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3:AM Cult Hero: Georges Perec

By Karl Whitney

“Question your tea spoons.”

In 1967, novelist Georges Perec joined Oulipo, a group of writers who sought to investigate the uses of mathematical constraint in the writing of literary texts. Members of Oulipo would come to include: co-founder Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, Paul Fournel and Jacques Roubaud. Already, in the writing of his first two published novels, Perec had utilised grammatical constraints: the central characters of his debut novel, a satire on 1960s consumerism, Things, are referred to throughout in the third-person plural, as ‘they’; the inert anti-hero of his slim second novel, A Man Asleep, is an unnamed second-person singular, addressed accusingly, relentlessly, by the narrator as ‘you’.

But Perec’s involvement with Oulipo saw his experimental side blossom, initially in short texts written for the group’s meetings, but soon thereafter in his novels, such as the famously e-less novel La Disparition (1969; impressively translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void). The novel utilised the lipogram, a text that excludes one or more letters of the alphabet – an ostensibly simple constraint which becomes mind-bendingly difficult when that letter is the most common in the French alphabet and the text is over 300 pages long.

The muted critical response to Perec’s constrained tour de force, combined with the unhappy breakup of a relationship, pushed Perec towards a spell in psychotherapy, which was in part a means to address the long-term psychological implications of the death of his parents, who had both died while Perec was still a young child (his father died fighting in World War II; his mother was interned by the Vichy regime and sent to her death in Auschwitz).

During this period, Perec embarked upon a number of intriguing projects concerned with everyday life and the city, usefully collected in English in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. Attempting an obsessive, near-ethnographic, examination of the city, Perec focused his attention on Parisian locales, drawing out the seemingly banal rhythms of urban space over the course of a largely unpublished project, Lieux (Places), which simultaneously, in its efforts to dredge memories from Perec’s past, reflected the ongoing process of analysis on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Fond of linguistic complexity, Perec also worked as a fiendishly-exacting crossword-setter for the weekly magazine, Le Point, and many of his crosswords have recently been published in book form in France. In addition, he held down a day-job: throughout most of his career as a writer, he worked as an indexer in a science laboratory in Paris.

Perec’s greatest achievement was his 1978 novel Life A User’s Manual, which drew on many of the constraints gleaned from Oulipo meetings, and mobilised them to spectacular effect, recounting the multiple tales that emerge from a fictional Parisian apartment building (11, rue Simon-Crubellier). The most memorable tale is the apparently self-neutralizing, and highly elaborate, project undertaken by the wealthy Bartlebooth: to spend 20 years painting 500 watercolours of maritime scenes while travelling around the world; to have those pictures fashioned into jigsaws by a craftsman based in the apartment building (Gaspard Winckler); and, on Bartlebooth’s return, to spend another 20 years assembling those jigsaws:

“As each puzzle was finished, the seascape would be “retexturised” so that it could be removed from its backing, returned to the place where it had been painted – twenty years before – and dipped in a detergent solution whence would emerge a clean and unmarked sheet of Whatman paper. Thus, no trace would remain of an operation which would have been, throughout a period of fifty years, the sole motivation and unique activity of its author.”

On 3 March 1982, Georges Perec died of lung cancer in Paris, aged just 45.

Further: Glenn Kenny on Un homme qui dort / ‘Oulipo Ends Where the Work Begins’ in The Believer / ‘Statement of Intent’ by Perec / Perec’s ‘Thoughts on the Art & Technique of Crossing Words’ / Life A User’s Manual at the Complete Review

First posted: Monday, June 28th, 2010.

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