Getting a fix of a young Perec
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