THINGS: A Story of the Sixties
By Georges Perec
Translated from the French by David Bellos
A MAN ASLEEP
By Georges Perec
Translated from the French by Andrew Leak
Godine. 221 pp. $19.95
TO STEP back into the shadows, to become invisible, to allow the text to speak to the reader without the ventriloquist trick of the writer's guidance, to make the reader the single witness of the text, responsible for its existence -- that was Georges Perec's extraordinary intention. Things: A Story of the Sixties, published in 1965 when Perec was 31, forces the reader into action from the very first line: "Your eye, first of all, would glide over the grey fitted carpet in the narrow, long and high-ceilinged corridor." Two devices -- the second person singular and the conditional tense -- open a space in the narrative into which the reader falls, trapped as it were within the lines. It is not an outsider -- the author, Perec -- who addresses you: It is the text itself that demands you as a reader, a dream demanding a dreamer to make it present, to utter it, to render it visible.
Things is the chronicle of Jerome and Sylvie -- their names are not pronounced until chapter three, when you, the reader, have drifted from the tentative conditional to the affirmative past tense. Jerome is 24, Sylvie 22. Jerome and Sylvie are market researchers in Paris. They code and decode questionnaires. They are happy but imagine that they can be happier. They think of settling in North Africa if they are promoted. They leave Paris for Tunisia. But somehow, in the end, they are disappointed. Out of this still, drab life Perec causes the reader to construct a passionate quest. The reader becomes, like the characters, a "market researcher," asking questions, filling in gaps with the answers. Jerome and Sylvie's acquisitions -- the episodes in their hesitant progress from satisfaction to disappointment, the revealed traits of their characters -- all these "things" form a pattern of dots that the reader connects to discover a picture.
If Things abolishes the writer, A Man Asleep attempts to abolish the reader. Written entirely in the second person singular, in the familiar tu, not the distancing vous, in the original French, A Man Asleep is a monologue in which Perec (in the guise of a young student) explains his longing for nothingness, for a return to the primordial dust promised in the Scriptures. If one of the ancestors of Things is Flaubert's Sentimental Education -- as the translator, David Bellos, reminds us in his introduction -- the kin of A Man Asleep are Beckett and the laconic Emmanuel Bove. But Perec is like no other. His work, in his own words, is a piece of a puzzle that in its entirety is the whole of literature. The writer, according to Perec, discovers a space between the works of the writers he reads, or doesn't read, or intends to read one day. That space is then filled with the writer's oeuvre.
The space filled by Things and A Man Asleep neighbors that of Ulysses; like Joyce, Perec saw the novel as a medium in which language could endlessly renew itself. With this conviction, he joined Oulipo (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle), a writers and mathematicians' group founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais with the purpose of using both mathematical and literary talents to invent new kinds of fiction. The French public responded with enthusiasm: Things won the Prix Theophraste-Renaudot and A Man Asleep was made into a successful film. Then, in 1978, Perec published his masterpiece, Life: A User's Manual, which won the Prix Medicis, became a bestseller and was hailed by Italo Calvino as "the last real 'event' in the history of the novel so far."
Perec died in 1982, aged 46, virtually unknown to the English-speaking public. In 1967 Grove Press published Helen Lane's translation of Things -- the critical silence was deafening. Recently however, thanks to the indefatigable David Bellos, we have had a second chance. In 1987 Bellos gave us Life: A User's Manual, in a translation one can only qualify as perfect. Then he retranslated Things, which appears in one volume with Andrew Leak's rendition of A Man Asleep. Bellos is to Perec what the Muirs were to Kafka.
For those who have not read Life: A User's Manual, these two short novels, Things and A Man Asleep, offer the ideal foretaste: a simple shifting of the roles of reader and writer playing the game of the text, which later, in Life, becomes a complex and wonderful puzzle multiplying to infinity the ways in which a story can be written and read.
Alberto Manguel is the editor of "Other Fires: Short Fiction by Latin American Women" and other anthologies.