A review of Georges Perec: A Life in Words by David Bellos

Despite its length, this is an engrossing book. It may not rival those great achievements in biography that one can read for their own sake, but everyone with an interest in Perec will find it essential. Although David Bellos rather quaintly believes that one can modify ‘unique,’ he commits few solecisms, and writes clearly and vigorously. He is able to sort untidy material into order, is always perspicuous, and has a sense of humor, important in so long a book.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Georges Perec: A Life in Words
by David Bellos
David R. Godine
1993, ISBN 0-87923-980-8, $45.00, xxv + 802 pages

David Bellos has taught at the universities of Manchester in England and of Princeton in the United States. The French government has decorated him for services to French literature, and of the books by Perec from David R. Godine, Perec’s publisher in the United States, Bellos has translated some and provided introductions for others.

Although the opening material is complex, Bellos overcomes difficulties. The removal of Perec’s grandparents from one city to another in Poland and the removal of the whole family from Poland to France are clearly related.

And in France, where Perec was born in 1936, the biographical details are hard to sort out against the background of troubled times. Perec’s father dies as a French soldier in the German invasion of World War II and Perec’s mother died shortly after at Auschwitz. All of the remaining Perecs and their immediate relations evaded the effort to round up the Jews of France. Aunt Esther and her husband Paul took the orphaned Georges under their protection. The loss of his parents and the manner of their deaths combined with the necessity of concealing his identity as a Jew led to complicated psychological problems that were reflected in his work as a writer.

The early life is not detailed although Bellos is able to make out the broad outlines. He resorts necessarily to speculation, but never revives a hypothesis from an earlier page as an incontestable fact later on. For a biographer faced with incomplete information this constitutes virtue and restraint of the highest kind.

Towards the end of this early section of the life, Bellos begins to specify what events or objects took hold of Perec’s imagination and later became ingredients in his books. He is especially helpful in his examination of the transformations, often playful, that Perec made in this material. But Bellos misses at least one relevant connection. On page 161 he fails to identify Perec’s work as an archivist with an almost identical description by Perec on page 235 of Life A User’s Manual.

Perec completed his formal education without his achieving the academic cushion that traditionally supported French writers. He had chosen writing as his vocation as early as his eighteenth year, but his will was not equal to his determination. He drifted through a long period of trivial activities and suffered often from bouts of deep depression. During this trying time he served as a parachutist for his compulsory stint in the military. This, however much a burden, had a liberating effect, and he began at twenty-three to write his third “first” novel. Like its predecessors, this had, despite obvious virtues, irresolvable faults and was never published. Echoes of it reappear in later works.

In 1960 Perec bought an apartment with reparation money from the German government. He and his lover, Paulette Petras, had no financial resources after this purchase, but were able to live in relative comfort and security. He was the center of a wide circle of friends and his reputation as a writer, even though an unpublished one, was secure.

To provide what Bellos amusingly describes as a concertina budget Perec worked in consumer research, a discipline imported from the United States. The effect on him of studying men and women as at least partly the same as their acquisitions and of employing studiedly impersonal interviewing techniques will flower fully with Life.

The first third of Bellos’s book manages well enough on chronological sequence, but chapter 25 interrupts this orderly approach with a chapter that summarizes Perec’s experience as an information retrieval specialist with a medical research institution. He held this job from 1960 to 1979. In later chapters Bellos will add appendices to describe specialist concerns that would otherwise impede the flow of the biography.

The death of Perec’s mother was a major incident in his life, but, deprived of the full panoply of mourning and unable to comprehend the brutality of her murder in a death camp, he repressed his feelings. He lived additionally in a family that had turned from its Jewish background and was bent on assimilation. Perec himself had no interest in his Jewish heritage. In the series of articles that he wrote for Partisans in 1962 he formulated the basis for a new improved fiction. In this exploration he achieved the secularization of the Jewish element in his mother’s death.

Perec’s first published book Things: A Story of the Sixties appeared in 1965. It was a short book, the result of much thought and many rewritings over a three-year period. His publisher had only a small number of the book printed. He did not expect much and published Things less from conviction than from a sense of obligation to the author. Without fanfare or promotion Things made its way by word of mouth and by perceptive critical attention although some of it was not particularly intelligent in itself but the cause of intelligence in others. Perec won the Renaudot Prize, a prize that traditionally recognized outstanding new writers. Perec was twenty-nine. He would live only another fifteen years.

In 1967, after he had published or completed three books, he was invited to become the second non-founding member of OuLiPo (Jacques Roubaud was the first). OuLiPo (Ouvrior de literature potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature) was a small group of men interested in literature and mathematics, It’s leading characteristic was the creation of literature that employed some restraint of superficially a nonsensical nature. The leading spirit and best known of the group was Raymond Queneau. Although OuLiPo was not a secret organization, it was more than a little discreet and would not seek publicity of any sort for a few years.

Things appeared to French readers as the peak of Perec’s endeavor as a writer and his next books did not fare well. To the public he appeared as a has-been that had never quite been. A Man Asleep (1967) attracted little attention. The next book after his joining OuLiPo was one written under an oulipian constraint: it was a lipograms in e – that is, the work did not contain the vowel ‘e.’ Far from hindering his imagination, this constraint set his imagination flowing. A Void marked his maturity and validated the judgment of OuLiPo in making him a member.

Despite its excellence the book found little favor with readers or critics. Perec next attacked the problem of memory and began W, or The Memory of Childhood. It was a worrisome book in its early stages and Perec had serious problems with the book and the events in his life. In early 1970 he separated from Paulette. After a dangerous flirtation with suicide, he submitted to analysis. By 1972, however, he has cleared himself of enough of his problems to begin discussion at an OuLiPo meeting of his as yet unwritten Life A User’s Manual.

Life, as one of the major novels, deserves special attention. Elements – the names, for example, of Serge Vàlene and Gaspard Winckler – occur in earlier unpublished fictions. The character Bartlebooth is mentioned – not very clearly – as early as 1969. Through familiarity with the works of a new oulipian and close friend, Harry Matthews, Perec saw the advantage of using multiple constraints. Inspired by these considerations and by a marvelous drawing by Saul Steinberg, he was ready to begin.

But first – as so often in his life – he had other commitments. He co-directed a movie version of his A Man Asleep. He rethought and rewrote W. It was only in 1976 that he was able to start on Life. Bellos does an exceptional examination of Life. He shows it to be a complex of ingenious applications of abstruse mechanisms. He insists, and rightly so, that to the reader all of these are transparent. They are implants within the text, not barriers to the reader’s engagement with it on its most immediate level. It is on this level that the reader will engage fully. The result is a book of highly developed structure that the reader can easily deal with by intuition.

In the pages that follow Life, Bellos shows Perec in a flurry of activity, much of it misdirected. Perec’s death caused by cancer – with still so much to do, so many plans – followed a brief illness. As a writer he became productive relatively late in such a short life and his greatest work, Life, was like the burst of light that attends the death of a star.

Despite its length, this is an engrossing book. It may not rival those great achievements in biography that one can read for their own sake, but everyone with an interest in Perec will find it essential. Although David Bellos rather quaintly believes that one can modify ‘unique,’ he commits few solecisms, and writes clearly and vigorously. He is able to sort untidy material into order, is always perspicuous, and has a sense of humor, important in so long a book.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places