Get­ting a fix of a young Perec

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kevin Ra­bal­ais

Por­trait of a Man By Ge­orges Perec Trans­lated and with an in­tro­duc­tion by David Bel­los Macle­hose Press, 176pp, $29.99 (HB) Let’s pon­der one of so­ci­ety’s more for­giv­able ad­dic­tions. Read­ers are junkies. We cruise book­shops and li­braries in search of our next fix. We fill shelves and bed­side ta­bles with books. We do so be­cause we want to read those books, sure, but we also con­vince our­selves that we’re buy­ing the time to read them.

One fea­ture of the con­di­tion — this ac­cept­able ma­nia — is that we crave ev­ery­thing our favourite au­thors have writ­ten. We want that suit­case of manuscripts that Hadley Hem­ing­way lost. We want in­com­plete works by Roberto Bolano and Vladimir Nabokov and David Foster Wal­lace. We be­lieve we need the novel Harper Lee’s edi­tor re­jected more than 50 years ago.

Al­ways out on the edge, push­ing the bound­aries of fic­tion and, there­fore, of­fer­ing us a fix we never knew we needed, French nov­el­ist Ge­orges Perec (1936-82) re­mains one of the great cu­riosi­ties of 20th cen­tury lit­er­a­ture.

Au­thor of the nov­els Things, A Void and Life A User’s Man­ual, Perec launched some of the most mem­o­rable and am­bi­tious ex­per­i­ments within Oulipo, the “work­shop of po­ten­tial lit­er­a­ture”, whose mem­bers in­clude en­gi­neers, math­e­ma­ti­cians and writ­ers, among them Ray­mond Que­neau and Italo Calvino. Perec is the leg­end who, suf­fer­ing from writer’s block, chal­lenged him­self to com­pose a novel-length li­pogram. The form re­quires omit­ting use of one or more let­ters. Across its 300 pages, A Void fa­mously ex­cludes the let­ter E, the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent, per­haps, of wit­ness­ing Jimi Hen­drix per­form and then set his gui­tar on fire at the Mon­terey Pop Fes­ti­val.

More than 30 years af­ter Perec’s death, we now have the chance to read his first, re­cently dis­cov­ered novel. Be­lieved lost for nearly a half cen­tury, Por­trait of a Man con­tains el­e­ments that Perec ex­plored through­out his work, in­clud­ing art forgery and a dia­logue with the great works of lit­er­a­ture, no­tably, here, Dos­toyevsky’s Notes from Un­der­ground. Like much of Perec’s work, its play­ful and com­plex na­ture chal­lenges our ex­pec­ta­tions (and oc­ca­sion­ally our pa­tience) as it favours puns and ideas over ac­tion in an at­tempt, and ul­ti­mately a fail­ure in this case, to be­come a thriller.

Even the his­tory of the novel’s long ab­sence reads like a Pere­cian in­ven­tion. Por­trait of a Man was re­jected in 1960 by French pub­lisher Gallimard.

Perec then shifted his at­ten­tion to Things: A Story of the Six­ties (1965). Along with crit­i­cal ac­claim, Things made its au­thor, in the words of Perec bi­og­ra­pher and trans­la­tor David Bel­los, “a lit­er­ary celebrity”. Roy­al­ties al­lowed Perec to move to a big­ger apart­ment. Dur­ing the tran­si­tion he lost his early pa­pers, in­clud­ing the manuscript of Por­trait of a Man. Bel­los found no trace of it in the au­thor’s pa­pers when he be­gan writ­ing his mag­is­te­rial 1993 bi­og­ra­phy Ge­orges Perec: A Life in Words. We see its pres­ence and in­flu­ence, how­ever, in sev­eral of Perec’s sub­se­quent books.

Read­ers first caught ref­er­ence to the “new” novel’s sub­ject mat­ter and main char­ac­ter, art forger Gas­pard Winck­ler, in W, or the Mem­ory of Child­hood (1975). In Por­trait of a Man, we fi­nally get Winck­ler’s story. Af­ter leav­ing France for board­ing school in Switzer­land, he meets a painter who in­structs him in the art of forgery. For cover, he takes a po­si­tion as a re­storer in a mu­seum. A dozen years pass while Winck­ler per­fects his craft. En­cour­aged by Ana­tole Madera, a kind of god­fa­ther of in­ter­na­tional deal­ers trad­ing in forg­eries, Winck­ler sets out to cre­ate an orig­i­nal work by Re­nais­sance mas­ter An­tonello da Messina.

The plot, sim­ple on the sur­face, turns in­creas­ingly baroque. Perec of­fers the story twice, first in the form of a per­spec­tive-shift­ing stream-of-con­scious­ness and later through dia­logue. The first part, in par­tic­u­lar, un­folds as though Perec is still map­ping the novel’s de­sign and in­ten­tions: “Gas­pard the forger,” he writes. “The smith-slave. Gas­pard the forger. Why a forger? How a forger? Since when a forger? He hadn’t al­ways been a forger … ”

The re­dis­cov­ery of Perec’s novel pre­dates a more con­tro­ver­sial find, Lee’s Go Set a Watch­man. The fact To Kill a Mock­ing­bird has been, for a half cen­tury, her sole novel im­bues Lee with an el­e­gant mythol­ogy.

With­out the con­trast of an­other work (un­til we can read Go Set a Watch­man in July), she hasn’t run the risk of a di­min­ished rep­u­ta­tion. Perec’s own rep­u­ta­tion rests on his cu­rios­ity. It will not suf­fer from the pub­li­ca­tion of Por­trait of a Man, a novel that is, in Bel­los’s words, ad­mit­tedly “hard to fol­low” but that lays the foun­da­tion for the au­thor’s later rad­i­cal and of­ten suc­cess­ful ex­per­i­men­ta­tions.

“Writ­ing a novel is not like nar­rat­ing some­thing re­lated di­rectly to the real world,” Perec once said.

“It’s a mat­ter of es­tab­lish­ing a game be­tween reader and writer. It’s re­lated to se­duc­tion.” We find, here, a young Perec still in search of a form as he prac­tises this art of se­duc­tion.

French nov­el­ist Ge­orges Perec and his cat

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