Classics in Translation: Georges Perec

By Bud Parr

When I began reading Words Without Borders some years ago my first reaction was always "who the hell are these people?"  - the writers, that is, all these authors I'd never heard of. Well my mother always said a stranger is just someone you don't know yet, but we all know sometimes you need someone to make the introductions. Words Without Borders does that nicely, actually, but I think too that the most trusted voices in literature are the great authors we love; so with that we are introducing "Classics in Translation" at Words Without Borders where we will focus on great authors in hopes that they create a bridge to other authors coming now into English.

To kick things off, we're featuring pieces by and about Georges Perec, the great and ambitious French writer best known to many of us for his work Life A User's Manual originally published in 1978, translated into English in 1987 by David Bellos. 

Fans of the original or those who have yet to read "Life" will be delighted to know that Perec's U.S. publisher, David R. Godine, recently released a new version, taking into account twenty years of Perec scholarship, corrections and the inclusion of a paragraph that was missing from the final chapter. 

To commemorate the new edition and to kick off our "Classics in Translation" series we're going to give away three copies of this new, definitive edition of Life A Users Manual. We'll be weaving in Perec posts from now until the end of the month. We encourage you to leave thoughtful comments* and we'll choose randomly from those comments and notify the winners.   


To win, thoughtful (anything but the gratuitous) comments can be left on any post from now to the end of the month



Timely for me. Group I am reading with for Woolf in Winter is reading this book together in May. And guess who does not have a copy? Will be on the lookout for those Perec posts this month as well. Have no idea what I am getting into.


I’m completely agog—I thought I had the tip on Perec… I mean, I even read (and loved) _A Void_, and have dispensed LIFE to various others and had no idea that it was anything other than definitive. 

And while this is a knee-jerk sort of comment (not gratuitous, but not necessarily thoughtful either), I’m crazily glad to see attention sent Perec-ward.


For some time, I have a beautiful edition of the user’s manual waiting for me in the book pile. And also Perec’s Things/A Man Asleep. The existence of a definitive version may just have altered my reading plan this year.


If you’re interested in Perec, be sure to check out the Review of Contemporary Fiction‘s Perec Issue here.


Thanks, Stephen. We may actually post some excerpts or highlights from that issue and have a piece by one of its editors.


A classic work getting the treatment it deserves.  And for my money, Bellos’s Georges Perec: A Life in Words is one of the best literary biographies out there, a near-perfect blending of human detail and bookish analysis.


I second that last comment on Bellos’ biography - a really wonderful book.  On the new translation, can someone tell me whether I should read the old translation I bought a while ago but still haven’t got around to reading - or is the new translation that much better that I should move on to it?


Peter, it depends. From what I can tell most of the changes are not the sorts of things that would change the first-time reader’s experience. However, I’m one of those people who has to have the most up-to-date version, so I’d personally opt for the new edition.

But who knows, you may not have to decide since you’ll be in the drawing to win a copy of the new edition!


Thanks Bud.  I must admit I’m curious to read it anyway just because its Bellos - who really does seem to love his subject.

As for winning a new copy, does a second comment mean I’ve doubled my chances?


Sorry, no, but I do encourage you to come back and comment as much as you like. We have some great pieces on Perec and several more coming this week.


Surely for the definitive we should be reading the French
... damn if only I could, maybe I will try!


I tried read this book when I was too young and didn’t really comprehend it, so I’m ready to take another look at it with twenty more years of living and “wisdom” under my belt.  There’s one particular story thread from the book that I still remember vividly and which gave me shivers back when I read it and whenever I recall it.  THAT’S good writing!


Life is an extraordinary book, but W, or the Memory of Childhood is much more personal and tragic. The complex double novel structure gives you the feel of fragments and most important the time for reflections between the chapters. An ordinary book can be more fluently read but lacks the birth of reflections which Perecs autobiography gives rise to. These reflections in the shifts from one chapter to another blends chaotically together leaving the reader distorted in his perception of the two alternating narratives.
The brackets in the center of the book is a large edition of these breaks. The almost empty pages in the middle and the brackets is the void which divides the first part from the second and last part. Its the void which parts the now from then, the child from the parents.

Hope you’ll read it if you yet haven’t.

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