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“MAN OF LETTERS, AROUND LETTERS, AROUND THE ALPHABET”: GEORGES PEREC († 7 Mar, 1982)

*Marking the 35th anniversary of his death, David Vichnar’s piece reviews George Perec’s oeuvre in terms of its commitment to experimental innovation in the best modernist fashion.

Even today, more than thirty years after his death, Georges Perec (1936-82) is still a member of the Oulipo group, which—and this ties in with what has been noted about its relation to tradition—makes no distinction between living or deceased membership. This membership began in 1967 when his friend Jacques Roubaud introduced Perec to the Oulipo, and a mere two years later, in 1969, Perec published his first novel directly inspired by his relationship with Oulipo, the remarkable La Disparition.

In the same year he began assembling and organizing material for the masterpiece he would take ten years to complete, La vie mode d’emploi. In an appropriately precise mathematical fashion, he declared himself to be “a genuine product of the Oulipo,” his existence as a writer being “ninety per cent dependent on my knowing the Oulipo at a pivotal point in my formation, in my literary work.”[1] This formation was one of what he himself referred to as being a “man of letters”: “The phrase that seems most appropriate in defining myself and my work is man of letters, a man whose work revolves around letters, around the alphabet. My work is not done with ideas or sentiments or images.”[2] This work with and around letters involves, in an eminently Oulipian fashion, a formal constraint generative of literary inspiration. However, there is also the 10% outside of the commonality which is more interesting to pursue as it is precisely in places where Perec diverges from the Oulipian doctrine that his raison d’être as writer and man might be located.[3]

Although a “product” of the Oulipo, Perec is an out-standing Oulipian. His difference from the group is twofold, in degree and in kind. Perec substantially differs from Queneau and other Oulipians in the degree of control over, and exhaustiveness of, the combinatorial play of formal elements staged in his work. He can be said to push the Oulipian potentiality toward actuality, never regarding the method itself as sufficient merely in its virtuality, without its extreme realization. This obsession with exhausting the subject secured him the first place in quite a few of the Oulipian top charts, most notably, for his 1969 Grand Palindrome, with 5 566 letters the longest palindrome in the French language, and his 300-page novel La Disparition (also from 1969, translated into English as A Void), a book-length lipogram managing to do without the letter ‘e’ throughout, complemented in 1972 by the monovocal text, Les Revenentes, where the only vowel used is ‘e.’

Perec invokes this desire for totality, completion, and exhaustive inclusivity in discussing his aspirations as man of letters—“to write all that a modern man can possibly write,” “to fill a drawer at the Bibliothèque nationale,” “to use every single word in the dictionary”—and he applies it ceaselessly in his attempts at “description,” “inventory,” and “exhaustion.”[4] His ambition is to recycle or invent methods, certainly, but above all to push them to their extremes in order to imbue the sphere of their realization. However, there is also a more substantial difference marking Perec off from others, more substantial because in kind rather than degree: his systematic determination to motivate the constraint. This motivation takes place not only in the sense of Jacques Roubaud’s principle according to which “a text written according to a given constraint must speak of this constraint,”[5] which assumes the primacy of the constraint over the generated text, but also in the sense of a sort of constraint generated from within the text, a sort of modernist mimetic form imbued by Perec’s biography.

 

The first thing to note about Perec’s corpus is that it stands as testimony to its author’s intention, voiced in his autobiographical essay “Notes sur ce que je cherche,” to “never write two similar books,” to never repeat “the same formula” already “elaborated in a previous book.”[6] The Perequian corpus—comprising 22 texts from 1965 to 1981 and 15 more volumes of the posthumous editions of his manuscripts, non-fiction, criticism, collected interviews, etc.—is notable not only for its scope and sheer bulk, but also for its unique variety. As Schwartz has remarked, the differences of style and subject in Perec’s first three novels—Les Choses (1965), Quel petit vélo (1966), and Un Homme qui dort (1967) give the impression of “a man with a need to write, searching for a personal means of expression,”[7] but with Perec, this is no symptom of youthful search and uncertainty, but of a constant writer disposition. Critic David Gascoigne speaks of Perec’s “heterogeneous memory-bank of choice morsels” and their “unexpected juxtapositions” that “nourish his writing.”[8] Zooming in on just five years of Perec’s career, 1973-78, during which he was most involved with La vie mode d’emploi: there are volumes like La Boutique obscure: 124 rêves (1973), Perec’s dream book where he recounts the dreams dreamt from May 1969 to August 1972, an explicitly oneiric text whose narrative poses questions about the nature of representation, about the relation of ostensible lived experience and writing. Espèces d’espaces: Journal d’un usager de l’espace (1974) resists generic classification, composed as it is of a series of texts which resemble essays more than anything else, thematically dealing with the ways in which people furnish space – here, Joyce’s importance for Perec as a writer of “space,” mentioned in several interviews above, seems to directly reflect Perec’s own involvement.

W ou le souvenir d’enfance (1975), again, is formally unique in that its structure is doubly bipartite. First, two separate narratives are juxtaposed throughout the text, and autobiographical narrative and a fictive narrative which Perec had first written at the age of thirteen. Passages of the two are interpolated in W in alternating chapters. Second, each of the two narratives is in itself bipartite; their respective caesurae coincide, so that the text as a whole is divided into two parts. Alphabets (1976) is a collection of heterogrammatic poetry, i.e. poetry written in successive anagrams of a given series of letters, each anagram constituting a “verse.” Finally, Je me souviens (1978), perhaps the most immediately accessible Perec text, is an experiment in collective memory, containing 480 short allusions to recent history (political, cultural and popular), each prefaced by the phrase “je me souviens,” “I remember,” recuperating the banal element of the past. Still, Perec himself provided a useful and as exhaustive as possible classification of his works into four categories, to do with his central concerns as writer: first, the “sociological” order, dealing with “how to regard the everyday” (exemplary texts: Les Choses, Espèces d’espaces, Tentative de description de quelques lieux parisiens); second, the autobiographical order (W ou le souvenir d’enfance, La Boutique obscure, Je me souviens, Lieux où j’ai dormi ); the ludic order (“all of the works inspired by the Oulipo research: palindromes, lipograms, pangrams, anagrams, isograms, acrostics, crosswords, etc.”); and finally, the novelist order, inspired by Perec’s “taste for stories” and his hope “to write books that get devoured” by readers “lying on their bellies in bed” – Perec’s example is, of course, La vie mode d’emploi.[9]

Given the primary focus of this study, attention will be paid to just Perec’s two crucial novelistic texts, La Disparition and La vie mode d’emploi. As Warren J. Motte has observed in his excellent study on Perec, The Poetics of Experiment, all of his texts partake of the literary tradition of constraint, however, with a particularly Perequian twist, a “constraint voluntarily imposed.”[10] La Disparition and Les Revenentes are the most purely Oulipian of Perec’s longer works, not only because of their constraint-observance and self-reference, but also because they are guided, as Motte has put it, by the essentially Oulipian questions of renewal and revitalisation: “Might the modern novel be revitalized through an increase rather than a decrease of formal rigor? Is the means through which this is to be effected a Draconian system of constraint? A castration of the alphabet?”[11] Although La Disparition is the first of Perec’s longer texts to adopt the structure of the game overtly, Motte’s questions are not merely rhetorical, as both a positive and a negative answer would only tell part of the story. The 10% of the non-Oulipian impulse in Perec has to do with his uniquely personal and painful experience. As Perec himself made clear in his “Histoire du lipogramme,” the form and the gadget itself are no inventions of his – he duly credits the American Ernest Vincent Wright and his Gadsby (1939) as the first novel written entirely without the letter “e.” However, it is precisely in comparison with Wright’s text that the truly experimental character of Perec’s novel crystallises. Already the first edition of Wright’s book is furnished with an introduction presenting the book’s chief constraint and the sundry difficulties (“trouble with pronouns,” “the past tense of verbs, -ed,” etc.) entailed in its composition. Wright also states that “this story was written, not through any attempt to attain literary merit” and that his sole hope is that the reader “may learn to love all the young folks in the story, as deeply as I have, in introducing them to you. Like many a book, it grows more and more interesting as the reader becomes well acquainted with the characters.”[12] The narrative of Wright’s book relates the rather inane story of a certain John Gadsby whose community activism helps to transform his hometown, Branton Hills, from a stagnant municipality into a prosperous urban space – nowhere in Wright’s story is the central constraint substantiated, referred to, conceptualised.

However, if Perec pulled off the feat of doing without the letter “e” for over 300 pages and so adroitly that none of the La Disparition’s first reviewers ever noticed, it was not just for the heck of it (like Wright), nor in order to draw his overarching narrative scheme (the disappearance of and feverish quest after the novel’s protagonist, Anton Voyl /Vowl/) from a recurring metaphorical designation of its constraint; this from the overall design (26 chapters—the number of letters in the French alphabet—with chapter 5 left out, 6 sections—corresponding to six French vowels—with the second missing) to the minutes narrative details (26 books on the main character’s shelf, with the fifth volume mysteriously missing, a pseudo-Oedipal episode with the Sphinx’ question after an animal “that has a body as curving as a bow and draws back inwards as straight as an arrow,” etc.). It was, rather, for the sake of turning this familiar undertaking into the central figure of Perec’s personal universe marked by loss, absence, and disappearance – the central disappearance and absence of Perec’s life being the disappearance of his parents (who were naturalized Polish Jews), his father on the battleground and his mother in the most gruesome concentration camp, of World War II. As critics have noted, together with the disappearance of the letter “e,” both “père” and “mère,” the author’s “famille,” must remain absent from the text, as well as its author whose name (itself a French transcription of its Polish original) contains the letter no fewer than four times.[13]

In La Disparition, the lipogrammatic structure creates all sorts of ancillary wordplay, such as the transformation of the well-known pangram: “Portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume” into the form demanded by the lipogram in E: “Portons dix bons whiskys à l’avocat goujat qui fumait au zoo” (LD, 51). The same sort of Oulipian exercise is involved in the transformation of six poems, “Brise marine,” “Booz endormi,” “Recueillement,” “Correspondances,” “Les Chats” and “Voyelles” – a veritable feat in transcription and literary encoding.[14] Even though traumatically personal, the elision of the letter E again forms part of Perec’s lifelong mission of a “man of letters,” a writer privileging the status of the individual letter – as will be shown, apart from E in La Disparition and Les Revenentes, there is also the famous double example of Perec’s interest in W – W ou le souvenir d’enfance and La vie mode d’emploi. Perec’s insistence on the materiality of the letter can, at least partly, be attributed to Joyce’s materialist poetics privileging the letter as the smallest semantic/emblematic unit – observes Motte, “in this, Perec recalls other writers, among them Michel Leiris, who privileges the B, the F, the I, and the R in La Règle du jeu, James Joyce, who exalts the E in Finnegans Wake, Isidore Isou and the Lettrists.”[15] However, La Disparition, unlike works “privileging” certain letters, is marked uniquely in how the E dominates the entire text in absentia. Since E is the most frequently used letter in French, its suppression clearly imposes a constraint which radically modifies normative language. Significantly, the return of the repressed “e” comes in the text entitled Les Revenents, meaning “ghosts,” literally “the returned ones.” The same letter which controls La Disparition in its absence dominates Les Revenentes by its presence; in fact, in Les Revenentes, the autocracy of the E is heightened, even though, from another perspective, Les Revenentes appears as a lipogram in A, I, O, and U.

Finally, Perec’s longest text, La vie mode d’emploi (1978), a novel (or “novels,” as its subtitle indicates) of some 700 pages, is structured upon two rigid systems of formal constraint. They preside over, respectively, the sequence of the chapters and the constitutive elements of each chapter. The novel deals with a Parisian apartment building and its inhabitants. The façade of the building is ten stories high and ten unites wide, suggesting a 10×10 grid, an expanded chessboard. Perec chose this image as the basis for the system of formal constraint which governs the sequence of chapters.[16] Having established a system by which the sequence of chapters is regulated, Perec goes on to regulate the constitutive elements of each chapter.[17] Perec made up 42 categories, each of which contained 10 variables, to be included in each chapter. As he made it clear in numerous interviews the groups of ten included body positions, activities, colours, numbers of characters per room, events like America before Christopher Columbus, Asia in ancient times, or the Middle Ages in England, details about the furniture, literary quotations, etc. To take only the first two of these, since each category contains ten variables (for body position, they are: kneeling, sitting, lying on the stomach, lying on the back, an arm up in the air, etc., for activity: painting, having an interview, consulting a map, performing an erotic act, etc.), each one will be used, in principle, ten times. The kneeling position will be repeated in ten chapters, the standing in ten, and so on, thereby filling all the 100 chapters/rooms of the book. Furthermore, each body position is paired with one of ten activities, and each of these activities will in turn be repeated in ten different chapters. Ten different positions paired with ten different activities will, in principle, yield 100 unique position/activity pairs, one for each chapter of the book. In principle only, because there are only 99 chapters in the book; because Perec threw a (systematic) wrench into his system in order not to be systematic.

Furnished with forty-two elements to feature in each of the ninety-nine chapters, Perec could then proceed with the design of the narrative proper. Set on June 23, 1975, at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, the narrative of La vie mode d’emploi concerns the recounting—in what amounts to a dazzling total of 179 stories featuring over 200 characters—of the personal histories and present states of the flat’s inhabitants, both present and past. What emerges from within this immense kaleidoscope as possibly the organizing leitmotif linking them all together is the story of a whimsical project undertaken by one of the flat’s tenants, an English millionaire Perceval Bartlebooth, which involves learning the art of the watercolour, traveling the world painting 500 watercolours of seaports, sending these to Gaspard Winckler, an assistant craftsman who partitions these into a 750-piece puzzles, then, upon returning from the voyage, reassembling the puzzles into the painting again, sending the painting to the location of its creation, with the intent of having it washed with a detergent, leaving only a blank sheet of paper. The nothing that was at the beginning would be the nothing at the end. However, the project misfires as Winckler, avenging himself on Bartlebooth for the twenty years of pointless labour, produces puzzles of an increasing level of difficulty, and at 8 p.m. on June 23, 1975, the almost blind Bartlebooth dies as he haphazardly attempts to finish puzzle number 439:

C’est le vingt-trois juin mille neuf cent soixante-quinze et il va être huit heures du soir. 
Assis devant son puzzle, Bartlebooth vient de mourir. Sur le drap de la table, quelque part dans le ciel crépusculaire 
du quatre cent trente-neuvième puzzle, le trou noir de la seule pièce none encore posée dessine la silhouette presque parfait d’un X. 
mais la pièce que le mort tient entre ses doigts a la forme, depuis longtemps prévisible dans son ironie même, d’un W. (LVME, 600)
It is the twenty-third of June nineteen seventy-five, and it is eight o'clock in the evening. Seated at his jigsaw puzzle, 
Bartlebooth has just died. On the tablecloth, somewhere in the crepuscular sky of the four hundred and thirty-ninth puzzle, 
the black hole of the sole piece not yet filled in has the almost perfect shape of an X. But the ironical thing, which could 
have been foreseen long ago, is that the piece the dead man holds between his fingers is shaped like a W. (LUM, 497)

The ordering of the book’s chapters, then, follows a design of dexterity and complexity taken to their extreme degrees and thereby nullified because no longer perceptible – the 99 chapters follow the famous Knight’s tour, a mathematical problem involving a knight moving around chessboard (here, of a 10×10 grid), visiting each square only once. Thus, with 10 stories and two flights of stairs for either of the two cellar complexes, there are 12 “On the Stairs” chapters; since his is a 5-room apartment, indeed, there are 5 “Bartlebooth” chapters. The knight’s tour performed by Perec’s narrative is a closed one, that is to say, the last square of the voyage would be the one from which it was commenced – a leap two squares outside Bartlebooth’s apartment and one down would indeed bring us back to the landing “between the third and fourth storey” of the first chapter. Just as Bartlebooth’s own absurdly self-cancelling endeavour, the knight would be left at exactly the same spot it had left from. Consequently, the opening of the novel is equally random, as the closed knight’s tour can be begun at every single one of its steps – and accordingly, the novel opens: “Oui, cela pourrait commencer ainsi, ici, comme ça…” (LVME, 19).

The opening meditation in La vie mode d’emploi on jigsaw puzzles is quite obviously designed to be taken as a metafictional commentary on the book itself, as its main narrative line, as well as the sundry digressions from which it is inseparable, indeed, indistinguishable, involves riddle- and puzzle-solving and its overall formal setup is meant to evoke, as much as possible in the essentially temporal medium of language, the spatial organization of a jigsaw puzzle. The entire “Préambule” is repeated, with only minor variations, in chapter 44; this is singularly appropriate, since the chapter recounts the meeting of Percival Bartlebooth and Gaspard Winckler, who was to become the former’s puzzle maker – at the centre of La Vie is the distant, but no less fierce combat between Winckler and Bartlebooth, between puzzle maker and puzzle solver.[18] Perec starts off by pointing out that the English word “puzzle” signifies an enigma; and like all enigmas, the jigsaw puzzle, however perplexing at first, seems trivial when solved. His ultimate point, however, in the “Préambule” is the insistence on the communicative role of puzzle-making and solving:

En dépit des apparences, ce n’est pas un jeu solitaire: chaque geste que fait le poseur de puzzle, 
le faiseur de puzzles l’a fait avant lui; chaque pièce qu’il prend et reprend, qu’il examine, 
qu’il caresse, chaque combinaison qu’il essaye encore, chaque tâtonnement, chaque intuition, chaque espoir, 
chaque découragement, ont été décidés, calculés, étudiés par l’autre. (LVME,18)
Despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzler-maker has made before; 
every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries 
a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, 
and decided by the other. (LUM, 19-20)

A “user’s manual” of sorts to Perec’s own text, one might use the “Préambule” to follow the “line laid down” for the reader and deduce from the thorough disquisition on the art of jigsaw puzzles Perec’s own theory of reading. To substantiate this link which might seem haphazard, one only needs to refer back to the numerous etymologies of the word ‘to read’ (the English word itself having to do with ‘solving, interpreting riddles’), as they occur across the various branches of the European linguistic family: the Latin legere meaning both ‘to read,’ ‘to cull,’ and ‘to tie together,’ the German lesen meaning both ‘to read’ and ‘to collect,’ the Czech (and more broadly Slavonic) číst having also to do with ‘counting,’ ‘adding.’ Most relevantly for Perec, the French lire is anagrammatically (if not perhaps etymologically) connected with lier, ‘to join,’ ‘to put together’; as the passage itself reminds us, “the pieces,” after all, “are readable only when gathered.” Moreover, if one keeps in mind the often-cited homophone of pieces, the pièces (rooms) of a building, these two words also refer to the act of relating spaces or going from one space to another, whether that space is a room in a building, or a chapter in a book – or more precisely, a chapter in a book on the subject of a room in a building. Chapters in prosaic text, as well as stanzas in poetry, both have to do with building textual rooms.

Where does Joyce fit into Perec’s textual jigsaw puzzle? The novel comes with a number of appendices: an “Index” (which runs to 40 pages), a “Chronology,” an “Alphabetical Checklist” of some of the “Stories Narrated,” and a “Postscript,” in which it is revealed that:

Ce livre comprend des citations, parfois légèrement modifies, de: René Belleto, Hans Bellmer, Jorge Luis Borges, 
Michel Butor, Italo Calvino, Agatha Christie, Gustave Flaubert, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Jarry, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, 
Michel Leiris, Malcolm Lowry, Thomas Mann, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Harry Mathews, Herman Melville, Vladimir Nabokov, 
Georges Perec, Roger Price, Marcel Proust, Raymond Queneau, François Rabelais, Jacques Roubaud, Raymond Roussel, 
Stendhal, Lawrence Sterne, Theodore Sturgeon, Jules Verne, Unica Zürn. (LVME, 695)

Perec, thus, reveals a novel which had seemed such a highly original, hyper-realistic universe unto itself, to have in fact been a veritable mosaic, tissue, or puzzle of quotations. Notably, Joyce is one of only four English-language authors (the others being Lowry, Sterne, and Mathews). Perec’s “Citations” notebook consists of precise references to quotations carefully garnered from a list of twenty authors. Here is Perec’s list for Joyce:

JOYCE
1 ch 23 Ulysse p 637
2 ch 32 Ulysse 550 (carte postale)
3 ch 36 " Homme Libre
4 ch 43 " p 151 (gomme Héphas)
5 ch 59 " p 608 (instruments)
6 ch 60 " p 471 (le lino) + des mots du diction
7 ch 67 " p 150 CABINET DE CONSULT.
8 ch 93 " p 447
9 ch 46

To the left is the number of the quotation in Perec’s listing, followed by the number of the chapter in La vie mode d’emploi in which it was to be inserted. We then have the title of the book from which the quotation is to be drawn. The words to the right indicate that Perec was working from the French translation produced by Auguste Morel with Stuart Gilbert and Valéry Larbaud in 1929, and the pagination in the previous column refers to the 1948 Gallimard edition, which, as the catalogue of Perec’s library confirms, was the one he owned.[19]

Although Perec’s quotations from Joyce have certain distinguishing characteristics and generate particular kinds of intertextual glee—often relating, for instance, to the theme of translation that they both enact and represent—they are not of a markedly different kind from Perec’s other adapted quotations. In La vie mode d’emploi a deliberate structural flattening or equalisation prevails: the lists, the chess and complex mathematical formulae that govern the trajectory of the narrative within the building and regulate the distribution of elements within each chapter preclude the possibility of one author being elevated above another. Evenly weighted, these voices form a gigantic intertextual puzzle. To quote in this way, for Perec, is to conjure a personalized literary microcosm within the wider literary macrocosm, a fictional space or constellation wherein the coordinates of specific authorial reference points define a space of writing in which “work on genres, codes and models” takes place.[20]

So Perec, like Joyce, consciously and self-consciously opens up his text to a plethora of other voices. Like Joyce, he makes intertextuality a compositional principle, and in his own eye-popping Oulipian style, finds astonishingly ingenious ways of flooding his text with quotation, even though Perec’s intertextuality is of an order different from that of Joyce’s.[21] Still, as Jacques Mailhos has argued in “The Art of Memory: Joyce and Perec,” there is one Ulysses borrowing (the first one, in chapter 23) that stands out and above the others in that it “includes” the entirety of Joyce’s Ulysses. Discussing how Perec resorted to similar solutions to the similar sorts of compositional problems Joyce faced while organising his encyclopaedic narrative, Mailhos shows “the extent and importance of Joyce’s presence in Life: A User’s Manual, while concentrating on an analysis of the similar use, by both writers, of the art of memory as a basis for the creation of the fiction.”[22] It is in its functioning as mnemonic system that Perec’s intertextuality should be given its proper due without necessarily regarding it as inferior to Joyce’s.[23] The notion of “memory places,” in Mailhos’ essay, gives rise to the idea of the book as textual space, a “house” of sorts, conjuring up Perec’s first “altered quotation” from Ulysses, his borrowing of the character of “Mr Henry Fleury” (Bloom’s pseudonym in “Lotus Eaters”) in chapter 23 of La Vie, turning him into a room decorator – with reference to a “doll’s house” taken from the end of the “Ithaca” chapter, where it forms part of Bloom’s fantasy of his “ultimate ambition.” Mailhos shows how via this doll’s house, Ulysses as a whole enters Perec’s novel.[24]

Moreover, where the Perec/Joyce relation is concerned, one need not stop with intertextuality. Gabriel Josipovici’s 1982 review of Perec’s novel for The Yearbook of English Studies went so far as to speak of “Georges Perec’s Homage to Joyce.”[25] Josipovici’s argument is most convincing in his discussion of Perec’s hyper-realism – “Is Perec a hyper-realist, only concerned to detail what is to be found in the average Parisian building around 1975? Or does he perhaps wish to tell us something about the characters through the descriptions?” is the question, and Josipovici answers:

On the contrary. What we realize as we read this book is how very selective the ordinary novelist is and how Perec’s method actually destroys the delicate balance of foreground and background on which novels depend for their effect of reality. But then this is in keeping with what new art always does: it does not render the old obsolete but helps to make us see the often hidden parameters and conventions of the old.[26]

Another feature, one in which Perec does seem to surpass Joyce, is the extreme non-linearity of his narrative – in the light of which even a text like Ulysses appears to grow pale.[27] In Perec’s jigsaw puzzle, no affirmation of linearity and archetypical status can be said to take place. Josipovici’s intervention makes a compelling case for Perec’s La Vie as “a homage to tradition, the storehouse of possibilities” and in particular, “a homage to Joyce, the man who above all others made it possible,” by which is meant “the book as it stands possible, but also made possible the pleasure which work on the book no doubt gave to Perec.”[28] Even though less concerned than Queneau with Wakean expressive verbal deformation, Perec’s La vie: mode d’emploi stands as Oulipo’s most Ulysses-like novel: a novel of grids, schemas, dazzlingly broad and complex intertextuality.

[1] “J’ai donc fait connaissance avec l’Oulipo, j’ai été invité à l’Oulipo, pris comme membre, comme associé ou correspondant […] Je ne me considère pas comme héritier de Queneau, mais je me considère vraiment comme un produit de l’Oulipo. C’est-à-dire que mon existence d’écrivain dépend à quatre-vingt-dix-sept pour cent du fait que j’ai connu l’Oulipo à une époque tout à fait charnière de ma formation, de mon travail d’écriture” (Georges Perec – Entretiens et conférences, Volume II: 1979-81, eds. Dominique Bertelli & Mireille Ribière [Paris: Joseph K., 2003] 148-9).

[2] Qtd. in Bernard Magné, “Georges Perec, Oulibiographer,” trans. Daniel Levin Becker, online at:

http://www.drunkenboat.com/db8/oulipo/feature-oulipo/essays/magne/oulibio.html

[3] As critic Paul Schwartz has similarly observed, “the importance of literary experimentation in Perec’s development as a writer is clear: through constraint he discovered imagination. But there is another, more significant factor in his development which surfaces in his autobiographical works of 1973-78: his discovery and gradual understanding—with the aid of analysis—of the effect of his parents’ death, especially his mother’s, upon his creative imagination” (Paul Schwartz, Georges Perec – Traces of his Passage [Birmingham, Alabama: Summa Publications, 1988] 3).

[4] Qtd. in Magné, “Georges Perec, Oulibiographer,” online at:

http://www.drunkenboat.com/db8/oulipo/feature-oulipo/essays/magne/oulibio.html

[5] Roubaud, “Introduction,” 42.

[6] “C’est un risque que tout écrivain court tout le temps, que tout poète court, à savoir qu’il a impression que […] à force de faire un travail qui détruit les conventions qui existaient avant lui, il va se retrouver en face d’un mur et qu’il n’aura pas de successeurs. C’est sûr que pour Joyce… il y a… à la fin de Finnegans Wake, il y a quelque chose qui est du domaine de l’échec. Bon. Eh bien, c’est possible” (Georges Perec – Entretiens et conférences, Volume II: 1979-81, 290).

[7] Si je tente à definir ce que j’ai cherché à faire depuis que j’ai commencé à écrire, la première idée qui me vient à l’esprit est que je n’ai jamais écrit deux livres semblables, que je n’ai jamais eu envie de répéter dans un livre une formule, un système ou une manière élaborés dans un livre précédant (P/C, 9).

[8] Schwartz, Georges Perec, 1.

[9] Perec is the most eclectic of writers. Magpie-like, he evidently gleaned from his voracious reading, as well as from his work as a scientific documentalist, a heterogeneous memory-bank of choice morsels—sentences, odd names, incidents real and fictional, technical terminologies—on which he drew in profusion and in unexpected juxtapositions to nourish his writing. In the literary and narrative games which he plays, many of the constituent materials and of the particular techniques can be found to be derived from writers whom he admired and constantly reread” (David Gascoigne, The Games of Fiction – Georges Perec and Modern French Ludic Narrative [Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006] 47).

[10] Perec, “Notes sur ce que je cherche,” 10.

[11] “All works of art are composed according to a system of constraint; any human artifact bows to the constraints inherent in the medium within which it is produced. […] For the literary text, the minimal constraints are those of the language: in Saussurian terms, the langue constrains the parole. Generic constraints are culturally codified and may be more or less rigorous in various instances, depending upon both the specific genre […] and the relation of the text thereto, whether it proves itself submissive or antagonistic to the body of literature which precedes it. It is the third case, that of constraints voluntarily imposed, which concerns us here, for it is this that came increasingly to color the work of Georges Perec. […] It is also characteristic of the literary experimentation of the Oulipo as a whole” (Motte, The Poetics of Experiment, 18).

[12] Motte, The Poetics of Experiment, 31.

[13] Ernest Vincent Wright, Gatsby (New York: Ramble House Edition, 1939) i-iii.

[14] As Robert Bober has argued, La Disparition is “a book which in effect demonstrates the following: just as a book can be written without the most indispensable letter of all, the e, so Perec has showed what sort of a life could be lived without the most indispensable thing of all, a mother and a father. One can live in such circumstances […] only it’s a different sort of life” (Qtd. in Gabriel Josipovici, “Georges Perec’s Homage to Joyce (and Tradition),” The Yearbook of English StudiesAnglo-French Literary Relations 15 [1982]: 199-200).

[15] As Motte has put it, Perec’s text becomes a detective novel in which “the relation of the author to the reader […] is dominated by the ludic element; the text is a game proposed by the author to the reader” and “the hermeneutic task of the reader is analogous to that of the detective, of the exegete, of anyone who attempts to decipher an enigma” (Motte, The Poetics of Experiment, 60).

[16] Motte, The Poetics of Experiment, 83.

[17] Motte points out that, for Perec, “it is not chess itself, as distinct from other games, which provides the interest, but the fact that it has historically been seen as a ludic framework within which problems are posed and then solved, very much akin, therefore, to his conception of literature itself” (Motte, The Poetics of Experiment, 36).

[18] As Perec himself explained, there were “21 fois 2 séries de 10 éléments qui sont ainsi permutées et qui déterminent les éléments constitutifs de chaque chapitre […] Au terme de ces laborieuses permutations, j’en arrivai ainsi à une sorte de « cahier de charges » dans lequel, pour chaque chapitre, était énumérée une liste de 42 thèmes qui devaient figurer dans le chapitre” (Georges Perec, “Quatre figures pour La vie mode d’emploi,” Atlas de littérature potentielle [Paris: Gallimard, 1981] 387).

[19] As Motte rightfully insists, Perec’s theory of the puzzle is entirely consonant with his theory of literature; he used the image of the puzzle to characterize his writings.” Perec the puzzle maker proposed, then, “his work as a ludic and enigmatic whole. His reader, the puzzle solver, enters therein at his own risk and peril; he will undoubtedly come to regard Bartlebooth’s obsession with increasing sympathy and comprehension” (Motte, The Poetics of Experiment, 66-7).

[20] For a closer analysis of these quotations, see Scarlett Baron, “Reading Perec Reading Joyce,” forthcoming (courtesy of author).

[21] “Mon ambition d’écrivain est donc de balayer, ou en tout cas de baliser, les champs de l’écriture dans tous les domaines où cette écriture m’a permis d’écrire à mon tour. Cela implique un travail sur les genres, sur les codes, et sur les “modèles” dont mon écriture procède: un certain nombre d’auteurs (de Joyce à Hergé, de Kafka à Price, De Scève à Pierre Dac, de Si Shonagon à Gotlib) définissent, circonscrivent le lieu d’où j’écris” (Bernard Pingaud, “Ceci n’est pas un puzzle,” Arc 76 [1979]: 3).

[22] As Scarlett Baron has pointed out, “Perec’s sources are carefully selected, subtly modified, and inserted with hints as to their whereabouts and provenance. Joyce, by contrast, treated his sources and his quotations more cavalierly, both in his preparatory notebooks and in the final text. Their contexts are often more than just veiled: frequently they are elided, forgotten, sometimes irretrievably. His quotations are more than ‘slightly adapted’. Not for Joyce the maniacal accuracy of Perec’s masterful intertextual narrator. The changes that are wrought upon his borrowings are more comprehensive” (Scarlett Baron, “Reading Perec Reading Joyce,” forthcoming [courtesy of author]).

[23] Jacques Mailhos, “The Art of Memory: Joyce and Perec,” Transcultural Joyce, ed. Karen Lawrence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 151.

[24] “It is precisely because Life: A User’s Manual functions as a mnemonic system that the most insignificant references, the most trivial borrowings (and they are often particularly trivial) are (A) possible (they have found the structure which seals their places in the narration), and (B) import their original context with them. […] This phenomenon reveals itself, of course, in the interplay (in the necessary absence of complete coincidence) between the author’s narrative trajectory through memory places […] and our own personal reading trajectory in which each of us has the capacity to unfold different stories to varying degrees” (Mailhos, “The Art of Memory: Joyce and Perec,” 162).

[25] “Through this doll’s house, Ulysses as a whole enters Life: A User’s Manual (in the same way as whole characters and books enter Finnegans Wake through assimilations, puns, cryptic references, etc.). This doll’s house is a typical memory image which contains Bloom, Bloom’s dreams, but also the idea (the possibility) of a different Ulysses with a different character […]; besides, the fact that this is an image which, in the narration, is presented as having been created by a pseudo-Bloom (Henry Fleury) only reinforces this aspect. […] Thus, in a way, Bloom himself was present—under cover—in Perec’s Parisian building (and book), and Bloom himself, as an interior decorator, set all the elements in one of the apartments. […] Given the way in which this book functions, Bloom, as an interior decorator, thus becomes something like the author of one of its chapters” (Mailhos, “The Art of Memory: Joyce and Perec,” 165).

[26] Josipovici, “Georges Perec’s Homage to James Joyce,” 179.

[27] Josipovici, “Georges Perec’s Homage to James Joyce,” 183.

[28] “Even when a writer as boldly innovatory as Joyce wants us to get away from the anecdotal and the linear he can only do it by trying to present Bloom as Everyman. Joyce, like Freud, was very often confused by his own instincts and interpreted his discoveries in terms of the nineteenth-century patterns of thought which these very discoveries were in the process of subverting. Thus “Cyclops” and “Ithaca” pull in one direction, centrifugally, while “Circe” and “Penelope,” for all their flirtation with fragmentation and the dissolution of self, really affirm a rather old-fashioned view of character and archetypes” (Josipovici, “Georges Perec’s Homage to James Joyce,” 189-90).

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