You don’t have to have done much more than dip your toe into the Ramblings to realise that I’ve developed a bit of a literary thing for Georges Perec recently…. 🙂 So I was very, very excited to hear that his biographer and regular translator, David Bellos, had discovered what is something of a Holy Grail – Perec’s first novel, rejected in the 1960s and thought lost but lurking in copy typescripts tucked away with old friends.

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Bellos has translated the book and provides an excellent foreword which explains the history of the book, why it wasn’t published, how it was found and the background to it. Intriguingly, the protagonist is named Gaspard Winckler, the title given to one of the characters in “Life: A User’s Manual” and also the semi-autobiographical “W, or the memory of Childhood”. It’s tempting to see this recurring character as perhaps representing Perec…

As the book opens Winckler, a forger of paintings, has reached a crisis in his life. We meet him immediately after murdering his employer, Madera, by cutting his throat. To escape from Otto, the servant, who is pursuing him with a view to vengeance, he locks himself in the cellar where he has been working on his latest pastiche. His only way out to freedom is by tunnelling through the cellar wall and making a run for it; so as Gaspard works away at the wall, he reflects on his life and the events which have brought him to this point.

Much of the second section of the book is taken up by a dialogue between Winckler and an old friend, Streten, which covers similar ground but in perhaps a more detailed and coherent way. Gaspard again relives his life, trying to rationalise his existence and work out why he chose the path he did, and where he will go next.

The slightly unusual format of a book split in two is one that Perec would return to with the later book, “W” and it’s very effective here. The opening section is full of dazzling prose with frequently shifting viewpoints (from first, second and third person perspectives) which at times almost make the book read as if Gaspard is having a dialogue with himself. These fractured thoughts capture brilliantly the panicky state of mind when cohesive and coherent understanding is impossible.

“What remained was the feeling of an absurd undertaking. What remained was the bitterness of failure; what remained was a corpse. a life that had suddenly collapsed, and memories that were ghosts. What remained was a wrecked life, irreparable misunderstanding, a void, a desperate plea…”

As the narrative continues, we learn that Winckler has, after a lifetime of faking, conceived a wish to create a work of art which is a masterpiece in itself, but in the style of “The Condottiero” (also known as Portrait of a Man) by Antonello da Messina. It’s a painting with which Perec had an emotional connection, often citing the scar on the subject’s lip which was similar to one he had, and the portrait features on the cover of the book. But a forger attempting to create an original work but in another’s style simply won’t work – Winckler’s painting has failed, and it is this failure which brought about the crisis, leaving him to blame Madera for keeping him a prisoner, to all intents and purposes – a prisoner of his own talent as a forger. Killing Madera was the only way he believed he could escape this life and as he flees to Paris, he is unsure of what he will do next; the only thing that is certain is that he no longer wishes to produce counterfeit art. Every attempt he has made at something real in his life, from the failed painting to the loves he has lost, has gone wrong.

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Although this book was written before Perec’s real experiments in literature began, the opening section *is* a little challenging, with its constant shifts and the staccato nature of Winckler’s thoughts. Nevertheless, you soon get into a rhythm with the writing, and start becoming intensely involved in Winckler’s life and fate. He is certainly an artist, but the abuse of his talent has caused him to reach a crisis – a need to create an original work of art, and a frustration at his failure. Questions of identity are pertinent here, as well as authenticity, while Winckler fumbles through, trying to justify his past and then discard it and move on. It’s a thought-provoking tale, setting you thinking about whether it matters who you really are, whether it matters if the painting you think is a van Gogh really *is* one, or if all that matters is whether you like it or not. And the importance of veracity versus falsity is pivotal to Winckler’s behaviour and eventual crisis. He has seen how his teacher, the man who taught him his craft, ended his life in seclusion, burnt out – and he has no wish to end up like this. However, what happens to Gaspard we never find out; having spent 12 years or more as other people, submerging himself into their psyche to recreate their work, he sets off to try to forge a new identity and find a new role in life. Whether he succeeds or not, at least he has managed to escape the trap he was in, living a lie.

“Portrait of a Man” would be a remarkably good book from any writer – challenging, thought-provoking, individual – but considering it was Perec’s first novel makes you realise just what a talent the man was. And kudos, bouquets, awards and the like need to be flung at David Bellos for services rendered to English-speaking readers of Perec. Not only has he translated major works and written the biography, he’s also managed to find this wonderful lost book! Published today by MacLehose Press, this is a worthy addition to Georges Perec’s canon and essential reading for anyone who wants to watch the development of a genius.

(Review copy kindly provided by MacLehose Press – for which many thanks. Actually, they also deserve kudos and bouquets for publishing the book !)

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