Georges Perec


Photo of Georges Perec

Georges Perec (1936-1982), characterized in Bookforum as “that inimitable amalgam of Kafka and the daily crossword,” was born in Paris. He lost both parents to the second World War by the age of six, the angst of which would inform his writings in consistently subtle and poignant ways. Perec grew up with his aunt and uncle in and out of Paris, proved a lackluster student of history and a devotee of pinball and American jazz, and served for two years as a parachutist in the French army. After a handful of articles and reviews in Parisian journals he published his first novel, Les Choses, for which he received the Prix Renaudot in 1965.

He joined the Oulipo in 1967 and wrote under an impressive variety of constraints, from lipogram and monovocalism — La Disparition (1969), at over 300 pages, does not contain the letter E, while Les Revenentes (1972) does not contain A, I, O, or U — to the heterogram, roughly the poetic equivalent of an extremely difficult Sudoku puzzle, and the world’s longest palindrome to date. Perec won the Prix Médicis in 1978 for the sprawling and meticulous microcosm of urban life La Vie mode d’emploi, which Italo Calvino called “the last real ‘event’ in the history of the novel so far.” He produced several radio plays and collaborated on film adaptations of his texts, wrote crossword puzzles and other erudite word games for Le Point, and worked as an archivist in a neuroscience research lab until 1978. Perec died of lung cancer in 1982.

Hétérogramme: In Ulcérations, Alphabets and La clôture, Perec composed hétérogrammes, a fixed-form poem based on the isogram, a series of letters in which no letter appears more than once. His predilection was for an eleven letter series over eleven lines, using the eleven most common letters in French, all of which appear in the title of his first collection: Ulcérations.*

In La clôture, Perec uses the principle of a joker, adding one additional letter to the original series and extending the matrix by one additional line; the jokers are written as § in the matrices of Perec's poems, as well as in the English and German adaptations.

* Mark J. Dominus helped establish that the best (indeed only) appropriate English translation for that precise form (based on 11 lines of 11 letters) is “Threnodials” — a word that derives from threnody, meaning “a song of lamentation, a dirge” — for it is the only word that contains only these 11 most common letters in English.