vie mode d’emploi (1978) that after five hundred pages of life and death, is left as a dispeopled network of rooms; a sad husk of black lines on a blank page.
Perec is not singular in approaching memory as a tragic textual entity, there are other writers, like B. S. Johnson, who place dealing with the cache of accumulating and disappearing human experience as the engine of their writing. But Johnson’s project appears to put it down in ink, to bind it, and to place it safely at a distance, away; over there on the bookshelf. As Johnson said in conversation with Alan Burns:
I call it exorcism. I wrote those three books to get them out of my head. I wanted to unburden my mind.
Perec writes to a very different purpose: to solidify these images, senses, and in such make solid their fallibility. To not attack his experiences, or loss of, but document them, and this very interaction; to try to document the on-going accumulating and disappearing nature of human experience. As he writes of his childhood in W ou le souvenir d’enfance (1975):
What marks this period especially is the absence of landmarks: these memories are scraps of life snatched from the void. No mooring. Nothing to anchor them or hold them down. Almost no way of ratifying them. No sequence in time, except as I have reconstructed it arbitrarily over the years: time went by.
Again, this relation between memory and its object souvenir, that too may be worn away by the sands. For Perec the impossibility of time, the untraversable distance of the past, the present as the unrelenting rewriter of reality, is a very personal problematic. His father killed in the invasion in 1940, his mother killed at Auschwitz in 1943, of Jewish origin born in Belleville, he was smuggled out to distant family in the countryside and brought up a Catholic schoolboy. And here rests the impetus for this centrality of memory to Perec’s writing: his childhood, family, identity, home, were all eaten by this huge global rupture when he was just a young boy. So young that both the greatest horrors, and possibly happiest moments of his life are largely beyond his ken, too early to recall. In this Perec’s memory stands better comparison to Roland Topor’s Souvenir (1969), an entire novel written and then entirely scrubbed out from cover to cover.
Perec’s sense of disappearing human experience is wrapped up both in the socio-cultural sum, and the fleeting, individual, personal human interactions that punctuate the quotidian drift. Shared jokes, schoolyard games, a meal prepared by an aunt. His texts predicate on, he writes, the “overlooked commonplace” that is always in the process of evaporating; the very things that reassure us we are living.
This process finds its centre in the object of this piece, Perec’s fragmentary text Je me souviens (1978) – I remember. The book contains 480 numbered short quotidian reminiscences: memories he has nearly, often half, forgotten. A concept inspired in “title, form, and to a certain extent, the spirit” by I remember (1975) by Joe Brainard, and taken further, again, by Gilbert Adair’s Myths & Memories (1986). Perec’s version presents an interesting mix of memories before, during, and after the war. It consists of moments with his extended family (his close family tellingly absent from the list), of advert catchphrases and of anecdotes about other prominent figures.
What is singular, and most interesting, about the book is the handful of blank pages at the end, where Perec invites the reader to add their own remembrances. The copy I have has been added to by two different readers, an ‘A. Buffard’, and a ‘CEF’. What follows below is a selected few of Perec’s own memories, and those added by readers to my copy. Perec’s project here is concrete documentation of fleeting human experience in the process of disappearing, to create a relic by which it may be returned to again, an object to which it may be moored. And to this he invites us, the readers; to participate in an attempt to remember, both the worn and demolished landmarks of our shared cultural past, and the flowing and disappearing touchpoints of our own, individual human experience.
Here I open a (digital) space for the extension of Perec’s project, beyond the confines of printed paper, and ask you, the reader, to participate in the voicing and recording of our own receding memories. You can participate in ‘I remember…’ by tweeting your own remembrances to @3ammagazine, the sum of which we may collect, collate and publish as a cross-section of our communal disappearing past. I look forward to reading them.
The principle is simple: to try to find memories nearly forgotten, non-essential, banal, commonplace (perhaps not all strictly so, but at least most of them).
The memories here range for the most part from when I was 10 to when I was 25, so between 1946 and 1961. When I talk about memories from before the war they reference, for me, a time that appears within the domain of myth: this means that a memory may be ‘objectively’ false. For example in ‘I remember…’ no. 101, I remember correctly the celebrated “musketeers” of tennis, but of the four names I cite, only two took part (Borotra and Cochet), Brugnon and Lacoste being replaced by Petra and Destremeau, who were also champions, but way later.
I remember Pom pom tra la la.
I remember my cousin Henri sitting around in his bathrobe all day when revising for his exams.
I remember the yellow bread they had for some time after the war.
I remember that in Monopoly; the Avenue de Breteuil is green, the Avenue Henri-Martin red, and the Avenue Mozart orange.
“Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten
Das Ich so traurig bin.”
“I wander lonely as a cloud
When all at once I see a crowd
A – ? – of golden daffodils.”
I remember one of the first times I went to the theatre my cousin got mixed up – confused l’Odéon and the Richelieu – and instead of a classical tragedy, I saw l’Inconnue d’Arras by Armand Salacrou.
I remember at the end of the war, my cousin Henri and I plotted the advance of the Allied armies with little flags that had the names of all the commanding generals and regiments on. I’ve forgotten nearly all the names of these generals (Bradley, Patton, Zhukov, etc.) but I remember the name of General de Larminat.
I remember Michel Butor was born in Mons-en-Baroeul.
I remember that Caravan, by Duke Ellington, was such a rare record that, for years, I knew of its existence without having ever heard it.
I remember “This is Cinerama”.
I remember when duffel coats were cool.
I remember the Yves Klein exhibition at the galerie Allendy, rue de l’Assomption.
I remember that the violinist Ginette Neveu died on the same plane as Marcel Cedan.
I remember my first bicycle had solid tyres.
I remember that Alain Robbe-Grillet was an agricultural engineer.
I remember that I never liked sauerkraut.
I remember that the Avenue de New York was once called Avenue de Tokyo.
I remember Fidel Castro was a lawyer.
I remember May 68.
I remember that the day after Gide died, Mauriac received a telegram: “Hell doesn’t exist. Can you explain to. Stop. Gide.”
I remember Boris Vian died at the showing of a film based on his book J’irai cracher sur vos tombes.
I remember some footballers: Ben Barek, Marche and Jonquet and, later, Just Fontaine.
I remember Malcolm X.
I remember that during the war the English had Spitfires and the Germans had Stukas (and Messerschmitts).
I remember that Audie Murphy was the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War and he became an actor after the war playing himself in a (mediocre) film retracing his exploits.
I remember that during his trial, Eichmann was locked in a glass cage.
I remember the three stars of Girls by George Cukor: Taina Egg (Finnish), Mitzi Gaynor, and Rex Harrison’s partner, Kay Kendall, who died a short time after the film was released.
I remember having the ambition to one day own all 57 varieties of Heinz.
I remember the moustache.
At the request of the author, the publisher has included some blank pages on which the reader may add their own “I remembers…” that this book has, the author hopes, helped the reader recollect.
A. Buffard [?]
I remember listening to Louis Jourdan and Nat King Cole and dreaming I was in a 1953 Oldsmobile Starfire.
I remember the 10th of May 1981 and the crowd going nuts.
I remember that my economics teacher had no teeth because he was hit by a moped outside the school.
I remember the first Jazz record I bought: Greatest Hits/Fats Waller RCA.
I remember that I was never very good at school and that I knew I was fucked at my baccalauréat.
I remember my first cigarette, and everyone completely cracking up.
I remember I was a boy scout.
I remember the first time a girl slapped me.
I remember it was also the first time I ever held a girl.
I remember The Manhattan Transfer.
I remember their French equivalent, “Double Six” and their big hit “le long des rues de Paris”.
I remember my lieutenant at Satory. He said that I wasn’t resourceful! …
I remember I also stole a combat jacket for his girlfriend…
I remember the English sweets in Boulogne and Cecilia in Oxford.
I remember Mr. Muscle loves the jobs I hate.
I remember the bouncy castle in the back garden, and the wasp nest in the back-right turret.
I remember the cruel wizard [lizard?] Rathamon.
I remember the sound of grit on the bottom of the toboggan when going down that hill where the doctor’s office was built on Ings Estate. I remember Ings Estate.
I remember the red ranger was the best, the white ranger was a total shit.
I remember hundreds of odd bits of wood all over my granddad’s work bench in his pottering room.
I remember not going to his bungalow anymore.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Robert Hodgson is a PhD researcher based at Université Paris Est, and a lecturer in English language and literature at various universities in Paris.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014.