“Things: A Story of the Sixties” and “A Man Asleep” by Georges Perec
The way I’m feeling about Perec at the moment, it was inevitable I would return to his work and this volume (picked up recently thanks to a gift voucher!) contains his first published works. The former was published in 1965 and the latter in 1967, and both have a common tone to them. The stories pre-date his involvement in the OuLiPo group and aren’t laden with the wordplay his later books feature. However, they’re fascinating tales and it’s easy to see why they were so popular and became cult books at the time.
“Things” ostensibly tells the story of Jerome and Sylvia, a pair of young Parisians. We are introduced to them via their flat, in the first chapter, and initially the description sounds as if it’s a place the young couple might be happy in; simple but functional, with all the basics to live a life together. However, it soon becomes clear that this is not the case, and the focus on the objects during that introduction has been deliberate. For Sylvia and Jerome are obsessed with possessions; the ones they have, the ones they want (and can’t afford at the moment) and the ones that are completely out of their reach. They dream of being rich and having all these desirable things; but they’ve dropped out of college, taken up part-time jobs as market researchers and can only manage to subsist at the level they’re at.
“… they possessed, alas, but a single passion, the passion for a higher standard of living, and it exhausted them”
As the story progresses, we find out more about them – they seem stuck in a kind of stasis; unable to earn the kind of funds they want with the jobs they have, but unwilling to give up their perceived independence and somewhat bohemian lifestyle to take up regular employment and earn a better wage. So they dream of objects, watch the glamorous images on the cinema screens, gaze into antique shop windows and define themselves entirely in terms of things.
“It was not they who had decreed it; it was a social law, a fact of life, which advertising in general, magazines, window displays, the street scene and even, in a certain sense, all those productions which in common parlance constitute cultural life, expressed most authentically.”
As their friends start to cave in and settle down, with regular jobs, the couple are thrown into turmoil. They attempt a total change by taking jobs in Tunisia but even this seems doomed to failure. Will the possessions win? Will Sylvie and Jerome ever be able to conceive of a life not run by objects?
“They lived in a strange and shimmering world, the bedazzling universe of a market culture, in prisons of plenty, in the bewitching traps of comfort and happiness.”
This is such an intriguing book and quite frightening in a way. Perec seems to have tapped in to the dawn of the consumer society, the time when objects, acquisition and possession became the be-all and end-all. The quality of one’s life was assessed by the style of your flat, what you wore and what you owned; the new advertising and modern standards of living, post-WWII, dazzled people to such an extent that they thought that the most important thing was to own the latest gadget – and in many ways, it’s difficult to see what’s changed in our modern, fast-turnover, mad-consumer society. The culture of consumption has gone a little crazy and the roots of it are shown here in Perec’s fascinating story.
The subject of “A Man Asleep” is not obviously connected to “Things”, although taking place in a similar time (the early 1960s). It’s a much darker piece of work, with the narrative voice being a second-person one, for example:
“In the course of time your life will be there in front of you: a life without motion, without crisis and without disorder, a life with no rough edges and no imbalance. Minute by minute, hour after hour, day after day, season after season, something is going to start that will be without end: your vegetal existence, your cancelled life.”
It’s an unusual construction, and in many ways helps you get inside of the man of the title; for he is a young man obviously in a state of grand ennui. On the day of his exam he simply does not get up. Missing his exam, he ignores all attempts at contact from friends and fellow students, and slips into an isolated, depressive state. His detachment is almost complete for most of the book, during which he exists on a basic level; eating, going to the cinema, reading newspapers, walking endlessly round Paris; and at one point even visiting his parents in the country. But none of this breaks through his state of indifference and it is only towards the end of the story, when his psyche reaches almost rock bottom, that there is any sign of emotion breaking through the shell.
A still from the film
Perec apparently based this work on a depression he went through himself, and it’s quite chilling to read. The technique is striking, written almost as if a narration to a film (and indeed Perec did film the story, with the book as shortened narration over footage of an actor carrying out the actions, at a later date). It’s a remarkably effective way of getting across the depressive state of mind – and quite alarming in many ways. There is a hypnotic, almost dream-like quality to the student’s days, as he carries on his routine with his body going through the motions of life with his mind totally removed from it.
Although there is autobiographical content in both of the stories, translator (and Perec’s biographer) David Bellos warns in his introduction about reading too much of this into the work. He’s right to do so, because it’s important to remember that although authors may use the stuff of their lives in their fictions, their books are just that – fictions, stories, tales. And these are as thought-provoking and fascinating as any other works of Perec I’ve read. In many ways, I wish I’d discovered his work earlier; but I’m glad at least I’ve found it now, because it means there is still more Perec for me to read!