BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Georges Perec, translated from the French by David Bellos and Andrew Leak
Best ebook deal: not available.
Filed under: Literary
Originally published in the 60s, these two short novels were written before Perec hit it big on the French literary scene with Life: A User’s Manual. Both are short―practically novellas at a little over 100 pages each. While both are quite different in delivery, they share common themes, brilliant control of language, and a common neurosis. And they are both excellent and quick reads.
I’ve really got to hand it to the two translators, as Perec’s language really shines in both pieces, and the linguistic consistency between the works is pleasing. Perec’s use of language is stellar, and interestingly he handles language a bit differently in each novel.
Things: A Story of the Sixties is really a character study in some ways. It tells the story of a young couple as they come of age within a developing capitalist generation. Jerome and Sylvie judge their success by the leisure time and material possessions their jobs as marketing interviewers afford them. However they just can’t bear to settle down all the way into adulthood and establish careers, so they move to Tunisia to teach and drink coffee in cafes.
While there is little narrative tension in this plotting, the story is compelling, thanks in large part to the precise and vigilant narration, which describes their lives with a fastidious attention to detail. Perec manages to tell the story of a generation by describing the couple’s life together. It’s not boring though, as the imagery is vivid and the syntax neat and rhythmic. Perec also excels at stepping out of the detail and touching on poetic abstraction:
Later on, they were themselves on the grey track lined with plane trees. They were themselves the little passing glint on the long black road. They were a tiny blot of poverty on the great sea of plenty. They looked around at the great yellow fields with their little red splashes of poppies. And they felt crushed.
The second piece, A Man Asleep, more or less turns the approach inside out. While the imagery and detail are just as precise, there is much more abstraction at work, and the words and ideas feel a bit more vibrant for it. There is much less plot though. It reads a lot like an existential experiment, taking place entirely within the consciousness of a young student as he contemplates his life from bed. Unlike the couple from Things, this narrator wishes to purge himself of worldly things and desires. In a lot of ways it reminded me of Malone Dies, but from the point of view of a young depressed male rather than an ailing, aged failure.
I like the language in this novel even more than in the first. I marked off a ton of quotes to share (all pretty long), so here’s one at random:
You notice that you weren’t really shut in, that, all this time, sleep, real sleep, was behind you, not in front of you, behind you and so recognisable with its long grey beaches, its frosty horizon, its black sky shot through with white or grey streaks. You notice it all of a sudden, you recognise it immediately, but it is too late to read it, as it always is; another time perhaps. There is something else you know as well, or rather something that you should have been able to foresee: you should never turn around, or at any rate not so quickly, or everything breaks, higgledy-piggledy, your pillow falls and takes your cheek with it, your forearm, your thumb and your feet topple over on top of each other: the tiny grey window takes its place again, close by, once more the dungeon with sloping walls takes shape, and locks shut. You are sitting on your bed.
There is a definite bleakness to Perec’s writing. But the confident style expresses the looming and brooding insecurities in these novels in such a way that it is hard not to see the whole package as beautiful and vibrant, despite the dreary undertones. Both novels were written about a generation that came long before mine, yet I got the distinct impression Perec was speaking directly to me and my peers. This pairing should be considered a must read for those readers who take pleasure in strong writing and abstract yet crisp metaphor, even when they come at the expense of plot or character. Moreover, it is a great book for those like me who are not quite ready to face growing up.