4 Gentle Persuasions: An Annotated List of 4 Quotations from the Works of Georges Perec (1)

By Laird Hunt

 1)  I write…

              I write: I write…

              I write: “I write…”

              I write that I write…

              Etc. (species of spaces 9)

 

In December 1976 Georges Perec, who wrote, both copiously and brilliantly as it occurred, put a remarkable document into the hands of Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, founder of the wonderful independent French house P.O.L. In it, Perec had set down not just the works he was in the process of writing and/or would write, but also those he planned to write and wouldn’t. Taken together, the contents of these two categories form a stunning amalgam of inventiveness that rivals Sir Thomas Browne’s “Musaeum Clausum,” a 17th century catalogue of books, works of art and objects that might have existed but most likely didn’t. Indeed, Perec’s prospectus outdoes Browne’s in a certain sense because no small number of the wonders described/hinted at definitely were or became actual.

What was in this document?  A partial enumeration will give a sense. Among the projected works Perec did complete were the famous jigsaw novel, Life A User’s Manual, and Je me souviens, Perec’s volume of “banal memories, belonging to all”, which was based on Joe Brainard’s noted I Remember tryptich. Among the projected works Perec did not complete were The Book of 2000 Sentences, a novel composed of the 2000 most common sentences in the French language; The Novel of the 19th Century, which would create a narrative quilt of excerpts taken from an anthology of classics like Chateaubriand, Stendahl and Zola; another “big book”, The Tree – the story of Esther and her Brothers, which was to have taken the form of a biographical dictionary and an exploded family tree; and additional translations of the vertiginous work of a fellow Oulipian, the American Harry Mathews.

Those familiar with Perec’s writings[1], and many of you will know him as “That guy who wrote that book without the letter e.”, or at least his heavy-weight literary legacy as a composer of unusual and formally complex works, may shrug their shoulders at this hypothetical literary cornucopia and say, “Well, of course – after all, we’re talking about Perec…” It bears mentioning then that at the time of the composition of his 1976[2] prospectus, Georges Perec was not yet “Perec.”  He was a writer no longer in the first bloom of literary youth, and his prospects for becoming the sort of figure known by last name alone were far from certain. Undoubtedly, he enjoyed both general respect and pockets of great enthusiasm, not least among followers of the Oulipo and lovers of crossword puzzles (which he designed for major newpapers on a regular basis). It may be the case though that because his prize-winning debut, Things, had not been followed by More Things and Even More Things — as is too often the dreary result of authors digging away at the circular trench that is ultimately all that the career-long exhalation of their “voice” will allow — but instead by one unexpected/baffling work after another, cracks were starting to open beneath his feet, and it seemed altogether possible that at the age of 40 he might slip through them, or at the very least find himself forced to stumble between publishers a good deal. The document he had penned with the intention of enticing Otchakovsky-Laurens into establishing a durable relationship, one that might allow him to turn his attention more fully to literary matters, was meant to help seal up these cracks.

In considering this unusual sealant, which did indeed help Perec to turn a corner that led to a happy, if far too brief, publishing relationship, one is not just reminded of Sir Thomas Browne, but also, for the implicit scope of imagination, of Borges, who made serious art out of synopses of non-existent books, and, for ludic spirit, of both Stanislaw Lem, who wrote a book of satirical reviews[3] of works that could probably only be found in Borges’ infinite library, and Gilbert Sorrentino, who before he died penned a series of pseudo-critical writings on imaginary gallery installations[4]. One doesn’t, of course, want to put too fine a point on such analogies; Perec’s chief intention with the prospectus was practical. Still, Perec shared with these contemporaries and predecessors an invested awareness — “I write/I write: I write…” — in the ability of language to simultaneously record, dazzle and mystify, no matter what it was doing, and there was precious little that he took the time to build into words that didn’t crackle with his trademark blend of meticulousness, brio and mystery. The 1976 prospectus is no exception.

Otchakovsky-Laurens, already in the camp of enthusiasts[5], was well-placed to understand not just that what he had been handed was something special, but also that its author was in fact perfectly capable of carrying off a healthy portion of the breathtaking efflorescence of formal variety the document implied he could. After all, Perec was already the author of the marvelously diverse body of work alluded to above, including, in addition to Things and W or The Memory of Childhood, A Man Asleep, Which Bicycle With Chrome-Plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard? and A Void; he was also the creator of the world’s longest palindrome[6], was a member in good standing of the Oulipo, had written successful radio plays, a prize-winning film and regularly published cross-word puzzles in Le Point. In other words, this was not a writer who went in for half or even three-quarter measures. He might not write everything he had described, but he would write some of it, and it would very likely be exciting[7]. More than 20 years later, Perec’s constant formal reinvention remains the blast of highly oxygenated air it came to be seen when just two years after he handed Otchakovsky Laurens his autobibliography[8], Life A User’s Manual, was published.

 

[1] An ever-growing plurality in France. In the United States, as asserted in the second title to this article, Perec largely remains known even among moderately adventurous readers, if at all, as “That guy who wrote that book without the letter e.”

[2] It is important to be specific about that date, as Perec had written another prospectus of sorts in 1969 in the form of a letter to his friend and editor, Maurice Nadeau. Among the treasures it describes is W or The Memory of Childhood.

[3] A Perfect Vacuum, Northwestern University Press, 1999.

[4] Lunar Follies, Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2004.

[5] It was he who had made first contact with Perec about the possibility of beginning a publishing relationship. The tangible outcome of their mutual overtures was consummated when Otchakovsky-Laurens joined Hachette and was given control over his own list, for which Perec designed a handsome insignia.

[6] Which earned him a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records.

[7] It was.

[8] As Perec’s biographer and translator David Bellos refers to the 1976 prospectus in his Georges Perec: A Life In Words, to which this article is greatly indebted.

 

 

"4 Gentle Pursuasions" was originally published in French in the magazine Inculte. It is reprinted here with the author's permission. Parts 2, 3 and 4 to follow.


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