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2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

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Cataloguing as Art

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An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec
Translated, with an afterword, by Marc Lowenthal

Well, as I said recently, there are plenty of smaller Perec texts that I’ve still to read, and this is one of them! I picked it up on a whim recently – I’d been intending to buy a copy for ages – and it was ideal to polyread along with “War and Peace”.

“An attempt…” is a short work published in 1975, and it has an interesting history. In October 1974, Perec sat in the Place Saint-Sulpice over three days, and simply observed, writing down what he saw. So buses would pass by regularly, people would come and go, the weather would change, a friend would wave through the cafe window, a flock of pigeons would take flight. All of these small happenings were recorded, in his attempt to pin down and fix the existence of one place at one time.

Well, that sounds like it could be dull, but it really, really isn’t. I’ve commented before about Perec’s use of an almost catalogue-like style of writing, which perhaps drew on his early day job as an archivist. And here, the simple repetition of certain phrases, the seemingly straightforward recording of ordinary, everyday actions builds up a surprisingly compelling picture of the ebb and flow of human life.

But the book is not simply a catalogue, as Perec can’t help but let his personal reactions sneak in: for example, early in the book he notes the regular appearance of a specific of car and later comments:

Weary vision: obsessive fear of apple-green 2CVs

By focusing so closely on the ordinary it becomes extraordinary – what Perec called the infraordinary – and it makes you realise that how we see the world is specific to us. Perec realises that one person cannot see everything and so his recording of the scene is very different from how someone else would respond to a similar exercise. And although things happen again and again, these repetitions are not the same; for example, each 96 bus is a 96 bus, but it’s a different vehicle with different people inside it.

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

As you read on through the book, the text becomes oddly thoughtful and philosophical, often approaching the beauty of haiku or found poetry:

Colors blend: a grayness that is rarely lit

Yellow patches. Reddish glare

The repetition of certain elements, the short, clipped segments and the description of where he is and what he sees, all tends to build up a hypnotic kind of narrative which is absorbing and engrossing.

The afterword by translator Lowenthal is intriguing, discussing the book and drawing parallels with Perec’s fellow OuLiPan Queneau; and also commenting on Perec’s fascination with the ordinary. In fact, Perec wrote a work simply called “L’infraordinaire”, part of which is extracted in “Species of Space”, and he says in it at one point:

What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we go downstairs, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed on order to sleep. How? Where? When? Why?

Describe your street. Describe another. Compare.

Certainly he makes a case for paying more attention to the everyday, perhaps in an endeavour to realise the sheer wonder of the fact that we are alive in the world. “An attempt…” is another fascinating and thought-provoking book from Perec, and I can see that I’m going to have to read everything I can get hold of by him that’s been rendered in English…

A Trio of Treats

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Three by Georges Perec
Translated by Ian Monk and E.N. Menk…. :)))

I guess that by now I’ve read all of those books which are regarded as Perec’s major works; but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still treasures available by him for me to discover. One such is “Three”, an old volume which collects together – yes, you’ve guessed it! – three short pieces by Perec. I dipped into these as a distraction from “War and Peace”, because I’m trying to pace myself with that; and I found some fascinating reading, and also something unexpectedly graphic!! The stories are rather cleverly translated by Ian Monk and each has an informative preface by Perec’s biographer, David Bellos.

The first short piece is “Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard?“, an early work which reminded me of Raymond Queneau, a fellow OuLiPo member. It tells, in a digressive and funny fashion, the story of the attempts of a young soldier, Karathingy (the spelling of his name changes regularly), to avoid being sent away to the Algerian war, with the help of his good friend Sgt. Henri Pollak. The latter is the owner of the moped of the title, which he uses to buzz about between the barracks and Montparnasse, location of his love nest and his group of friends (including the narrator). The whole group becomes involved in the plot to save Karathingy from war, which hilarious and bizarre results; but what stands out is the use of linguistic devices in the book. Helpfully, Perec gives an index of these at the back, and there were more I’d never heard of than I had. Nevertheless, it’s a funny and pithy read, and according to Perec’s biographer David Bellos, draws on events in the author’s life.

Remember all those letter ‘e’s that went missing in “A Void”? I did say what happened to them was another story, and it’s featured in this collection under the title “The Exeter Text”; a rather vulgar work that by necessity only features that one vowel. The plot, such as it is, concerns an attempt to steal jewels from an Archbishop in Exeter which doesn’t go quite to plan and ends up involving a rather lively orgy… The constraint of using only one vowel is obviously much more difficult to handle and the spelling and grammar get more and more extreme as the story goes on, so that it’s sometimes hard to read or to follow what’s happening – which is possibly a good thing, as the story is VERY graphic and not for the faint-hearted. In fact, some of the strange spellings worked better when read aloud phonetically than when viewed on the page, which was perhaps the point. I could appreciate what Perec was doing here – and apparently the jewel-theft element draws from his life too – but it’s probably the work of his that I’ve enjoyed the least.

The third piece, however, was just brilliant and classic Perec. “A Gallery Portrait” was the last work Perec completed before his early death in 1982 at just 46, and not only does it draw on his magnum opus “Life: A User’s Manual”, it also has connections with his first book, which was only recently translated under the title of “Portrait of a Man”.

“Gallery” begins with the story of a painting called, oddly enough, “A Gallery Painting”. This work is owned by a beer baron, Hermann Raffke, patron of the artist Heinrich Kurz, and it depicts Raffke’s collection of works and the man himself. However, within the painting is a representation of the painting itself, which also has a representation of the payment and then again and again – recursion them, but recursion with a difference. The painting attracts a horde of obsessives who study it from every angle, close up with magnifying glasses and attempting to work out which paintings are represented. However, it seems that there are variances between the original paintings and the version on the “Gallery” canvas… As the story continues, Perec not only spins a marvellous tale for each work of art mentioned, but takes the reader through the twists and turns of Raffke’s life to its rather dark end in a way that left me as a reader quite breathless.

“A Gallery Portrait” is a dazzling feat of storytelling which showcases all Perec’s talents fully. The stories behind paintings, the pitfalls of authenticating a work, the whole concept of fidelity in art, are all elements of the plot; and the subject of forgery, the main strand in “Portrait of a Man”, comes to fore in surprising ways. “Gallery” shows Perec at his strongest, and it’s just a tragedy that he died so young – who know what books he would have gone on to write.

So, overall an excellent collection, with two out of the three being marvellous and enjoyable, and one being – interesting! Fortunately, Perec was mightily prolific during his 46 years and there are a number of other little books available in English which I haven’t read – and I can see myself picking them up soon…. 🙂

In search of a lost vowel….

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A Void by Georges Perec
Translated (rather brilliantly!) by Gilbert Adair

‘E’ is the most common letter of the alphabet in the English (and French) languages; imagine therefore having to write a whole novel without using it at all. That was the constraint that Georges Perec set himself, and it’s certainly one worthy of an OuLiPo member. For some reason, despite having this on my shelves for ages, I hadn’t picked it up yet. But the joy of having no plans is that I can read what takes my fancy when I want, and this one did that recently!

The plot, such as it is, starts off with the mysterious disappearance of Anton Vowl. His friends, including Amaury Conson, Douglas Haig Clifford,Arthur Wilburg Savorgnan and Olga Mavrokhordatos, try to trace him, going through his diaries and papers and attempting to decipher them. However, they make no sense – they riff on ‘Moby Dick’ and Bioy Casares’ ‘The Invention of Morel’, but what does this have to do with Vowl’s absence? His friends call in the authorities in the shape of Ottavio Ottaviani and his boss  Swann, an odd pair in themselves; but as the disparate group attempt to track down their missing colleague, strange deaths begin to occur. What links this dizzying array of characters who all seem to be connected in some unknown way? Where is Vowl? And who is behind these peculiar events?

And if I don’t look too aghast, it’s simply that I’m afraid, I’m much afraid, that, from now until nightfall, I’m going to find out many things just as astonishing, many facts just as confusing, and many plots just as paradoxical.

Reading Perec is always a bracing and exhilarating experience, and “A Void” is no different. What starts as a relatively straightforward (if Perec is ever straightforward!) story of a missing vowel and a missing person soon develops into a kind of metafictional detective story, a search for the source of the curse which seems to be afflicting all the characters. As the story goes in, Perec peels back layers, drawing on myth, religion and literature and the plot becomes wilder and wilder, reaching back into a complex history leading up to Vowl’s absence.

Vowl, tall, straight as a capital I, as slim as a strand of hair, clad in a panama hat and a drab plastic mac with a tartan collar, carrying a stick and looking about 20 at most, was, at first sight, nothing but a normal, charming youth, but a faint hint of – oh, how shall I put it? – a slightly indistinct, out-of-focus quality about him instantly put you on your guard. His curious skin colouring, giving his bulging brow a sickly cast, his languid gait, half-lurching, half-undulating, his shifty look, his rabbity lash-bound iris so limpidly bluish I thought I was looking at an albino – all in all, I saw a kind of twitchy agitation in him which I found highly anxious-making, as if this poor man was carrying a cumbrous physical or psychological cargo within him.

There is a *lot* of death, some fatalities occurring in very bizarre ways, and the subplot and raison seems to be the search for revenge within a family. However,
the narrative becomes increasingly metafictional as the book progresses, with continual oblique references to 25 of things instead of 26, acknowledgement of the lack of an ‘e’, that void bringing a kind of damnation to the characters. It’s also worth noting that the book has 26 chapters…

Nicholas had a truly amazing gift for linguistic obfuscation and would turn an innocuous communication into such hocus pocus that nobody could follow it….

Perec himself, of course, had a problematic family background, with both of his parents being missing; his father died during the Second World War and his mother perished in Auschwitz. Their absence tends to haunt some of his works and so a complex and murky family background, with children taken from their parents, obviously draws on his own experience. It’s worth remembering also that Perec’s own name could not exist without the letter ‘e’….

Things look normal, but looks can play tricks on you. Things at first look normal, till, abruptly, abnormality, horrifying in its inhumanity, swallows you up and spits you out.

Like all Perec’s work, “A Void” is stuffed full of references; as well as the aforementioned Moby and Morel, Shakespeare, Poe, Borges and Joyce all get a look in (to name but a few). Part of the fun of reading Perec is spotting the references; many I got, but I’m sure there are just as many that I didn’t! OuLiPo itself receives several mentions; and at one point a certain Raymond Q. Knowall from that organisation attends a significant funeral, which made me chuckle.

…a work, as I say, in which an author’s imagination runs so wild, in which his writing is so stylistically outlandish, his plotting so absurd, of an inspiration so capricious and inconstant, so gratuitous and instinctual, you’d think his brain was going soft!

Some of the wordplay is quite dazzling; and the book is full of so much wit and humour that you have to keep reminding yourself of the constraint and how clever it is. I found myself stopping to think about the use of everyday words – we default to the familiar e.g. pen, whereas here it is biro or bic and the language is therefore much more elaborate than usual. Such a constraint forces you to be inventive with language, and even more so in translation. In face, the book is a virtuoso performance by both author and translator, and Adair deserves massive kudos for sticking to Perec’s constraint when rendering the book into English; I believe translators to other language have chosen an equivalent limitation relevant to their mother tongue. Interestingly, at one point there is a list of a number of texts from ‘Moby Dick’ through Malcolm Lowry and ending up with “La Disparition? Or Adair’s translation of it?” and I loved the touch of the translator inserting himself into the narrative as an essential part in our understanding of Perec’s work.

Author? or Character?

As for who or what’s behind the plot; well, towards the end of the book a wiry-haired, bushy-chinned individual appears, who seems to be manipulating things from behind the scenes, leading the reader to the obvious conclusion that the author has made his entry into his own book…

Swann points to a portrait of a skinny man with long, curly, slightly wispy hair, thick hairy brows, a dark, bushy chin and an ugly, narrow gash scarring his lips. Sporting a wooly cardigan with four buttons on top of an Oxford smock without a collar, our man has a faintly folksy look about him, calling to mind a zingaro or a gypsy, a carny or a Mongol, but also (switching to a wholly distinct mythology and iconogaphy) a hippy strumming his guitar in a barroom in Haight-Ashbury or at Big Sur or in Katmandu.

Is there a solution to the mystery and the story? Well, sort of – Perec almost seems to be implying the impossibility of any real solution, perhaps intending to subvert the whole concept of fiction. A work of literature tends to tie up its loose ends, and life is never really so neat and tidy…

… just as a man who, rapt in a book, a work of fiction, constantly hoping for a solution, for a solution that’s driving him crazy by lurking just out of his grasp, a solution that has had throughout, in fact from its first word, an infuriating habit of staring at him whilst continually avoiding his own scrutiny, might find, advancing into its story, nothing but ambiguous mystification and rationalisation, obscurantism and obfuscation, all of it consigning to a dim and murky chiaroscuro that ambition, so to say, that lit its author’s lamp.

I think I will probably need to read “A Void” again to really do it justice. There are so many layers, so many references and so many hints that you could probably write several theses on it. As it was, I found the book fascinating, stimulating and gripping; I love Perec’s writing, his playing with words, structures and plots, and his totally unique take on things. He isn’t always the easiest read, but boy, is he worth the effort!

Incidentally, you might wonder what happened to all the ‘e’s that were left out of the book – well, that’s another story…

Confessions of a Pedantic Collector

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To tell the truth, I wasn’t exactly happy with the Penguin Poetry of the Thirties anthology when it arrived. I got it via a swapping site, and not only was it a different edition to the one stated (and they hadn’t said) it also had a lot of annotating (which they also hadn’t said).

thirtiesI could have lived with both of those things had I known and made the choice to still have the book. But yesterday in the Samaritans Book Cave (have I ever said how much I *love* the Samaritans Book Cave?) I came across this:

thirtiesIt was £1 and *so* much nicer to look at than the other one. There *are* a few annotations, but only small ones, so I’m replacing the more modern edition with the older one – the unwanted book will be donated and the collection looks a little more homogenous!

However, I didn’t make it out of the Samaritans with only one book – these came home too:

dosto barthes

The Barthes was in a section of the Cave I don’t normally check out, but Youngest Child was browsing sociology books and I followed her over. I know I’ve read about “Camera Lucida” somewhere in connection with Georges Perec (possibly in one of Perec’s works even?) – this warrants investigation.

As for the Dostoevsky, I confess I picked it up because of this:

raduga

I have a number of books published by Raduga (probably picked up from the late lamented Collets, when I was collecting Progress Publishers books too). I have the stories already but it’s a lovely little edition on nice thick paper with coloured page numbers.

However, when I explored  further over a cup of coffee in Nero I discovered this:

litvinova

Ivy Litvinova is of course Ivy Low Litvinov, who I’ve written about on here before! Her Virago books “She Knew She Was Right” and “His Master’s Voice” are favourites of mine, and although I knew she produced translations during her life as wife of Maxim Litvinov (Stalin’s foreign affairs man), I don’t think I own one. So this was very, very exciting!

And the final fab find of the day was from the Oxfam:

apple

This is a Helene Hanff I don’t have, and bearing in mind how much I’ve loved her other books, I was happy to part with 99p for it. So a good haul, all in all, but time for a little more clearing out, I think!

How to sort your thoughts – or not!

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Thoughts of Sorts by Georges Perec

Perec, one of my favourite authors and only a relatively recent discovery, was an inveterate scribbler and seemed to be publishing articles and short pieces all over the place, as well as writing his novels (and holding down a day job!). After his early death in 1982, a collection of his shorter works was put together under the title of “Thoughts of Sorts” and it’s available in a number of editions. Mine, however, is a beautiful little Notting Hill Editions clothbound hardback, translated by his biographer David Bellos, and reading it recently was a joy!

thoughts sorts

I was in a Perec kind of mood anyway, having been delighted with the recently published “Portrait of a Man” (kindly sent by MacLehose Press) and this seemed the ideal dipping into kind of volume – which it was! TOS collects a miscellany of essays and short pieces, all different but all bearing the distinctive imprint of Perec’s mind. Some read simply like lists; some are autobiographical; some take a seemingly straightforward subject like spectacles and run away with it! All are curious, fascinating and mentally stimulating.

I’d read a few of the pieces before, in the collection “Species of Space”, but it was a delight to experience them all together, in a lovely volume with an excellent introduction by Margaret Drabble. One of my favourites is “Brief Notes on the Art and Craft of Sorting Books” which covers the kind of issues all of us booklovers experience regularly:

“Torn between these two poles, the right to be laid-back, easy-going and anarchic, and the virtue of a clean state, the steely efficiency of the great clear-out, you always end up trying to sort out your book collection. It’s a nerve-wracking, depressing operation which can nevertheless bring pleasant surprises, such as when you find a book you had forgotten you had from not having seen it for so long and, putting off to the morrow what can’t be done today, you lie flat on your bed and re-read it from cover to cover.”

Another, perhaps more profound, essay called “Backtracking” covers the experience of undergoing analysis, which Perec himself did over a period of years. Given his upbringing it’s perhaps no surprise that he needed this. “Reading” is a little study of how we physically read and, like all Perec’s work, it takes a seemingly surface level subject and somehow manages to end up being a quite profound and revealing exposition of the subject at hand – I don’t quite know how he does it.

perec

This book is most certainly the perfect introduction to Perec’s shorter works, giving examples of most of the styles he used. As for sorting out your thoughts – well, this collections of thoughts of sorts won’t necessarily do that, but it certainly will stimulate a lot of new thought! 🙂

Perec’s lost work – “Portrait of a Man”

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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.

portrait-of-a-man

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.

perec_georges

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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