Georges Perec


French Postal Stamps - 2002


A good web page on Georges Perec is at this address: which is prepared by one Braulio Tavares. We are putting here an excerpt from his essay on Perec:


By Braulio Tavares


Georges Perec


Georges Perec was born in Paris (March 7, 1936), and died in Ivry (March 3, 1982). He lived in Paris nearly all his life. His father fought in World War II and was killed in 1940. While the Germans gradually took France over, Perec was taken to the country by relatives. His mother disappeared in Paris, near the end of 1942. Later, she died in Auschwitz. Perec, an orphan at six, was raised by his uncle and aunt.


He studied, served in the Army, married, contributed to a number of magazines, and in 1965 he was awarded the Prix Renaudot for his first book, the short novel Les Choses (The Things). From then on, he published more than twenty books, and no two of them were alike.


Perec was a member of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or "Workshop of Potential Literature"), a Paris-based group of writers founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François LeLionnais. Other well-known members were the Italian writer Italo Calvino and the American Harry Matthews. OuLiPo tries to expand literature by borrowing formal patterns from such other domains as mathematics, Logic or chess. Perec's own books range from novels to collections of crossword puzzles, from essays to parodies, from poetry to wordgames.


Perec was fascinated by palindromes, which are words or entire sentences that, when spelled backwards, still read the same: Live Devil or See, slave, I demonstrate yet arts no medieval sees. Perec created what is possibly the longest palindrome ever written, "ça ne va pas san dire," made up from more than five thousand words.


Palindromes, anagrams, wordplays and word games are ever-present in most of what Perec wrote. Another tour-de-force of his was a 466-word text where the only vowel allowed was A. He wrote that short-short story in French, although its title is in English: "What a Man!" It is the story of two characters: Andras MacAdam, e Armand d'Artagnan. Perec's fascination with vowels made him a master of the lipogram. Lipograms are texts in which one of more letters are not allowed to appear; thus, "a lipogram in Z" is any text in which that letter is absent. The text of the present paragraph, for example, may be considered a lipogram in the letter that stays between "J" and "L" (all other letters are featured in it). Raymond Queneau mentions lipograms composed by classical poets such as Pindar and Lope de Vega.


In 1969, Perec wrote the lipogrammatic novel La Disparition. The more obvious translation for that title would be The Disappearance, were it nor for the small detail that the novel is a lipogram in E. The US translation, by Gilbert Adair, was titled A Void. It is the story of the disappearance of a man; and in the world from where that man disappeared, the letter "E" disappeared as well, but nobody (except for the reader) notices the Kabbalah of substitutions, similes, distortions, variants and the endless tricks that such a Universe builds to fill that void. In that world where "Anton Voyl" in French, "Anton Vowl" in English, is searched in vain by his friends, the well-known soliloquy penned by one William Shakspar runs:


Living, or not living: that is what I ask:

If 'tis a stamp of honour to submit

To slings and arrows waft'd us by ill winds,

Or brandish arms against a flood of afflictions,

Which by our opposition is subdu'd? Dying, drowsing;

Waking not? (...)


A superficial description like this one may convey the impression that Perec was just a wonderful word-juggler, all "fireworks" and little substance. This is not the case. Although never overtly explored his Jewish origin or the loss of his parents in the War, those elements are ever-present under the surface of his works. The first impression conveyed by his texts is that of an "entomological eye", detachedly observing the behavior of strange, eccentric people.




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