Arthur Phillips on Georges Perec

Try writing a paragraph without using an “e.” I’ll wait. It’s hard, right? Now wrap your mind around the difficulty of fashioning a full book without it! The French writer Georges Perec accomplished that feat in his 1969 novel, A Void. The brilliantly experimental writer followed that up with a novella, The Exeter Ghost (1972) in which every word has “e” as its vowel.

As a member of Oulipo – the loosely organized group of French writers and mathematicians who created capacious works with crazy constraints – Perec helped push the boundaries of literature and imagination during his short life (1945-82).

Perec did more than play genius-level literary games; he also produced moving works of literature. W, or The Memory of Childhood (1975) is masterful autobiography in which chapters recalling (and trying to recall) childhood memories, when most of his family was murdered in the Holocaust, alternate with those telling the fictional story of an Aryan island called W that becomes totalitarian. Gradually, we see that each section says what the other cannot, as the riveting stories form a meta-meditation on narrative form. David Mitchell included the novel on his Top Ten list.

Perec’s 1978 novel, Life: A User’s Manual, is generally considered his most ambitious book. It certainly inspired Arthur Phillips, who wrote this sparkling appreciation for us.

 

Appreciation of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual by Arthur Phillips

The first miracle: A novel built from a strictly limited construction—the description of one single moment in a Paris apartment building—blossoms into an encyclopedia of stories and life spanning centuries, the globe, the history of literature. The second miracle: A moving, humane novel composed of implausible, even impossible parts. Perec’s brainy puzzle-book somehow produces the exhilarating, alternating certainties that life is beautiful, cruel, sweet, meaningful.

Life’s hundred and some tales about the residents of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier sometimes slow to Proustian crawls, and a reader’s joy is in lounging, savoring every turn of phrase. A page later, though, Perec (almost audibly laughing) gallops us into insane plots of revenge, kleptomaniacal magistrates, intricate con games, a billionaire’s entire life spent on a single project, and the heiress’s egg collection, the destruction of which prompted the inaccurate painting, which later hung in . . .

Pictures within pictures, memories within memories, letters within letters, reflections of reflections, the novel represents the unachievable ambitions of the painter Valène, burning to accomplish on canvas what Perec actually did in text: a portrait of life in all its possibility, speed, variety, shimmer, impermanence, blindingly rich and achingly temporary.

Published in 1978, Life is infinitely entertaining, but it also can change how you see your surroundings; the wall between novel and world leaks. If Perec can imagine four paintings (and their histories) reproduced inside yet another painting, and the wallpaper against which that work hangs, and the life of the man who selected the wallpaper, then suddenly the world outside the book more proudly displays its own wondrous plumage, imagined by some creator even more ingenious than Perec. That all of his work (or Valène’s, or Perec’s) is so painfully transient only adds to its splendor, just as the lives led in the apartments at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier are both madly full and too quickly finished, forgotten.