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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…

Sassy, foul-mouthed and very entertaining!

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Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau
Translated by Barbara Wright

When I read Raymond Queneau’s “The Sunday of Life” for the 1951 Club, I had several commenters tell me how good his book “Zazie in the Metro” was; and as I already had a copy on my shelves, I determined that I should read it soon – and look! I have! 🙂

Published in 1959, “Zazie” is the book Queneau is best known for; this may be because it was made into a very successful film, or perhaps it was just published at the right time to hit the zeitgeist. Whatever it was, it’s certainly an entertaining and enjoyable read and definitely deserves its status.

The titular Zazie is a young girl who’s farmed out to her uncle Gabriel in Paris for a couple of days while her mother goes off in pursuit of a lover. Zazie’s age is never specified and we never really get a full description; however, as she’s constantly perceived as a potential target for sex maniacs, I did wonder if perhaps she was meant to be slightly older than the actress who portrayed her in the film, Catherine Demongeot.

Zazie has one great desire in Paris, which is to ride on the Metro. Alas, this is closed as the staff are on strike, so instead Zazie takes off on a series of madcap chases round the city, hotly pursued by her rather odd uncle (who has a job as a cross-dressing performer in a gay nightclub), a series of women who seem to be interested in her uncle, a tour guide, a parrot with a fairly limited range of words and a ‘chap’ who may be a policeman, pervert, a detective or something more sinister indeed…

The ending is riotously surreal with mayhem and murder breaking out all over the place, but things return to a status quo of sorts, and the slightly dream-like feeling that comes over at the end did make me wonder if everything which took place was not meant to be as real as it first appeared.

The whole manic story is told in a wonderful kind of vernacular, with phonetics and puns abounding. It’s wildly funny, kind of like an old-style screwball comedy but set in a more modern Paris and with plenty of bad language and innuendo. Zazie is a lovable, if foul-mouthed youngster, and we learn more about her from her reactions and interactions with other characters than we do from any kind of character building by the author. In fact, looking back on the book, that’s one of the cleverest things about it. Queneau doesn’t go in for big descriptions of the various protagonists; instead, he builds them up from their actions and what the other characters say about them. Simple things, like the fact that Zazie’s enigmatic aunt Marceline always says things ‘gently’, tell you all you need to know about them.

As with “Sunday” however I think there’s definitely more to the book than meets the eye. Gabriel is prone to deeper thought, and at one point muses (with a no doubt deliberate little nod to Sartre):

Being or nothingness, that is the question. Ascending, descending, coming, going, a man does so much that in the end he disappears. A taxi bears him off, a metro carries him away, the Tower doesn’t care, nor the Pantheon. Paris is but a dream, Gabriel is but a reverie (a charming one), Zazie the dream of a reverie (or of a nightmare) and all this story the dream of a dream, the reverie of a reverie, scarcely more than the typewritten delirium of an idiotic novelist (oh! sorry).

I suspect there are many, many linguistic tricks and in-jokes that I’m missing, and I ended the book thinking that I really want to read it again but with a mindset of appreciating the language more instead of relishing the fantastic and entertaining action. Regardless of that, Zazie is a wonderful romp, a joy to read and a certain indication that I should definitely read more of Raymond Queneau’s work!

(Kudos have to go to translator Barbara Wright again for rendering such sparkling and clever wordplay – what a wonderfully talented woman!)

Word Games from a Master of the Genre

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Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

I’ve been circling Raymond Queneau’s books for a while – in fact, I own several, and given my love of Calvino and Perec and literary wordplay it’s not surprising I should want to read him. And at last I have, though not any of the volumes I already had… In my defence, I was placing a Christmas order somewhere unmentionable which I had to get over £10 – so it figures I should treat myself to something and it turned out to be “Exercises in Style”.

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Apart from “Zazie in the Metro”, this is probably the book that Queneau is best known for. Born in 1903, he’s possibly something of a missing link between the Surrealists and OuLiPo, as he briefly flirted with the former organisation before going his own way – never really agreeing with their politics or their views on art. In simple terms, they favoured an *anything goes* approach, whereas Queneau believed that structure and restrictions brought liberation as you were free to create within that structure.

“Exercises in Style” is quite fascinating. It takes a simple premise – a short paragraph relating a man on a packed bus accusing another passenger of jostling him, throwing himself down in an empty seat and then later on having a conversation with a friend about moving a button on his coat. Queneau then proceeds to retell the story in 98 different styles – the same actions, but each story is completely different because of the stylistic devices, ranging from Retrograde (understandable) through Reported Speech (very clever!) to Aphaeresis (unintelligible!).

As the exercises continue, there are subtle developments; the jostling becomes stepping on toes; extra characters(like a Dr. Queuneau  in Reported Speech) and an unnamed observer, put in appearances. This is storytelling as an organic form and each different retelling makes you look at the incident in a different light.

Raymond_Queneau

If you described this book to someone, it might well sound dull, but it certainly isn’t. It’s a revelation as a reader to see how much we’re manipulated by the style and the word games adopted by an author. A simple incident has a totally different complexion depending on the way the author writes it. The book is a game, playing with words, but with a serious intent: telling us not to trust words, to be aware of this and look behind the words in each case to try to find the truth.

The book is issued by one of my favourite publishes, Alma, and so of course there is plenty of extra material. The foreword is by Umberto Eco, and there is an excellent little essay by another OuLiPo member, Italo Calvino, which throws light on Queneau’s career and work. Special praise needs to be given to translator Barbara Wright, too. When translating a book like this, so dependent on wordplay, the work becomes very much case of interpretation as well as translation. In some cases Wright created an English language version of the particular exercise, which was approved by Queneau – a wonderful case of writer and translator working together, and she deserves kudos for what she did with this!

“Exercises in Style” made me smile, laugh and think, which is a pretty good result really! And I shall definitely be exploring more of Queneau’s work. 🙂

More Library Love – and a little bit of wickedness…….

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Yes, the local library has come up trumps again – following the arrival of several British Library Crime Classics, another has appeared, along with a novel by Raymond Queneau (an OuLiPo member like Perec), and here they are:

Mavis Doriel Hay’s “Murder Underground” is actually her first crime novel, so I’m reading them out of order – but no matter. Queneau is best known for “Zazie dans le Metro” – but we’ll got onto that later…

…because, of course, I have been having a bit of a turn out of books, and have literally got rid of hundreds from the house. Some have gone to charity shops, some to a local school (from the collections of the Offspring mainly) and some are on Read It Swap It. However, OH had a bit of a shock when several parcels arrived this week containing these:

They are, from top to bottom, Q’s “Cambridge Lectures”, “Ten Tales Tall and True” by Alasdair Gray, “Zazie in the Metro”, “Japanese Pilgrimage” and “Japanese Inn” by Oliver Statler, “The Virago Book of Love Letters” and “Tales of Suspense” by Poe. So this is where the wickedness comes from, because I’m supposed to be ridding myself of books, not amassing more!

However, in my defence several came from RISI, so it was a case of one out, one in for those. The few I bought weren’t readily available in the library and so if I want to read them I have no choice!

And finally today a little review copy arrived via the very wonderful Overlook Press – another Gaito Gazdanov book!

Gazdanov is one of my favourite newly discovered authors so I’m very excited about this! Off to see how quickly I can get through my current read, “Lanark” by Alasdair Gray, so I can get onto the others…. 🙂

 

…. in which Perec plays more word games…

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I told you I got book obsessions, didn’t I?? And so here is more about Perec. I felt the need to read more of his work after “Species of Space” and this little volume had arrived at the same time:

art

So, what’s it about and what’s so special? Well, this is what it says on the back:

art back(Sorry for the lopsided scan)

And that’s no word of a lie. There are no full stops and no capitalisation and the only punctuation I think was dashes. You’d think that 84 pages of that would be hard to read, but amazingly it isn’t – Perec’s brilliantly constructed the rhythm of the book so that it reads easily! It’s like a kind of flow chart with options translated into text and it’s clever and also very, very funny! So the poor man being advised has to contend with all the possibilities that might come up on such a chart (is it Friday? Yes. Is it in Lent? No. Has your boss swallowed a fish bone? etc etc) and goes round and round in circles like you can on these things, as your life ticks away.

I shan’t say any more about this except that it’s utterly brilliant, Perec was a genius and this is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time. ‘Nuff said!

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