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4 Gentle Persuasions: An Annotated List of 4 Quotations from the Works of Georges Perec (2)

By Laird Hunt

2) We should learn to live more on staircases. But how?

(species of spaces 38)


Perec’s actual and hypothetical leaping up and down, forward and backward, and diagonally and sidewise, etc. —sometimes all at once— between projects, as if his field of operations was an enormous Jungle Gym or hopscotch grid, was in large part programmatic. Indeed, in “Notes on What I’m Looking For”[9], a sort of statement of intent published in Le Figaro in 1978, Perec offers an unambiguous declaration of his firm commitment to pursuing literary heterogeneity: “When I attempt to state what I have tried to do as a writer since I began, what occurs to me first of all is that I have never written two books of the same kind, nor ever wanted to reuse a formula, or a system, or an approach already developed in some earlier work.”  Perec goes on in the statement to note, as indeed he does, albeit in slightly different form, in the 1976 prospectus, that his writings may nonetheless conveniently be arranged into four dominant “modes of questioning” — sociological, autobiographical, ludic and novelistic, but almost as quickly backs away from the validity of those groupings by pointing out that, “This is a rather arbitrary distribution which could be refined considerably.”  Or, in the face of a work of the dimensions of, say, Life A User’s Manual, which so liberally partakes of all these modes and more, scrapped.  Indeed, readers faced with the recurrence of the question, posed upon encountering Perecquian text after Perecquian text, “now, what on earth do we have here?” are much more likely (if the question is not gleefully rhetorical) to find orienting Perec’s subsequent proposition that his ambition was “to write every kind of thing it is possible for a person to write nowadays: big books and small ones, novels and poems, plays, libretti, crime fiction, adventure stories, science fiction, serials and children’s books…” Such a statement might permit us to posit, if we allow ourselves to step away from the literal for a moment, that a mind as actively engaged as Perec’s in contemplating and/or negotiating the passage from one literary form to another (say from the pyrotechnic heights of A Void to the deep-vein thrombosis of A Man Asleep), had already found a way “to live more on staircases”, those interstitial zones of ascending and descending energy, where so much happens that leaves so little visible residue, and where invisible residue, as we see in so many narratives of descent (as in Alice Notley), fulminates.

It is not simply on the staircases between works where Perec attends to transitions, it is also within them. Indeed, few other French prose writers before or since have made such programmatic and effective use of the gaps separating their blocks of prose as they spilled down the page. And while, for example, one could make a case for the paramount importance of the fissures between the array of textual and visual components that make up Life A User’s Manual, nowhere does Perec do this more persuasively than in W or The Memory of Childhood. In this hybrid work, chapters of a dystopian horror story about an island society obsessed with athletic perfection and autobiographical fragments on Perec’s childhood are interwoven. Despite a preface[10] by Perec explaining that the two parts shine “a distant light” on each other and speak only “in their fragile overlapping”, the resultant gaps between sections shock and intrigue at the outset as they mediate between such apparently disparate elements, before slowly becoming charged with a sense of inevitability as the book progresses and the sections begin, indeed, to eerily echo each other. Halfway through, Perec punctuates his white space with a contextually chilling ellipsis bordered by parentheses, followed at the outset of the second section by a revealing quote from Raymond Queneau: “The mindless mist where shadows swirl — is this then my future?”  Well before the end, we understand that in fact the greatest part of the “story”, itself riddled with gaps, distortions, split narrative threads and unsignaled invention, has been occurring precisely where there has seemed to be none. The entire construction has been built on the implications of the paradoxically charged utterance, made at the beginning of the first autobiographical fragment: “I have no childhood memories”; Perec’s web of words has been spun like so much gossamer thread across a void that isn’t one.

Of course even a partial discussion of internal gaps in Perec’s work would not pass muster without at least a mention of the lipogrammatic detective novel, A Void. in which  the letter e is excluded. In it, and in its companion piece of sorts[11], The Exeter Text, which excludes all vowels except e, Perec hardwires absence into the very structure of the language. And while the results in these two texts, particularly the latter, are at the surface among the zaniest and most hilarious Perec ever composed, they simultaneously comprise a kind of coda to the following, which can be found at the end of Species of Spaces, Perec’s treatise on the complexities of our engagement with the 3-D world:  “To write: to try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.” (last page of species of spaces)


[9] Reprinted in English in Species of Spaces and other Pieces, Georges Perec, John Sturrock (editor), Penguin, London, 1997.

[10] Like other of his Oulipian colleagues, Perec was far from unfond of offering the reader a few words of explanation at the start of his books. It is worth noting that in more than one of these opening remarks – which despite their disarmingly direct quality in fact do little to prepare the reader for the profound strangeness of what follows – Perec makes reference to absence. The foreword to Species of Spaces, for instance, begins as follows: “The subject of this book is not the void exactly, but rather what there is round about or inside it.”  Life A User’s Manual opens with a prefatory discussion of puzzle pieces, which of course even when locked together and treated with special bonding agents imply the scars of their previous separation on all sides.

[11] In A Void e can not be used; in The Exeter Text, e is the only vowel that is allowed.

"4 Gentle Pursuasions" was originally published in French in the magazine Inculte. It is reprinted here with the author's permission. Part 1, "I Write..." was published at Words Without Borders January 20th. Parts 3 and 4 will follow.

Published Jan 25, 2010   Copyright 2010 Laird Hunt

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