Georges Perec’s “La Boutique Obscure”

Reviewed by Stefanie Sobelle

Image of Georges Perec’s “La Boutique Obscure”

Georges Perec is known best for his eccentric characters and madcap story lines, the results of complex experiments, like those in Life, A User’s Manual, a novel arranged via chessboards and Euler squares, and A Void, a lipogram which omits the letter E. His fans might then be surprised to discover that La boutique obscure, in a gorgeous new translation by Daniel Levin Becker, comprises a very personal dream log; Perec, after all, is a follower of rigorous writing rules, not an interloper into the dream kingdom.

Born in Paris in 1936, Perec is arguably among the most important French writers of the twentieth century, a key player in the OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle)—the workshop for potential literature—a French writing group that has been developing various constraints for generating imaginative writing since its founding in 1960 by defected Surrealist Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais. The workshop was started in part as a reaction against Surrealism; instead of mining the unconscious to unearth new ways of being in the world, the OuLiPo argues for constraint-based writing as an alternative, suggesting that when the author releases complete control over the text, he or she liberates the imagination to produce writing that otherwise could not have been possible. These are not merely hollow exercises in experimentation. Perec’s inventive worlds offer unique perspectives on very serious phenomena: the horrors of the holocaust; Paris’s changing urban landscape; politics of the 1960s; the mutability of memory, love, space. Although it differs formally from its counterparts, La boutique is no exception—these mysterious, elliptical dreams deliver the deep, haunting beauty and weird humor that has long devoted readers to Perec.

The 124 dreams are organized chronologically from 1968 to 1972. The politicized dates of these dreams—1968, the May protests in Paris; 1972, the Munich Massacre—both contextualize the dreams historically and indicate that La boutique offers only portended access into the inner workings of the master’s psyche. Portended, because for Perec even the task of recording a dream becomes a demanding literary and intellectual game. “Most of the terms in this dream are like crossword clues,” hints Perec, himself a cruciverbalist. “I thought I was recording the dreams I was having,” he admits in the preface, “I have realized that it was not long before I began having dreams only in order to write them.” The entries often concern the nature of dreaming itself, yet Perec does not psychoanalyze his dreams, “tortuous paths taking me even further from self recognition.” He has said that they are a “refusal of psychoanalysis.” Nonetheless, they do offer a glimpse into the darker recesses of his mental processes, dominated by biographical loss.

The collection opens with an inexplicit account of a concentration camp: “Naturally, I am dreaming and I know that I am dreaming, naturally that I am in a prison camp, a dream of a prison camp, a prison-camp metaphor, a prison camp I know only as a familiar image, as though I were ceaselessly dreaming the same dream, as though I never dreamed of anything else, as though I never did anything but dream of this prison camp. . . . I know it is only a dream, but I cannot escape it.” Perec’s own parents were killed during the war when the author was quite young—his mother in a camp, his father in combat. The insistent absence and obscurity of that experience pervades his writing. His affecting novel W, for example, pairs fragmented memories of his family with an allegorical tale of an Olympian island, on which survival depends on one’s athletic ability. His conclusion to La boutique opens with “1941” and describes a father and son fleeing a threatening SS, their subsequent deportation to the camp, and the son’s surprising and enigmatic return. The boy survives. Perec does not try to organize past events into a series of explicable events any more here than in his novels, but in writing his dreams, he recovers and retains some kind of agency over them. He captures their ambiguity, and in this sense, La boutique seems an inevitable complement to his larger oeuvre.

Perec calls attention to the literariness of his project by titling the dreams, including a detailed index, and interspersing numerous graphic games likely impossible in a dream. In “The Quest for California,” for example, he writes, “Regardless of your mode of transport, you have to pay a tax to get a room in/ out of San Francisco,” with the words “a room in” printed inline directly above “out of.” In a piece titled “Oedipus Express,” Perec jokes, “Home. R. comes in.” In “S/Z,” Perec plays again with authorship, this time dreaming of Barthes’s famous 1970 essay, published the same year as Perec’s dream. Searching for “a book” in a bookstore and finding one, “of S/Z variations in the works of Balzac” (the subject of the Barthes), dream-Perec “gives up his letters” in both a reference to his penchant for lipograms and as a witty appropriation of Barthes’s text.

Translating Perec is notoriously difficult—how does one translate a novel without the letter E, for instance? Yet translation is its own kind of OuLiPian exercise, so as the youngest member of the exclusive group and only the second American included, Daniel Levin Becker is in a uniquely insider position to work through the complexities of Perec’s writing. Whereas the original version closed with an essay by Roger Bastide, the new translation closes with an afterward by Becker, in which he suggests, “La boutique obscure is not a harder book for a translator than A Void, certainly. But neither is it altogether easier . . . to intuit the subconscious logic and illogic of a man who at one point in his life chose to write a novel without the letter E, and was even known to spend an evening here or there eliding it in conversation.”

Of course, recounting one’s dreams is a form of translation, from notion to description. Dreaming too is translation, conjuring one’s memories and impressions into images and scenarios. Perec knows that the act of writing his dreams will affect how he recollects them, that dreams are no more real than memories or desires. La boutique will not help readers “know” Perec any better. Nothing can. Dreams do not offer insight into one’s psyche after all. Still, Perec suggests that he has no choice but to leave this “bundle of texts” “as an offering at the gates of the ‘royal road,’” and it just might be his most raw offering of all.