I Remember

I remember reading Life A User’s Manual in 1988, Harvill number 20, black-jacketed and cool, and everything under ‘By the same author’ still in French, including Je me souviens, I remember. Georges Perec has come a long way since then, in English at least, with even his famous La Disparition translated, still missing the letter e. I Remember’s translation, by Philip Terry, came in 2014, but is now published in the UK for the first time by Gallic Books, with an introduction and notes by Perec expert (and translator of Life A User’s Manual) David Bellos.

I Remember is a series of short statements (480 in all) beginning ‘I remember…’ written between 1973 and 1977 with the memories mainly originating from the 1950s (1946 to 1961, Perec tells us). He explains in a postscript:

“The principle is straightforward: to attempt to unearth a memory that is almost forgotten, inessential, banal, common, if not to everyone, at least to many.”

As David Bellos points out in his introduction, this restriction (you can only include memories that at least one other will share) has a profound effect:

I Remember creates waves of partly overlapping sets of readers who share or do not share this or that memory, pushing each reader now closer to the centre and now further away from it, but leaving one and only one inhabitant of the intersection of all 479 memories.”

The memories included range for the personal:

“I remember that a friend of my cousin Henri spent all day in his dressing gown when he was studying for his exams.”

to the observational:

“I remember the cinema in Avenue de Messine.”

Occasionally they veer into the realm of global news:

“I remember the day Japan capitulated.”

As you can see, the tendency is towards brevity. There is little attempt to recreate the atmosphere or mood of the memory. Although I Remember can be broadly characterised as autobiographical (and Bellos’ notes point out where memories overlap with autobiographical elements in Perec’s other work), it is not intended as a portrait of Perec’s emotional landscape. There is not even much sense of nostalgia, though perhaps that would not be the case if I shared many of Perec’s memories.

I am certainly no longer young, but Perec was born before my parents – he would have been eighty-four this year – so there cannot be many readers who will share remembrance of the decade he describes. Perhaps more pertinently for this translation, there is also a barrier created by Perec’s nationality. His generation was in some ways the last to escape a more uniform western culture, much of which began in the sixties. Therefore the cultural references in Perec’s memories are almost exclusively French in a way they would not be today. Whether magazines or music, theatre or sport, the proper nouns are generally French; only film is exempt, with mention, for example, of Danny Kaye and Shirley MacLaine.

This matters because it seems, in some way, to negate Perec’s intention, which was surely that some of the memories included would invite recognition from his readers, and it also raises the question of what a contemporary, Anglophone audience gains from the book. Of course, some of it is simply interesting:

“I remember that the day after the death of Gide, Mauriac received a telegram saying ‘Hell doesn’t exist. Enjoy yourself. Stop. Gide.’”

The significance of other lines, however, has faded:

“I remember that Christian Jaque divorced Renee Faure in order to marry Martine Carol.”

The clue, I think, is in Perec’s request that “a number of blank pages have been left at the end for readers to write their own ‘I remembers’ which the reading of these ones will hopefully have inspired.” As you read Perec’s book, a second narrative forms in your mind of memories triggered by those in front of you. I don’t remember ‘clackers’ as Perec does, but it does make me think of childhood toys now obsolete. I, too, remember cinemas, my first LP. I can’t remember when “to get a new car you had you go on a waiting list for months, even a year or more,” but I can remember that we rented our television. I Remember is not a book you read but a book you interact with, its content creating your own in a call and response fashion. It is this that allows it to retain relevance and to entertain. I would challenge any reader to resist beginning their own ‘I remember…’ after reading.

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8 Responses to “I Remember”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Skimming this for the time being, Grant, as I’m just about to start it! Very excited!

  2. winstonsdad Says:

    I loved it I brought the us work
    He was inspired by for this

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    As you allude to in your closing comments, I think the ‘I remember’ theme is one that will resonate with many of us, prompting reflections on our own memories over the years. I’ve never read Perec, something I ought to remedy one day. Sounds like this could be a good entry point.

    • 1streading Says:

      I hate to say it, but I would be tempted to start with the biggie – Life a User’s Manual. Or Things or W, the Memory of Childhood if you want something shorter.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The theme resonates, but as you say I slightly wonder at how this now works. It\s decades old with very France-specific cultural references. If I don’t remember any of it then the waves of overlapping recollection bit doesn’t happen. I suspect this is one that may have been for a particular place and time, and that now is more an artefact than a living work.

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