Perec, Georges

views updated


PEREC, GEORGES (1936–1982), French author. Grandson of Isaac Leib *Peretz's nephew David, Georges Perec lost his father in the defense of France in 1940 and his mother in the deportation from *Drancy (February 1943). For the major part of the Nazi occupation of France, Perec was hidden in a Catholic boarding school at Villard-de-Lans (Isere) and after the Liberation he was brought up in Paris by his paternal aunt and her husband, a trader in fine pearls. Perec's early orphanage marked him deeply, and lies near the root of his highly defended but engagingly unpretentious literary personality. He was educated in Paris and at Etampes, where his philosophy teacher, Jean Duvignaud, encouraged him in his early decision to become a writer. Perec dropped out of a history degree at the Sorbonne and constructed his own "university" through reading, through friendships (notably with a group of Yugoslav artists and thinkers), and through La Ligne générale (1958–60), a cultural movement aiming to renew Marxism from within. Perec did two years' military service in a parachute regiment (1958–59), then worked briefly in market research before spending a year at Sfax, in Tunisia. From 1961 until 1978 Perec was employed as a research librarian in a neurophysiological laboratory.

Many of Perec's early writings have been lost. Every one of his published works is an exercise in a different style. Les Choses. Une histoire des années soixante (Prix Renaudot, 1965; transl. as Things, A Story of the Sixties, 1990), is an ironical portrait of a generation bewildered by the arrival of prosperity, written in a deceptively simple language intentionally echoing the style of Flaubert's Sentimental Education; it made Perec famous as the "sociologist" of his own generation. Perec's following works were not in the same vein and were less widely read until the 1980s. Quel Petit Vélo a guidon chromé au fond de la cour? (1966) is a mock epic. Un homme qui dort (1967; transl. as A Man Asleep, 1990) is a second-person narrative of adolescent depression in which the technique of collage is used almost invisibly (a film version was made by Perec and Bernard Queysanne in 1974), and La Disparition (1968) is a murder mystery novel written under the constraint of a lipogram on e. Perec became well known in Germany for a series of radio plays: Die Maschine (1968, with Eugen Helmle), L'Augmentation (1969), Tagstimmen (1971, with Eugen Helmle and Philippe Drogoz), etc. He also performed remarkable "alphabetic exercises" as a member of Ou Li Po (the "Workshop for Potential Literature" founded by Raymond Queneau) including palindromes, univocalics, and heterogrammatic poetry (Alphabets, 1976).

Perec's incessant formal innovations accompany a lifelong concern with autobiography. La Boutique obscure (1973) is a record of his dreams; Espèces d'espaces (1974) is a personal reflection on his relationship to spatiality; Je me souviens (1978; stage adaptation by Sami Frey, 1988) a record of "shared" memories. W ou le souvenir d'enfance (1975, incorporating earlier texts, transl. as W or The Memory of Childhood, 1988) is Perec's most direct approach to self-description and self-analysis, conducted by unusual means. It consists of two apparently unrelated texts printed in alternating chapters, which converge on a common image, that of the concentration camp. Its deceptive design is to make the reader share some of the inextinguishable anguish and guilt of a childhood survivor of the Holocaust.

La Vie mode d'emploi (Prix Medicis, 1978; transl. as Life, A User's Manual, 1987) is Perec's masterpiece, "the last great event in the history of the novel" (Italo Calvino). It describes the contents of a block of flats at a frozen moment of time–June 23, 1975, towards eight in the evening – together with the life-histories of the characters and the objects (and even the cats) caught in the novelist-painter's artfully calculated frame. Its success allowed Perec to live thereafter as a full-time writer. He pursued two projects related to the understanding of his own Jewish background: a "genealogical saga" of his family (unfinished), and a television essay on Ellis Island, as a kind of "alternative autobiography" (with Robert Bober, 1979–80). He also produced a film, published a novella about a forged painting representing many other paintings, each of which refer in some way to Life, A User's Manual (Un Cabinet d'Amateur, 1979), and continued to provide crosswords for the weekly magazine Le Point. After 1978, Perec also traveled widely, to Poland, America, Italy, and Australia, where he spent one month as writer in residence at the University of Queensland. He died, leaving many works incomplete. His unfinished "literary thriller" 53 Jours (53 Days) was published in 1989. Other works that have appeared in translation are Ellis Island, A Void (a novel written without the letter "e"), and Three by Perec.

Perec's standing in French and world literature has not ceased to grow since 1982, as the originality and underlying coherence of his extremely diverse output comes into clearer focus.


Benabou, "Georges Perec et la judeité," in: Cahiers Georges Perec i (1985); C. Burgelin, Georges Perec (1988). add. bibliography: D. Bellos, Georges Peres. A Life in Words (1993).

[David Bellos]