:: Article

Spoken in Jest: On the Lasting Importance of Georges Perec

By Darran Anderson.

Wandering the deserted streets of north London during lockdown, I came across a plaque marking the former residence of Samuel Phelps. Aside from his name and the years of his birth and death the only other word on the memorial was ‘Tragedian’. It began to rain and sheltering under some trees, I looked at my phone to find out who Phelps was; reading how he’d taken over the raucous ‘people’s theatre’ at Sadler’s Wells and how through minimalist staging and a return to the First Folio, rather than the bowdlerized Victorian adaptations, he had essentially saved Shakespeare from the Shakespeareans. Yet all it said on the plaque, or rather all it needed to say to convey his importance, was ‘Tragedian’.

As every comedian knows, tragedy is treated as a shortcut to greatness. From gritty televisual melodramas to Hollywood bathos, human sacrifices are often enough to lend gravity to that which is weightless. A rare few might delve into meaningful considerations of mortality but most are rewarded for being in the service of a grave form of sentimentality. We torment and extinguish our fictional characters in order to relish the grief that follows. Shakespeare knew the true depths of tragedy or rather he felt it, given it is not something easily comprehended. His finest tragedies occurred notably after the death of his young son Hamnet and, while we should always remain cautious of easy biographical explanations, these plays bear the unnatural chill of the eclipse, when all the bright convictions of the day are turned into uncertain night. Shakespeare knew that if we were to honour the genuine tragedy (or rather tragicomedy) of life, we would have to go beyond the self-serving falsehoods of sentimentality, which are equally mawkish and callous. We would have to truly occupy our place in it all and by occupy we mean question. This is why he has us conspire alongside the Macbeths, this is why he has us will Hamlet to action (and destruction), this is why the idea of truth in King Lear is embodied not in the vainglorious patriarch but in the mirror figures of honest Cordelia and the hapless Fool, who share the same wisdom, innocence and fate.

For many years, I foolishly resisted reading Georges Perec. The reasons say more about I than he: I was somewhat jaded with the book world and tired of anything with the vaguest trace of conceptual pretension or philosophical bullshit. Of course, as is the case with so many uninformed opinions, I was entirely wrong — you learn more about your own ignorance as you get older, if you learn anything at all. For a long time, I had seen Perec as a character in the model of The Fool and thus not one to be taken seriously because I was in thrall to ‘serious’ literature and because I failed to appreciate the value of a cat-loving pinball-playing jester (perhaps an Anglocentric prejudice given Margaret Drabble made the same mistake). I hadn’t realised that writers could deal with profound topics, including trauma and grief, with such a lightness of touch. Perec may be skimming stones across the surface of literature but as he does so he was sending little depth-sounding pulses down into the dark.

I connected with Perec’s writing during a period of time that some people do not come back from, so my gratitude is twofold. Since then, I’ve gone back and read a great deal of his work — his prophetic satire of aspirational consumerism Things: A Story of the Sixties, his collection of concise but evocative recollections I Remember, the teeming emptiness of A Man Asleep, his badaud experiment An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, his devastating meta-autofiction W, or the Memory of Childhood, and his masterpiece Life: A User’s Manual in which he navigates around the rooms and lives of a Parisian tenement — but immediately before writing Inventory, I had only read two books of his, two books that nevertheless were perfect for that moment. With the strange nature manuscript I’d written, Tidewrack, in development hell for several years, I was at an impasse, wondering whether to continue writing at all and, if I did, how to approach the inhospitable subjects of the past, which were simultaneously too vast and too claustrophobic. Much in the way that manifestos paradoxically liberate artists from the crushing too-muchness of infinite choice — or as Perec’s fellow Oulipian Raymond Queneau put it “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery” — Perec offered a way to focus-in but to do so in an oblique manner that would protect the writer from gazing directly into the abyss or the burning sun and, in the process, surprise the reader with revelations. It was a form of creative liberation through benevolent restriction.

Translated into English as A Void,  La Disparition is a prime example of how wrong I was in terms of Perec’s brilliance. The basic premise is an irritatingly indulgent one — it’s an entire book written without using the letter e — and I gave it a wide berth accordingly. Perec’s love of games, demonstrated for instance in the Knight’s Tour around a chessboard that provides the structure for Life: A User’s Manual, was not one I readily shared. I had made the mistake of seeing this approach as an end in itself rather than a beginning. OuLiPo, the group Perec belonged to, set distinct, often mathematical, parameters within which their authors could run wild, but from a distance I failed to see the importance of these boundaries, missing the exactitude with which their projects were conducted and mistaking them for buffoonery. The gimmicks and quixotic exercises Perec set up were not just games he enjoyed playing, they were also tools. Sometimes they were engines. Sometimes they were telescopes or microscopes. Sometimes they were skeleton keys.

A Void reads like a tumbling cascade of words. Like any virtuoso performance, it requires, and tests, patience but what drew me to it was not the text but the subtext. The key for understanding this came via a passage by Walter Motte in CONTEXT No.11 which is worth quoting at length:

When A Void first appeared, many critics dismissed it as an example of literary acrobatics, a technical tour de force and nothing more. Yet in anything more than a cursory, offhanded reading, it will become apparent that very serious considerations subtend Perec’s wordplay. On the one hand, it is abundantly clear that writing itself is a crucial concern in this novel. Had that escaped his reader up until the end, Perec makes that point explicitly in his “Postscript,” where, in E-less language (and thanks here to Gilbert Adair’s luminous English translation), he explains why he has eschewed the letter E:
‘My ambition, as Author, my point, I would go so far as to say my fixation, my constant fixation, was primarily to concoct an artifact as original as it was illuminating, an artifact that would, or just possibly might, act as a stimulant on notions of construction, of narration, of plotting, of action, a stimulant, in a word, on fiction-writing today.’
On the other hand, the absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence, and the absence of the E in A Void announces a broader, cannily coded discourse on loss, catastrophe, and mourning. Perec cannot say the words père, mère, parents, famille in his novel, nor can he write the name Georges Perec. In short, each “void” in the novel is abundantly furnished with meaning, and each points toward the existential void that Perec grappled with throughout his youth and early adulthood.

Why does it matter that Perec “cannot say the words père, mère, parents, famille in his novel, nor can he write the name Georges Perec”? It matters because when he was a little boy, Georges Perec’s father, a Polish Jewish immigrant, was killed fighting in the French army against the invading German army. It matters because, not long thereafter, Perec’s mother put him on the last seat of a Red Cross train out of occupied France so he could hide with relatives. It matters because she remained in Paris and was rounded up with thousands of others by the police and was handed over to the Nazis and taken to a place in occupied Poland none of them had ever heard of or dreamed of in their wildest nightmares and she was murdered there. The book, named after the official acte de disparition document he was sent regarding his mother’s vanishing from this world, is full of absences, as Perec’s life was. He does not directly ask the heartbreaking question about his parents, ‘Who were they?’ or the intrinsic ‘Who, then, am I?’ but they are there deep down, like the memories you have from the childhood years you can’t remember. As with life, they are buried under so much absurd activity and convoluted tangents and characters who appear and disappear. A Void is zany and frenzied to the point of being throwaway until you realise it is the work not of a Fool but The Fool who is being true to life in its apparent chaos and convolution. A testament, melancholic as it is, to the tricksy multifariousness of life. Perec is a great example of the modern conception of melancholy not as medieval precognition of depression but as a feeling situated on the ever-shifting invisible border between joy and sorrow, awe and despair. Given our inevitable end, it may all ultimately be a tragedy, Perec suggests, but a hell of a lot happens before that.

Despite being a good catholic boy, I don’t believe in preordination or destiny yet sometimes you find the right things at the right time because you have already been searching for them without knowing it. For as long as I can remember, I have avidly read comic books of every description yet what unites them all is an interest, even obsession, with space. In a sense, Perec’s descendants have been less in literary fiction and more in cinema (Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson etc) and, especially, in comics where there seems a direct lineage between his writing and exceptional multi-layered works like Chris Ware’s Building Stories and Richard McGuire’s Here. Perec encouraged a kind of anthropology of the self, the local, the normal, “What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. . . . Behind the event there is a scandal, a fissure, a danger, as if life reveals itself only by way of the spectacular, as if what speaks, what is significant, is always abnormal . . . how should we take account of, question, describe what happens everyday and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?”

Perec sought to question everything, from the teaspoons up, in a radical but not didactic way that combined poetry, sociology and psychology. In doing so, he engaged with issues that many writers overlook — simultaneity and contingency, for instance. Perec knew the only way to truly begin to know the world, and potentially change or save it, was to resist assumptions. It required lateral thinking (from a writer who used to create crossword puzzles for publications to supplement his meagre salary) to gain enough perspective to even see the everyday for what it really is, “If literature is a work of art, it is because it organizes and unmasks the world”. Think about the things we think we know, he advised. Why do we live like this? Why do we think any of this is natural or inevitable? How did all this around us come to pass and how has it shaped us? What if it all suddenly changed? What if it already had?

Reading Perec’s collection of essays Species of Space broke me out of the impasse I had found myself in. I packed up my haunted river book, accepted it as lost and melodramatically threw it off a pier into the sea, and I began again; this time writing an entirely new book about the past where terrible, wondrous and everyday stories would be told via the conduit of objects, thus bypassing the perils of direct disclosure. Written in a month-long bloodshot frenzy, after three or four years of involuntary suspended animation, Inventory was guided by restrictions as well as the friendly ghost of Perec. The idea was to treat it not as a book but instead a collection that I was merely assembling from the hoards of junk in the attic of memory. Perec’s charm, experimentalism and puckishness were inspirations, not belying the dark subjects he touched upon but intensifying them. His approach was not gothic kitsch or funereal posturing. He remained playful in his seriousness, always connected to a childhood, somewhere in another parallel world, that he was robbed of.

The following passage, from his essay ‘Approaches To What?’, gave Inventory its name, form and spirit:

To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither question nor answers, as if it weren’t the bearer of any information. This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space? 

How are we to speak of these ‘common things’, how to track them down rather, how to flush them out, wrest them from the dross in which they remain mired, how to give them a meaning, a tongue, to let them, finally, speak of what is, of what we are? What’s needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what for so long we’ve been pillaging from others. Not the exotic anymore, but the endotic.

 To question what seems so much a matter of course that we’ve forgotten its origins. To rediscover something of the astonishment that Jules Verne or his readers may have felt faced with an apparatus capable of reproducing and transporting sounds. For the astonishment existed, along with thousands of others, and it’s they which have moulded us.

 What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we open doors, we go down staircases, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed in order to sleep. How? Why? Where? When? Why? 

Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare.

 Make an inventory of your pockets, of your bag. Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out.

So I made an inventory, in the shape of a book. And I came to realise Perec was not just a brilliant writer; he was also the kindest.

There were other elements that endeared me towards him and where his world and ours had affinities. Perec lived and worked in a transitional time. Though he died at the dawn of mass computing, it was a world he had anticipated. In his job as an archivist, he had made ingenious index card databases called Flambo and Peekaboo, that pre-empted the technological innovations to come. He incorporated algorithms into his texts and emulated programs. He was ahead of the curve but sadly would not live to contribute to or develop alongside the tech. Though I was a toddler when Perec died in 1982, I get the added sense there is some connection there. Generation X were digital Edwardians, the last generation before mobile phone ubiquity, the internet and the global data and connectivity explosion. Old enough to appreciate the enormity of what was gained and, if we are honest, what was lost in the deluge.

For all his forward-thinking and engagement with the world of the present, Georges Perec kept coming back to the erasing quality of time and how humanity collaborates in this process through amnesia. He writes continually against this, “Try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs”. His approach was more generous than James Joyce’s plan to “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality”. Instead, Perec realised there was something at work on us or within us, even before death, that was attracted to oblivion, “A gap will yawn, achingly, day by day, it will turn into a colossal pit, an abyss without foundation, a gradual invasion of words by margins, blank and insignificant, so that all of us, to a man, will find nothing to say”. Instead of providing riddles for future generations, Perec did something more empathetic. He attempted to create dialogues that would outlive his own terribly foreshortened life. “Despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game,” he noted in Life: A User’s Manual. All of posthumous literature is a form of communicating with the dead but rarely do you encounter a writer of such innate humanity and solidarity as Georges Perec who, rather than deliver a lecture from beyond the grave, asks ‘Who are you?’, ‘Where are you?’, ‘What do you make of this world?’


Darran Anderson is the author of Inventory (Chatto & Windus / Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and Imaginary Cities (Influx Press / University of Chicago Press). He grew up in the north of Ireland and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 23rd, 2020.