By Laird Hunt
3) For years I put off telling the tale of my voyage to W. (Opening of W or The Memory of Childhood)
When near the end of his statement of intent Perec addresses the motivation behind so much apparent literary shape shifting, his tone changes. After suggesting, without much force, that we can more or less forget what he has said (see above) about wanting to write everything that it is possible to write without ever once incurring a formal redundancy, and proposing that what he really does is just follow his nose, he asserts that the results of this multidirectional sniffing process “describe the staging posts of a search that has no why but only a how…” Readers of course are free to speculate on the literary and extra-literary preoccupations underlying any writer’s efforts. Still, regardless of and perhaps in clear opposition to what he or she has had to say about it, they too often do so like so many dogs at a flavorless bone. In Perec’s case, however, it might be reasonable to suppose that his stated literary ambitions aside, the subterranean underpinning for his work — which despite the discussed formal variance is as we have seen so often infused with absence — is the devastating impact of the battlefields of World War II that took his father and the concentration camp that swallowed up his mother. Indeed, there is a body of commentary devoted to the repercussions of these seminal losses on his non-strictly autobiographical work. A Void, for instance, has customarily been offered an extra-ludic justification by pointing out that in removing the letter e from the proceedings, and thus disqualifying the most common letter in the French language, Perec was speaking, by this procedure of subtraction, to the obliteration of what was most central to him and to so many others. Life A User’s Manual is riddled with stories constructed around loss (of love, of fortune, of intellectual passion, of sanity, of life), a state of affairs rendered that much more acute by the juxtaposition of the obsessively detailed description of mind-boggling accumulation, while Things deals with the destabilization of identity in a world of rampant consumerism and the loss of dreams that were probably never more than illusory anyway. For its part, A Man Asleep chronicles a Bartleby-like abnegation of any sort of engagement with a world that has come to seem fundamentally meaningless.
All of this, as well as the more structural and technical “staircases” discussed above, could well be attributed to the horrific loss and resultant trauma suffered by Perec. The advantage of such an approach is that it allows us to view the constellation of Perec’s works as darkly rhyzomatic, with each individual project rising up out of an all-encompassing stem of sorrows. In the end though, playing ill-equipped Nancy Drew with the sub-strata of a complex author’s psyche and applying the findings to the entirety of a body of work, can at best result in partial elucidation, at worst in reductive inanity: early trauma sits glowering at the center of many a writer’s imagination. It would perhaps be more useful in the context of a talk like this one simply to note that Perec grew up an orphan because of the War and the Holocaust, that he became a writer, that he wrote an extraordinary variety of extraordinary books and planned to write many more, that from the beginning his works, even at their most inventive, tend to carry a freight of loss and sadness that can not easily be ignored, and that, consequently, we might counter the opening sentence of his autobiography, “For years I put off telling the tale of my voyage to W” — the territory of his childhood — with the observation that, arguably, he had been doing it, with great subtlety and resourcefulness, all along.
That resourcefulness was powerfully encouraged by his membership, from 1967 onwards, in the Workshop for Potential Literature. As a member of the Oulipo — that group of mathematicians and writers devoted not primarily to the generation of works of literature but to the description of techniques that might be used to generate such works — Perec enjoyed a highly productive association with extraordinary figures like Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud, Harry Mathews and many others. For a writer with exploratory tendencies who was uninterested in elaborating on the tenets of the roman engagé, as championed by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, or the nouveau roman, as championed by Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet, one who had already decided to treat his deepest obsessions obliquely, the Oulipo’s high-octane mathematical-literary discussion of constraints and other generative techniques helped provide a map (of sorts) for the trip against the grain he was eager to take. Rare was the subsequent work Perec signed his name to that wasn’t either governed by constraint or at the very least touched by the profoundly ludic spirit Harry Mathews has summed up neatly as a small girl playing hopscotch — in deadly earnest. For all the literary gaming he was capable of, Perec was of course among the most earnest of the Oulipians. One of the great affirmations of Perec’s writing is that serious play and profound insight are by no means mutually exclusive. Nowhere is this driven home with more authority than in the case of Perec’s masterpiece, Life A User’s Manual, where a deeply moving examination of the human condition is carried out against a backdrop, albeit submerged, of near brain-splitting ludic activity.
 Perec’s interest in Melville’s story helped shape not just A Man Asleep, but also Life A User’s Manual. Indeed, the name and fundamental attributes of its key figure, Bartlebooth, is derived from Valery Larbaud’s AO Barnabooth and Melville’s Bartleby.
 One is obliged to note that despite this stated goal, many of the works inspired by the highly charged atmosphere of the Oulipo have been dazzling. One thinks of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, Queneau’s Exercises in Style, etc.
 For the uninitiated, the idea that a constraint can be liberating persists in seeming counter-intuitive. A quick consideration of the results of the constraint of the sonnet form, or of the pantoum, the villanelle, the sestina, etc., will likely suffice to correct this misperception.
"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, part 2, "We Should Learn to Live More on Staircases, but how?" on January 25th. Part 4 will follow.
Published Jan 27, 2010 Copyright 2010 Laird Hunt