I don’t know about you, but for me there are certain authors that I wil read absolutely anything by – and Georges Perec, a relatively recent reading discovery is one of those. I have stacks of his works on my shelves and have read just about everything which has been translated into English. So needless to say, I was inordinately excited when I discovered that a new work would be available! That book is “Ellis Island”, a slim volume from New Directions, and I sent off for it as soon as I found out it was available.

“Ellis Island” has a fascinating genesis: the text has its roots in a screenplay Perec wrote for a documentary film on the place made by Robert Bober. This was the first documentary made by Bober, a French-Jewish director and author; and Perec provided not only the commentary of the first part of the film, he also conducted the interviews in the second part. The current volume contains a translation of “Ellis Island” by Perec’s friend and fellow Oulipan, Harry Mathews, as well as number of photographs of the island itself and people passing through it. It may well be that these are also featured in the film, but I haven’t seen it and there are no credits in the book…

I doubt that anyone visits Ellis Island by chance these days.
People who passed through it have a little desire to return –
their children or grandchildren do it for them, looking
for traces of the past. What had been for the others a place
of trials and uncertainties has become for them a place
of recollection, a pivot of the connections that identify
them with their history.

And the text does make absolutely wonderful reading; in words which straddle poetry and prose, Perec explores the history and the symbolism of Ellis Island, its importance to those attempting to escape from dangerous situations and repressive countries into the ‘land of the free’; and also the reality behind those symbols. Because of course, it was never that easy to make your way into the USA, with many refugees being turned away and sent back to the country in which they had faced great peril. The streets of American were not paved with gold, and intolerance and prejudice existed there as much as anywhere else in the world.

How can you grasp what is shown, what wasn’t photographed
or catalogue or restored or staged?

How do you get back what was plain, trivial, routine,
what was ordinary and kept happening day after day?

Perec is a man who seemed to be fond of producing books which are lists (“An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” springs to mind); and there are elements of that in “Ellis…”. That way of writing works really well, with Perec producing hypnotic sequences which capture the sheer variety of people attempting to flood into the USA, and also the fact that persecution was taking place everywhere in the world. Images he creates linger, particularly from his visits to Ellis Island whilst filming, when the place had decayed and was then reimagined as a museum. He also explores his response to the location through the prism of his identity as a Jewish person, and how Bober’s Jewishness differed from his. Certainly, the thought of that persecuted people fleeing to American to escape the horrors of 20th century Europe is profoundly moving…

they had given up their past and their history,
they had given up everything for the sake of coming here
to try and live a life they were forbidden to live
in their native land:
and now they were face to face with an inexorable finality

“Ellis Island” comes with a fascinating afterword by Monica De La Torre which discusses the whole topic of immigration in light of more modern developements in the USA, particularly under the recent regime which chose to consider walling itself off from its neighbours. This also serves as a useful reminder of how the world has changed since Perec visited back in 1978…

what I find present here
are in no way landmarks or roots or
relics ut the opposite: something shapeless, on the outer edge of
what is sayable…

As I said at the start of this post, i would read absolutely anything Perec wrote; but putting that fact aside, I found “Ellis Island” a surprisingly lyrical and very beautiful piece of work, which as well as capturing the symbolic nature of the place also explored deeply the themes of wandering and homeland and how it feels to be running from danger and looking for a safe place. As the book reminds us (though not from Perec’s own mouth), his father was killed in the War fighting against Germany and his mother perished in Auschwicz. I always feel these facts lie under or beneath everything Perec wrote and ran through his life. If I had any criticism of the book to make, it would not be of Perec’s words; however, I did feel it could have benefited from some notation, photos credits and a little more context. I went into this fairly blind, and although that allowed me to encounter the prose with no preconceptions, some notes at the end might have helped when I’d finished.

Perec in Place Saint-Sulpice, Café de la Mairie – 18 October 1974 – photo c. Pierre Getzler

However, putting that aside, needless to say I loved this. Like so many of Perec’s works it deals in memory, how our past informs our present, how accurate what we recall is and how we can never really leave the past behind. In some ways, reading this had me making connections with Maria Stepanova’s “In Memory of Memory” – truly, our recollections can be tricky things.

Anyway. I aim to read everything by Perec which makes it into English so I’m always happy when something new appears. “Ellis Island” was a real treat for me, and let’s home more of Georges Perec’s work becomes available in a form suitable for we Anglophone readers! 😀