1967 – A Man Asleep

My journey into the literature of 1967 this month sees the appearance of another of my favourite writers, Georges Perec. In 1967 Perec’s career was only beginning; his most famous novel, Life: a User’s Manual, was over ten years away, and his first, Things: A Story of the Sixties, had appeared a mere two year before. When the latter was translated into English in 1990 it was partnered with Perec’s 1967 novella, A Man Asleep (translated by Andrew Leak). As with most of Perec’s work, a plot summary is not only challenging but also inconsequential: A Man Asleep is a story where nothing happening is exactly the point.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Perec’s obsession with detail, the novella opens with a description of what you see with your eyes shut; not, as you might expect, darkness as:

“…the distribution, the allocation, of the areas of darkness is not homogeneous: the upper area is manifestly darker, whereas the lower area, which, to you, appears nearer… is, on the one hand much greyer, not, that is to say, much more neutral as you initially believe, but actually much whiter…”

However, there is more to the story than a sleeping man: this is a man asleep in spirit as well as body, a state which today we might describe as depression:

“At first it’s just a sort of lassitude or tiredness, as if you suddenly became aware that for a long time, for several hours, you have been succumbing to an insidious, numbing discomfort, not exactly painful but nonetheless intolerable, succumbing to the sickly-sweet and stifling sensation of being without muscles or bones, of being a sack of potatoes surrounded by other sacks of potatoes.”

The central character (not the narrator as the novella is written in second person – in French it uses the less formal tu form – and Perec had sections from the narrative read by a female voice during the film version which he made in 1974) misses his university exam – “not a premeditated action, or rather it’s not an action at all, but an absence of action” – and so begins a prolonged period of stasis. At first he keeps to his room, his only awareness of the outside world the sounds which filter through: his neighbour “coughing, dragging his feet, moving furniture, opening drawers;” his friend – “you will recognise his footfall on the stairs, you will let him knock on your door, wait, knock again, a little louder.” Even when he returns to his parents for a period he recognises them largely through the sounds they make:

“You can hear them moving about the house, going up- and down-stairs, coughing, opening drawers.”

The repetition seems to indicate that all surroundings are somehow the same. In this way Perec encapsulates the futility and meaninglessness of life we can feel when we are young:

“You have hardly started living and yet, all is said, all is done. You are only twenty-five, yet your path is mapped out for you. The roles are prepared and the labels: from the potty of your infancy to the bath chair of your old age, all the seats are ready and waiting their turn.”

This, of course, injects the narrative with a strong dose of self-pity, and perhaps Perec chose second person to make this more palatable and encourage readers to identify points in their life when they have felt the same. This does not mean, however, that the novel is hopeless or nihilistic. The character seems to come to a realisation at the end that his obsession with pointlessness is itself pointless:

“Indifference is futile… You can believe, if you want, that by eating the same meal every day you are making a decisive gesture. But your refusal is futile. Your neutrality is meaningless. Your inertia is just as vain as your anger.”

A Man Asleep reminded me of a more recent novel, Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense. Helle’s novel appears superficially (i.e. to me) to be about a woman who is depressed, but Helle herself saw the novel as optimistic, simply about someone who was drifting through life, almost as if this were a necessary stage. While Perec’s novel is apparently based on his own depression when he was twenty, the ending suggests he sees something necessary about that period of his life, and the first sight of an escape. Certainly the novel captures as well as any other what it feels like to be young and paralysed by unhappiness; Perec, for all his technical tricks, understood emotion.

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6 Responses to “1967 – A Man Asleep”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Spot on – underneath the apparent simplicity of some of Perec’s narratives I think there’s real emotion buried. I want to re-read this now….

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I have seen several recommendations of this author’s work but somehow they never quite tempt me! Interesting comparison with the Helle Helle – something about that novel really got under my skin.

    • 1streading Says:

      I agree about Helle Helle – there was something about that novel which stayed with me as well. Perec is perhaps a particular taste – I’ve always had a tendency to admire cleverness in a writer – probably too much!

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have his Things which I’ll probably start with. Interesting how the underlying emotion comes through. Clever.

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