Georges Perec, Oulibiographer

A photo of the early Oulipians, c. 1975.

There are facts: Georges Perec has been a member of the Oulipo since March 1967.

There are photographs: in the group’s “official” photo, taken in 1975, Georges Perec occupies the eleventh position from the right (counting the head of André Blavier on the table).

There are rules: despite his death on March 3, 1982, Georges Perec is still a member of the Oulipo—which, as we know, makes no distinction between living members and deceased ones.

There are statistics: “I consider myself a genuine product of the Oulipo. My existence as a writer is 90% dependent on my knowing the Oulipo at a pivotal point in my formation, in my literary work,” Perec has declared.

There are legacies, like the astonishing posterity of one of Perec’s last texts, Le Voyage d’hiver, which generated Le Voyage d’hier (Jacques Roubaud), which generated Le Voyage d’Hitler (Hervé Le Tellier), which generated Hinterreise et autres contes retournées (Jacques Jouet), which generated Le Voyage d’Hoover (Ian Monk), which generated Le Voyage d’Arvers (Jacques Bens), which generated Un voyage divergent (Michelle Grangaud), which generated Le Voyage du ver (François Caradec), which generated Le Voyage du vers (Reine Haugure), which generated Le Voyage des verres (Harry Mathews), which generated Si par une nuit un voyage d’hiver (Mikhaïl Gorliouk), which generated Le Voyage des rêves (Frédéric Forte), which is where we come to rest for the moment.

There are tributes: pen in hand, Oulipians remember Georges Perec each week.

There are pilgrimages: pen still in hand, Oulipians make their own attempts to exhaust Parisian locations.

There is, above all, the complexity of a body of work so rich and so diverse that it seems impossible to reduce to a label—whether grandiose or grassroots is anyone’s guess.

Perec with Freud, Perec vs. Freud has already been written, but not yet Perec with the Oulipo, Perec vs. the Oulipo. Here I will only suggest some avenues worth exploring.

“Man of letters”

On the with side, taking into account the undeniable centrality of constraint and intentionally overlooking this anecdotal invention or that, I prefer to note a number of principles more important than obscure.

To begin with, Perec shares with the Oulipo a certain underlying conception of literature as a linguistic activity. A handful of unedited notes, more or less concurrent to La Vie mode d’emploi, concludes with this remark: “The phrase that seems most appropriate in defining myself and my work is man of letters, a man whose work revolves around letters, around the alphabet. My work is not done with ideas or sentiments or images.” Perec has already explained in his Histoire du lipogramme that the writer is first and foremost an artisan of language, a sort of verbal engineer: “Preoccupied solely with its capital terms (Œuvre, Style, Inspiration, World Vision, Fundamental Options, Genius, Creation, &c.), literary history seems to deliberately ignore the role of writing as a practice, a craft.”

This craft of language privileges meaning, for both its anteriority and its primacy. The “scriptor” of La Disparition insists on this “primacy of meaning” and, though he admits its role as a fanciful doctrinal crutch, remains faithful to it throughout. Such confidence in the productivity of meaning is at once typically Oulipian and profoundly Perecquian (even if one would sooner look to Raymond Roussel for its origin). This is not just happy coincidence: just as François Le Lionnais’s second Oulipian Manifesto ends with a homophonic translation of a line by John Keats—“A thing of beauty is a joy forever” becoming “Un singe de beauté est un jouet pour l’hiver!”—it is with the same mannered transformation that Perec solves textual puzzles, year in and year out, with increasing fervor. The eminently Oulipian idea of inspiration through formal constraint remains a fundamental principle of the Perecquian aesthetic, as the author reminds us constantly—“Invention, for me, always begins with formal invention”—and as he exposes in greater detail in a cinematic project called Signe particulier néant: “Constraint functions as a generating principle of the text; from an initial postulation […] the text draws its narrativity, its method of inventing and concatenating novelistic vicissitudes, from the mere manipulation of the elements furnished by that constraint.” Returning to his film, wherein the constraint demands never showing the actors’ faces, he concludes: “If I cannot elaborate at the moment, it seems to me in this particular case that the plot is subordinate to the elements supporting it. A traditional screenplay proceeds from a central ‘idea,’ simple enough to synopsize in a few lines, which is then expanded and enriched through appropriate scenes. Here, conversely, it is from that play of elements derived from the initial constraint that a story is constructed.”

At the risk of settling the versus too neatly between contact and contradiction, as Perec’s originality often consists less in rejecting a given Oulipian modality than in aggravating it (Georges Perec, no longer 90% Oulipian but 103%?), suffice it to say that he manages, neither ostentatiously nor obnoxiously, to differ on certain important points.

“Exhausting the subject”

Much is made now of the currency of Georges Perec. Rightly so, if one means by this that the importance of his work is increasingly recognized, but the term would hold equally true in its philosophical sense, the opposite of latency. This eminent member of the workshop for potential literature has always prized the act of literature, preferred realization to simple virtuality, and thus positioned himself in opposition to the attitude of François Le Lionnais—“Don’t forget […] that the method in itself is sufficient. There are methods without instantiation. The example is an extra pleasure that one gives to oneself and to one’s reader.”

As it is a question of examples, consider the combinatorial literature that Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec treat in entirely different manners. With his Cent mille milliards de poèmes and Un conte à votre façon, Queneau practices a virtual combinatoriality that gives the reader machines with which to produce texts (this production being otherwise realized by actual machines). From the same principles (exponential and chartable combinatorics), meanwhile, Perec offers us on one hand his 81 fiches-cuisine à l’usage des débutantes and his Deux cent quarante-trois cartes postales en couleurs véritables, and on the other his L’Art et la manière d’aborder son chef de service pour lui demander une augmentation. These three texts obey the rule of exhaustive realization, rendering to the reader every possible combination in the first two and in the third displaying, end to end, every path offered by an organogram. A final illustration, this one borrowed from factorial combinatoriality: where Raymond Queneau chooses for his poem “Don Evané Marquy,” nine anagrams among the tens of billions allowed by the fourteen letters in his name, Perec proposes in the Atlas de littérature potentielle a poem aligning all anagrams of the letters A, E, R and T (with, granted, a small supplement at the beginning, which I mention in order to point out to the authors of the Atlas that anagram, according to all respectable dictionaries, is a feminine word. Indeed, Littré remarks that “it is a relatively common mistake to make ‘anagram’ masculine,” which of course does not excuse the oversight—quite the opposite. I will add, though it is technically irrelevant (but…), that Alphabets includes not one hundred and seventy-one (as suggested on page 421) but clearly one hundred and seventy-six heterogrammatic onzaines!). Perec invokes this desire for totality, completion, and exhaustive inclusivity in discussing his aspirations qua man of letters—“to write all that a modern man can possibly write,” “to fill a drawer at the Bibliothèque nationale,” “to use every single word in the dictionary”—and he applies it ceaselessly in his attempts at “description,” “inventory,” and “exhaustion.” His is to recycle or invent methods, certainly, but above all to push them to their extremes in order to inundate the field of their realization. In short, “not to speak or write etc., but to insist on exhausting the subject.”

“I am a writer”

Regarding constraint, Georges Perec voluntarily casts himself as a casual practitioner. If he admits, “almost none … of my books are written without my relying on some constraint or Oulipian structure or other,” he steps back just as quickly: “albeit nominally, without said structure or constraint necessarily constraining me at all.” This declared laxity is not an isolated Oulipian act; it is even a relatively regular practice, recognized and embraced by the name clinamen. No, in all actuality Perec stands apart on a different point: his systematic determination to motivate the constraint. His is not a general recourse to general constraint, but a specific one on both scores. A sort of amplification, the elimination of chance—a fundamentally Oulipian principle—also dictates, in Perecquian writing, the choice of rules to reduce the text’s aleatory elements. Oulipians look (sometimes) to manufacture the constraint for what it will produce—hence, for instance, Roubaud’s principle that “a text written according to a given constraint refers to that constraint.” Perec, conversely, strives to establish it from as well, through the very elaboration of its generative formal structures. Perecquian constraints, rarely arbitrary, are most often deeply tied to autobiography, the other major axis of his body of work. Georges Perec is not only an Oulipian; he is an Oulibiographer. He reconciles a paradox: to make of his constrained texts an essential form of Philippe Lejeune’s “oblique autobiography.”

If he rejuvenated the lipogram with La Disparition, it was not merely for the sake of depriving himself of the most-frequented letter in French and of keeping up the jig for over 300 pages, nor—even more novel—for the sake of drawing his essential narrative scheme from a metaphorical designation of its constraint. It was, rather, for the sake of shaping this familiar undertaking into the central figure of a personal universe marked by loss, the amputations of “History with its capital H.”

If the number 11 is ubiquitous in his work—from the “eleven psycholonels” of Quel petit vélo à guidon chromé au fond de la cour…? (consider the number of words in the title) to the apartment at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier in La Vie mode d’emploi, and passing through the heterogrammatic onzaines in Alphabets, which enumerate series of 11 poems of 11 lines of 11 letters—it is not for a mathematical fascination (Perec, after all, is neither Ramanujan nor Roubaud). Rather, it is because that number carries a strong autobiographical resonance, as one can read—as everyone may read—in W ou le souvenir d’enfance regarding the deportation and disappearance of Cyrla Perec to Auschwitz: “My mother has no tomb. […] a government order declared her officially deceased on February 11, 1943, at Drancy (France).” Perhaps we begin to understand that Perec’s 11 has an altogether different relevance than the 7 in Jean Lescure’s beloved “S+7 method.”

The same goes for even the palindrome; within a work overrun with tensions between mother tongue (French: “the first language a child learns,” says the dictionary) and the mother’s language (Yiddish: “I do not speak the language my parents spoke,” says Perec), this constraint, also a rather old one, takes on an unanticipated dimension with its second level of reading—that is, left to right (like French) and, surreptitiously, right to left (like Yiddish and Hebrew). Which, we must concede, leads us away from Luc Etienne’s manipulations, whatever their successes (“Ce repère Perec”).

“Belle absente”

Ultimately, nothing seems to me as telling of the relations between Perec and the Oulipo as a short poem called simply “To the Oulipo”:

Champ défait jusqu’à la ligne brève,
J’ai désiré vingt-cinq flèches de plomb
Jusqu’au front borné de ma page chétive.
Je ne demande qu’au hasard cette fable en prose vague,
Vestige du charme déjà bien flou qui
Défit ce champ jusqu’à la ligne brève.

The initiated in Oulipian form will recognize a belle absente; I remind all others that the belle absente is a poem written with a simplified alphabet (i.e., without K, W, X, Y, and Z). Each line must contain, at least once, each letter of the alphabet but one—which, line after line, inscribes in the vertical hollows of the poem the concealed name of the subject: here, of course, OULIPO. An implicit rule of the form, however, demands that each line be accomplished with the fewest letters possible, thereby respecting the twin principles of economy and maximal difficulty—it is this to which Perec refers in the first and last lines of his poem in evoking “la ligne brève.” But here the eye immediately marks a strangely long line (the fourth), an anomaly that a careful count confirms and clarifies: the line contains 11 words and 43 letters—embedding here, by numerical manipulation of its meaning, hints of the death of his mother: declared deceased, we recall, the 11th of February 1943. Suddenly we grasp the irony in the allusion to “hasard” and to “prose vague” in a line that could hardly be less accidental or vague. Moreover, the poem is a remarkable example of double veiling: the meticulous absence of a single letter per line (and in this case the title) allows the name of the Oulipo to be discovered easily. But on a higher level of encryption, a second maneuver allows us to read the two numbers that give the generic form of the belle absente a meaning as profoundly personal as it is unexpected in a text explicitly dedicated to a literary collective.

So we understand: this belle absente is at once an epistle and an epitaph. It reminds us that the Oulipian dimension in Perec’s work is both a mask and a marker, the spirit through and despite the sport, the ante and antecedent of the constraint. To me it is this, among other things, that makes Georges Perec, the Oulipian, a writer.