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Recent Reads: W, or The Memory of Childhood by Georges Perec

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Well, this book was the second purchase in Foyles during my recent trip to London, and it was actually difficult to choose what Perec to read next. Having loved his “Life: A User’s Manual”, I didn’t want to leave it too long before picking up another of his works – his words and images are rather haunting me at the moment, so much so that I felt the urge to do a jigsaw and picked up a nice one of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square! But that’s by the by – the book is what matters!

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However, I’m actually finding it hard to approach writing about “W” for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a hard book to classify – fiction? autobiography? a strange fantastic blend of both? It was in the fiction section of Foyles, and Vintage have stated quite clearly on the back cover “Fiction”. Yet, anyone with a small smattering of knowledge about Perec’s life will know enough to realise that one section of the book is certainly autobiographical. Secondly, the subject matter is quite intense and painful in places, bringing forth quite an emotional reaction – it takes a little while to assimilate then mentally deal with this work.

“W” has alternating chapters of two stories – the first consists of fragments of memories, recollection of events from Perec’s youth and childhood that he attempts to piece together; including some which were actually written in his youth. The second story, the italicised chapters of the book, tells the tale of one Gaspard Winkler (a name Perec used for one of the main characters in “Life”). Winkler provides a brief autobiography, in which he tells how he was orphaned, grew up, joined the army, deserted and escaped to Germany. Here, he is tracked down by a strange man, and it transpires that he has taken his identity from a shipwrecked boy called Gaspard Winkler. The boy is believed to be alive, and the impersonator is sent to search the islands off Tierro del Fuego to look for him.

The book is split into two parts, and in the second part, the italicised chapters tell of the island of W (which should be correctly rendered as double-vie in French, i.e. it can be read as ‘double life’ which kind of gives you a handle on how to read the book). The island’s hierarchy and way of life is entirely based on the Olympian ideal of sport. Initially, this seems to be some kind of utopian place, but as the story develops and more is revealed, it becomes clear that W is really not a nice place to live. Perec states that he invented the story of W in his youth, but it is unclear whether what we read here is the original or an expanded version – Perec is good at blurring lines.

Parallel to the W story, Perec continues with his memoirs of his youth – being sent away by his mother to live with a variety of aunts and attend local schools. His father died unnecessarily of a war wound and after his mother sent him away, he never saw her again. Perec is left with a handful of photos, a mixture of fragmented memories and a sense of loss. As the two strands of the book progress, it becomes clear that if/when Perec wrote about W as a youth, it was an analogy. W is anything but a paradise, it is simply an allegory for the concentration camps in which his mother lost her life, and the horrors it reveals are quite chilling. The reality of living under the Nazi regime is shown quite clearly and the hopelessness of those in the camps is staggering:

“There are competitions every day, where you Win or Lose. You have to fight to live. There is no alternative. It is not possibly to close your eyes to it, it is not possible to say no. There’s no recourse, no mercy, no salvation to be had from anyone. There’s not even any hope that time will sort things out … wherever you turn your eyes, that’s what you will see, you will not see anything else, and that is the only thing that will turn out to be true.”

Perec states early on:

“I have no childhood memories. I was excused: a different history, History with a capital H, had answered the questions in my stead: the war, the camps.”

In many ways that’s understandable, because as an evacuee, in effect a refugee from the Germans, he was very likely in denial about much that had happened to him. But I do feel that Perec is commenting on the quality of memory in general. I’m often suspicious of detailed autobiography, because I know from personal experience that it’s very difficult to remember your life. You retain fragments, images, feelings – but not a clear narrative of  your own existence. You don’t really have time to do that as you’re too busy living!!

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The autobiographical section is infused with sadness, loss and the confusions that children often feel, not understanding what is going on around them and why. And the human mind blanks out things which are painful, which it can’t deal with. The horrors revealed on the island of W, as its story unfolds, are the evils endured in the camps – random favouritism, cruelty, unfairness, inequality, brutality, the use of women as breeding machines and everything else that existed under the Nazi regime. By the end of the book it is quite clear that the two strands of the tale are related, with Perec trying to rationalise the events around him by creating the island of W.

“The Law is implacable, but the Law is unpredictable.. The Law must be known by all, but the Law cannot be known. Between those who live under its swat and those who pronounce it stands an insurmountable barrier.”

I am sure that, as with “Life”, I will get more from this book on a re-read. Thinking back on it, it’s still a hard book to mentally classify. “W” is a chilling story and one which bleakly reveals the evil of the concentration camps. It seems to me that perhaps the unusual structure is due to the fact Perec can only tell this story obliquely because of the implicit horrors it contains – if he looked at his past head-on, it would be too much to deal with. This is a stark book and one that will stay with me; and despite only having read two of his books, Perec is well on his way to becoming one of my favourite writers.

Recent reads – Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec

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Despite being a long-term reader and lover of Italo Calvino’s books, it was only relatively recently that I discovered the existence of the OULIPO group, and then one of their best-known proponents, Georges Perec. OULIPO is described by Wikipedia thus: “(short for French: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated: “workshop of potential literature”) is a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians which seeks to create works using constrained writing techniques. It was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Other notable members have included novelists Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, poets Oskar Pastior, Jean Lescure and poet/mathematician Jacques Roubaud.”

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Of Perec, Wikipedia says simply “Georges Perec (7 March 1936 – 3 March 1982) was a French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist and essayist. He was a member of the Oulipo group.” That bald statement doesn’t give a hint of his complexity as a novelist, and his most notorious book might well be “A Void” which avoids the use of any word containing the letter ‘e’! However, I was fortunate to pick up the chunky volume that is “Life: A User’s Manual” in the local Oxfam charity shop last year, and suddenly the time was right to read it. I confess I was a little intimidated, and I still don’t know quite how to do it justice, but here goes…

Of “Life”, Wikipedia neatly sums it up so: “Life A User’s Manual (the original title is La Vie mode d’emploi) is Georges Perec’s most famous novel, published in 1978, first translated into English by David Bellos in 1987. Its title page describes it as “novels”, in the plural, the reasons for which become apparent on reading. Some critics have cited the work as an example of postmodern fiction, though Perec himself preferred to avoid labels and his only long-term affiliation with any movement was with the Oulipo. La Vie mode d’emploi is a tapestry of interwoven stories and ideas as well as literary and historical allusions, based on the lives of the inhabitants of a fictitious Parisian apartment block, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier (no such street exists, although the quadrangle Perec claims Simon-Crubellier cuts through does exist in Paris XVII). It was written according to a complex plan of writing constraints, and is primarily constructed from several elements, each adding a layer of complexity.”

Knowledge of the writing constraints did make me a little nervous about reading the book, but they really aren’t a problem. The volume is divided up into 6 sections, each with numerous chapters, and each chapter bears the title of the apartment it’s ostensibly about (e.g. Moreau 1, On the Stairs 3). So if you’re unsure of what you read earlier about that particular person or place, it’s easy enough to check the chapter titles and go back to the previous one. And as if acknowledging the complexity of his novel, Perec provides a helpful index at the back of the people and places, real and imaginary, who haunt the book, plus a chronology and a diagram of the house with its occupants (past and present) marked.

“Life” appears random initially, moving from one apartment to another, relating something about the occupants, or the furnitures, or the pictures, or the books, or anything in the room(s). And the sequence is not obviously logical (and is apparently based on a famous chess board sequence of moves, which Perec used to decide the order in which he would visit the apartments). So we initially move from apartment to apartment, being introduced to a variety of characters – their current status is related in present tense, but Perec uses any excuse to go off at a tangent, telling of their past history, or the history of the apartment, or the story behind a book or a painting. It’s a remarkably rich narrative, very readable, and surprisingly enjoyable. And as you progress through the book, you gradually build up a picture of the various occupants and their lives – as of course they are interrelated – and gain and overall picture of the building and the  people.

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Central to the book is the character Bartlebooth and his quest for order. One of the recurring motifs of the book is jigsaw puzzles – in fact, the introduction muses on them in detail – and Bartlebooth has taken it upon himself to spend his life producing a series of paintings, having them turned into jigsaws and then completing the puzzle before returning the picture to its original state. His motivation for this is stated clearly:

“Let us imagine a man whose wealth was equalled only by his indifference to what wealth generally brings, a man of exceptional arrogance who wishes to fix, to describe and to exhaust not the whole world – merely to state such an ambition is enough to invalidate it – but a constituted fragment of the world: in the fact of the inextricable incoherence of things, he will set out to execute a (necessarily limited) programme right the way through, in all its irreducible intact entirety.

In other words, Bartlebooth resolved one day that his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion.”

His life’s work involves other characters who are housed in the building, and much of the life of the place is interlinked. Of course, it is easy to start seeing metaphors everywhere here, with this emphasis on puzzles: the obvious one being that life is a puzzle and that there is some cosmic puzzle maker in charge somewhere. As Perec acknowledges:

“… despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries and second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.”

Bartlebooth finds that, however much he tries to impose order, life has a way of throwing up unforeseen obstacles which hamper his plan; and if his ultimate quest is for understanding it will fail – we cannot understand the puzzle of life. His journey may be an attempt to impose order on a chaotic world but he (and we) will find that life is *not* a puzzle that can be controlled or solved.

Bartlebooth is the lynchpin that holds the whole structure of the story together, but there is a dazzling array of fellow players: Valene, the painter who taught Bartlebooth his craft; Smautf, Bartlebooth’s loyal servant; Gaspard Winckler, the puzzle maker; Madame de Beaumont, the widow of an Egyptologist; Dr. Dinteville, a GP who is a frustrated  academic; the Bergers, a hard-working couple; the Altamonts, an estranged couple with a sad past; and so on. These are just a few of the occupants of the building; I could list many, many, more but you would be better off reading the book!  All of the rich variety of human beings, some of whom make substantial contributions to the plot and some only fleeting appearances, are memorable and compelling. There are stories of murder, lies and deception, love and loss; and throughout there is an underlying sadness to many of the tales.

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This really is a remarkable book. Perec is nothing if not playful; about halfway through the book he contrives to provide a list of characters in one of Valene’s paintings and as you read through you realise that these are in fact all the characters in the book – and what an intensely detailed list that is. Then it strikes you that some of the characters aren’t entirely familiar and realisation dawns in the next chapter, when Perec cheekily introduces one of those characters for the first time!

And then there are the cultural references… LAUM is stuffed to the gills with them: detailed descriptions of paintings or illustrations; historical figures; musical works; books and literary characters. I didn’t always *get* the references, but I did some of them, and in the end I don’t feel it entirely matters. A book like this is blurring the lines between reality and fiction anyway, and this all adds to the intense richness of the narrative. As an online source says: “Through stories both ordinary and fantastic, Perec explores issues of class relations, romantic love, urban development, and spatial memory… Life is a masterpiece whether or not one is aware of the rules of the game”  which I found myself agreeing with entirely. I know that I will have missed many allusions but that didn’t in any way spoil the reading experience for me. I marvelled at Perec’s skill in weaving together complex and kaleidoscopic multiple narratives into a coherent whole. He gradually lays bare the occupants’ lives, past and present, capturing them all at one fixed point in time, when a particular event has taken place. He brilliantly uses this device to tell not only their stories, but myriad other ones, creasing a huge and complex story which shows human existence in its many and varied forms. “Life” is incredibly wide-ranging, both physically (the characters cover the globe) and philosophically (all shades of opinion and  thought seem to be covered). The stories vary from farcical to tragic, and I came out of the book feeling that the answer to the meaning of life is that there is none – so you might as well just try to enjoy yourself.

I was going to say that this was like nothing else I’d ever read before, but that isn’t quite true. I kept getting little hints of things that made me think of Italo Calvino, a fellow member of OULIPO and another master of complex and varied narratives. Both were amazingly skilled at telling tales, subverting the reader and producing brilliantly written books. At the end of the day, it seems to me (with my limited knowledge of OUILIPO!) that they are all about storytelling – both Calvino and Perec love to play with stories, twisting the reader’s expectations but always supplying delights. I was absolutely knocked out by “Life” and it’s sent me off to raid the local library to have a look at some more Perec. And if I’ve learned anything from reading this book, it’s not to be intimidated – however ‘difficult’ a book might appear, it probably isn’t because at the end of the day the author wants to communicate with you – and Perec certainly does here! I suspect “Life: A User’s Manual” will be haunting my thoughts for some time to come.

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