Updated September 16, 2018


Many readers may have heard of a French novel called La Disparition by Georges Perec, written without using the letter ‘e’ — a challenging constraint that he imposed on himself when writing a novel of nearly 300 pages; it is so well crafted that one hardly notices the absence of the letter ‘e’ without which one would think the French language would be so impoverished that no reasonable communication would be possible. But he succeeded — as did Gilbert Adair who translated the novel into English as A Void, a perfect substitute for The Disappearance that, but for the constraint, would otherwise have been the obvious translation of the title.

Perec (1936-1982) first made a mark with Things, A Story of the Sixties (1965) and is best known for Life: A User’s Manual (1978), by now established as one of the masterpieces of world literature.

From the start, as he declared in his ‘Notes on What I’m Looking For’ (Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, translated by John Sturrock, 1997), his ambition was to make each of his books formally different: “I’ve never written two books the same, have never wanted to repeat in one book a formula, a system or a manner developed in an earlier book.” He called his approach a “systematic versatility”, a sort of intellectual fertility that repels academic critics who prefer writers to be distinctly labelled as belonging to an established classification.

Given his love of creating puzzles, for his next novel Perec invented an elaborate game, which remained an absorbing and highly entertaining story

Things (translated by David Bellos) is his most straightforward novel. It tells the story of Jérôme and Sylvie, a young couple convinced theirs is a swinging new generation which flaunts its freedom from bourgeois attachments. But one by one their friends succumb to the flamboyant consumerism of the ’60s, leaving Jérôme and Sylvie to hold on to their ideals as a consolatory rationalisation for their failure to join the middle-class consumers who have been persuaded by ruthless post-war capitalism that that’s what their freedom is all about, until finally they too give in.

The novel Perec published two years later, A Man Asleep (translated by Andrew Leak), concerns a character who has lost all interest in life and spends his days in apathetic somnolence. The narrative is written in the second-person singular as if it’s being heard as a continuous murmur within the character’s head, languidly speaking to himself, unable to act and be part of society. He asks, “Why should you carry on? Don’t you already know everything that will happen to you?” The years will pass, you will go through the stages of being a good bourgeois — “Good husband, good father, good citizen” and “One by one, you will climb, like a frog, the rungs on the ladder of success” — but, in the end, so what? All you will accomplish is to have been one more of the many millions who go through the same motions in a senseless duplication of existence, in a complacent illusion of being a unique individual, when life is no more than an imagining that you exist, supported by a flattering belief that yours is a special destiny.

Where the tone of Things rings with a superficial gaiety and an undercurrent of irony, A Man Asleep is the voice of unrelieved depression. While these first two novels are clearly the work of an interesting intelligence, they’re not exceptionally remarkable. Perec’s brilliant originality surfaces two years later in 1969 with La Disparition, the novel that successfully plays an extremely challenging game that distracts the reader while creating a narrative about an unspeakable disappearance: something of immense human consequence and personal loss that leaves an empty space in one’s life, and not just the letter ‘e’, has disappeared, as we discover from Perec’s autobiographical book, W or The Memory of Childhood (1975).

Perec’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland; his father was killed fighting for France early in the Second World War and with the Nazis capturing Paris, his mother was put on a train to Auschwitz.

The memoir is composed of two sequences presented as alternating chapters: the Memory of Childhood sketches the painful story of the disappeared mother and the child left in a void; W presents what at first appears to be an amusing anecdote, but it develops into a harrowing account of the strange goings-on in a remote island named W in Tierra del Fuego in Antarctica, and ends as a shocking and terrifying depiction of the Holocaust. Perec’s short life coincided with one of the intellectually most significant periods in French culture: the generation previous to Perec’s had produced the New Novel movement, with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor and Claude Simon so radically influencing the evolution of the modern novel that no novelist coming after them could expect to be taken seriously without first absorbing them.

This was also the period when thinkers such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida were influencing the world of ideas, underscoring the association of literary composition with a philosophical deconstruction of reality. A new movement, OuLiPo (French acronym for Workshop of Potential Literature), calling for literary texts to be created based upon a previously determined mathematical and linguistic constraint, had drawn Perec as one of its members. Given his genius for numbers and words and love of creating puzzles — he’s known to have created some of the most difficult crossword puzzles to appear in French — for his next novel, Perec invented an elaborate game, which was also a complex puzzle while remaining an absorbing and highly entertaining story for the innocent reader who at first remains ignorant of the puzzle, and produced a literary monument, one of the greatest of the 20th century: Life: A User’s Manual — brilliantly translated by Bellos, who also wrote Perec’s biography, which is one of the best literary biographies of our time.

A work of superb originality, wonderfully readable from several points of view that exceed Polonius’s tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, etc, revealing new depths of human understanding yet making the reader laugh, Life: A User’s Manual has been praised for the postmodern newness of its experimental form, which is structured upon Perec setting all but one of his 100 chapters in the 100 rooms of an apartment building in Paris. But, as with some of the finest literary texts, its originality is rooted deeply in tradition. Like all serious writers, Perec immersed himself in the best of past literature and believed that all new forms are generated by minds that have assimilated the old.

Speaking of what writers had to do, he said in a radio conversation in 1981, “We have to, first, to examine the old, old patterns that were at work in all novels and poetry and all things, and then we try to find new, new ways…”; it was something he had expressed 16 years earlier after publishing his first novel — “the point where our predecessors finished up becomes our own point of departure”. In Life: A User’s Manual, there are a hundred stories to tell of the inhabitants of the hundred rooms. Who are these people, accidentally come together? We’ve heard a hundred tales before, told by a group who, escaping the plague, come together in a country house in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron; we’ve listened to the tales of Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims entertaining themselves on the way to Canterbury: and here are Perec’s 100 tales, which have stories within stories, so many that it might well take us ‘One Thousand Nights and One’ to read them.

During the ’60s and ’80s, there was much talk about ‘the death of the novel’, a lament against the decline of works of literary quality and the prevalence of formulaic novels that were merely a sellable product. It takes the stubbornly determined vision that engages a new writer’s formal experimentation with language to arrest such a fatal decline and renew literary art. Editing the Perec section of the Spring 1993 number of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Bellos states in his opening essay, ‘The Old and the New: An Introduction to Georges Perec’: “What strikes me most about Perec now is that he has renovated the craft of writing by taking it back to some of its overlooked roots.”

Going on to a brief analysis of Life: A User’s Manual, he concludes, “It is the crowning achievement of a life’s work that combines traditions of craft with a determined pursuit of the new and has thereby made literature possible again.” Like all great works of art, Life: A User’s Manual resists description, for great art can only be appreciated as a rich and complex experience of the imagination, an intuitive explosion of intellectual delight that projects a sudden vision and produces a mystical calm in the human spirit.

There is an empty space within the self, an absence within the heart, an inexpressible loss for which we seek a restorative vision: hence the artist’s compulsion to create and the audience’s obsessed fascination with the artist’s creation. Readers who are curious to know the elaborate puzzle with its constraints and mathematical patterns that Perec designed as the architectural structure of Life: A User’s Manual can see a detailed description of it in Bernard Magné’s essay ‘Transformations of Constraint’ in The Review of Contemporary Fiction number on Perec, written as if by a “textual archaeologist” (Magné’s phrase) who’s dug deep into the novel.

His description is supported by diagrams and complex numerical combinations for the deliberately anticipated chess moves that Perec had worked out for each chapter to accomplish his overall design. It’s an impressive design, as is the Homeric pattern behind James Joyce’s Ulysses. But ultimately, it’s the literary style and the quality of the language in which it is expressed, which together produce the all-important philosophical undercurrent that the design inspires, that make Life: A User’s Manual and Ulysses such great works that really impress a reader who’s ignorant of how they were created. It is like enjoying a fruit without knowing that the taste has been produced by laborious genetic modification.

The philosophical undercurrent in Life: A User’s Manual is symbolised by the puzzling image of the missing space felt as a painful absence within the heart of one’s tormented self. Perec structures his novel as an elaborate jigsaw puzzle and while a hundred stories are scattered in it as pieces for the reader to assemble, there is the connecting story of the wealthy English artist, Bartlebooth, who makes a three-stage plan with which to pass his days: first, to spend 10 years learning to paint watercolours; then, for 20 years, travel the world painting one watercolour each fortnight, producing 500 seascapes of 65cm by 50cm each, and sending them to a man named Winckler who lives in one of the hundred flats in the Paris building and whose job it is to glue each painting to a thin wooden backing board and cut it into a jigsaw puzzle of 750 pieces; and third, on returning to Paris, to spend the next 20 years reassembling the jigsaw puzzles to see the scene he had painted and then treating each watercolour so that it could be removed from the wooden backing and, having removed it, returning the seascape to the port where it was painted and where it would be dipped into a solution from which it would emerge as a clean sheet of paper. Thus, he would have passed 50 years working at a serious occupation at the end of which he would have achieved nothing.

The years pass according to his plan. Bartlebooth shuts himself in his Paris flat for the final 20 years, “recomposing one by one the 500 seascapes” that the puzzle-maker Winckler had cut up into 750 pieces each. It takes him 17 years to complete some 400 of them, finding it more and more difficult to put the pieces together, baffled by the glimpses of the chopped up reality on the pieces, each giving the illusion that he knows what he’s looking at — he’s been there, smelled its air, touched its stones — but often his belief is frustrated, for the piece seems to fit nowhere.

In a brilliant and philosophically intense passage in which Perec describes Bartlebooth struggling to fit the pieces into a picture of a believable reality, Perec creates a defining metaphor for life, that what we think we have experienced is “only 750 variations on grey, incomprehensible splinters of a bottomless enigma of a void which no memory, no expectation would ever come to fill”.

At the very end of the novel, we see the aged Bartlebooth seated before his puzzle, the very last piece held between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. He has just died. The one remaining empty space in the puzzle is a black hole that looks like an X. The piece in his hand is shaped like a W. The reader is left looking at the empty space in the puzzle.

The columnist is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion. He is Professor emeritus at the University of Texas

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 16th, 2018