Posts Tagged ‘Georges Perec’

I Remember

June 6, 2020

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.

1967 – A Man Asleep

July 18, 2017

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.

The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise

April 23, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Georges Perec

No year of exploring the experimental novel would be complete without at least one work by Georges Perec. Perec was one of the leading exponents of Ouilpo, a group of writers whose works were created on the basis of rules. Presumably this was partly for the challenge, partly for the creativity stimulated by the restrictions imposed, and partly to emphasise the rules already in place in all writing. The most famous example is probably Perec’s own novel A Void, written entirely without the letter e (and, quite incredibly, translated into English by David Bellos). His masterpiece, Life A User’s Manual, is also written according to a series of rules, and it was that I intended to read again – that is, until I was pleased to see that Vintage had published a translation into English of The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise (again by David Bellos) under its classic imprint.

The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise is clearly one of Perec’s minor works, both in terms of its length (under a hundred pages) and its place in his oeuvre. It was written in 1968, only three years after his first novel, Things: A Story of the Sixties, and ten years before Life A User’s Manual. According to Bellos’ excellent introduction, it was written after a French computer company set the challenge to write like a computer, and is based on a flow chart which is reproduced at the beginning of the book. As each stage in the story has a yes / no option, Perec could have written in a format that still appears among children’s novels, where each choice takes you to a different page; instead he chose to write without punctuation or capitals, mimicking the processes of a computer program as it happens. A single example should illustrate the style:

“…if he has not heard your knocking it would be quite inappropriate and even unseemly to persist so if he does not raise his eyes you go back to your desk and decide to try your luck afresh in the afternoon or tomorrow or next tuesday or forty days later obviously when you do go back he will have to be in his office if he is not then you would await his return in the corridor and if he were to be a long time coming you would go see ms wye…”

Rather than empowering the reader to make choices, Perec adopts a style that makes choices themselves seem unimportant, each one treated equally and unemotionally. It also becomes deeply repetitive on every level: word, phrase, connective. In this way Perec creates, whether intentionally or not, a critique of the workplace, which appears as a soulless labyrinth where employees are subject to the whims of chance – for example, whether your boss swallows a fish bone at lunch or one of his daughters has measles.

Bellos twice describes The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise as unreadable in his introduction, but I found its repetitive nature leavened by a lot of humour. Clearly, it is best read in one sitting, something that does not take long, as it does not lend itself to the bookmark. A fascinating curio.

Danger rating: repetitive nature, much like a roundabout, may cause dizziness. Vintage have also reprinted a number of Perec’s other books, and it would be safe to say that it would be best to leave this one to last.