GEORGES PEREC: A Life in Words

By David Bellos

Godine. 802 pp. $45

ITALO CALVINO, modestly passing over his own imaginative writing, maintained that Georges Perec's La Vie Mode d'Emploi (1978, translated as Life A User's Manual) was "the last 'real' event in the development of the novel so far." In one of the first essays in English on Perec's masterwork Gabriel Joispovici dared to invoke not only Joyce's Ulysses for comparison but also Dante's Commedia and the Old Testament. Perec himself privately hoped to write a book that could stand on the same shelf as War and Peace and The Magic Mountain. He succeeded.

Georges Perec? Georges . . . Perec? His is not precisely a household name here in the U.S -- to our loss. One can only hope that David Bellos's engaging and thoughtful, albeit somewhat overlong, critical biography may help redress matters. For Perec, his dense poetry apart, is exceptionally readable; Life A User's Manual resembles the ingratiating One Hundred Years of Solitude far more than it does the forbidding Gravity's Rainbow, to mention two contemporary books in its small class.

Bellos's life builds up to an account of the composition of Perec's Life, partly because that novel is one of those encyclopedic Big Books that draw on and surpass all of a writer's earlier work, and partly because the 46-year-old Perec died of cancer in 1982 a few years after completing it. To further organize his material Bellos has sought the secret engine of this French writer's imagination and found it in a pervasive yet almost unspoken Jewishness.

Born in 1936 to Polish Jews living in Paris, Georges Perec lost both his working-class parents to World War II: His father, Icek, died as a soldier early in the hostilities; his mother, Cyrla, was transported to Auschwitz and never heard from again. Fortunately, the young boy found himself taken in by well-meaning relatives, though he seems never to have truly fitted into the bourgeois family of his diamond merchant uncle. Bellos makes a strong case that the disappearance of his parents haunts all of Perec's fiction.

Consider, for instance, the notorious tour de force The Disappearance (La Disparition, 1969). I say notorious because the book appears little more than a lexical joke: Not a word in this strange whodunit uses the letter E, a feat as extravagantly difficult in French as it is in English. In part, Perec adopted this form, called a lipogram, to demonstrate his bona fides as a new member of the French Workshop for Potential Literature (Ouvroir de litterature potentielle, generally referred to as Oulipo), an elite group of mathematicians and writers devoted to exploring new methods of literary composition, especially the unexpected freeing of the imagination that accompanies the adoption of formal constraints. But Bellos emphasizes that Perec's alphabetic self-hobbling also incorporates deep feelings of personal loss and guilt. Each time a character in the novel is compelled to pronounce a word containing an E, he or she immediately dies. A mere letter, like a mere fact of birth, can result in extermination. In just such arbitrary fashion Perec's father and mother simply vanished. They are the true missing element in La Disparition, as in Perec's life. With a final flourish, Bellos reminds us that the letter E in French is pronounced the same way as the word for Them (eux).

Though known for his unrivaled linguistic agility -- Perec constructed the longest palindrome in the world (a 500-word story that makes a sort-of sense when read either forwards or backwards) and contributed weekly crosswords to Le Point magazine -- this wild-haired, elf-like beatnik managed to invest everything he wrote with autobiography. His first novel, Things (Les Choses, 1965), which won the Prix Renaudot and became a surprise bestseller, chronicles the obsession of Perec's generation with material goods; A Man Asleep (Un homme qui dort, 1967) is a portrait of depression derived from its author's own bouts with melancholia; W, or the Memory of Childhood (W, ou le souvenir d'enfance, 1975) proffers a kind of fictive autobiography, alternating the tale of a country entirely devoted to sport with Perec's supposed earliest "memories" (many of which Bellos shows are slightly skewed); the two storylines intersect when the land of W gradually reveals its Nazi-like heart. Largely because of David Bellos and Godine, all three of these works, as well as Life, are available in English.

While growing up in Paris during the 1950s Perec knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer. But "Jojo" was no scholar and his academic career could be called checkered at best. To earn his living he became a glorified secretary/researcher for a medical laboratory, creating spectacularly efficient cross-indexes, card files and record-keeping systems. While he looked like a disheveled bohemian in his old sweaters or Indian cotton shirts, and enjoyed partying with friends (drinking wine, playing cards or Go), Perec seems to have possessed the mind of a computer programmer and the soul of Lewis Carroll. He loved systematizing. During 1974 he kept a diary in which he noted down everything he ate; another year he recorded all his dreams. For one particularly ambitious work he developed a complicated algorithm, based on a magic square, that would allow him to describe again and again the same 12 places in Paris at the rate two a month over 12 years; at the end of that time he would possess 288 sealed essays that would chronicle changes in his city, his life, and his memories.

Perec eventually gave up on this plan, mainly because he started to find it difficult to be in Paris at fixed times. Once established as a writer he traveled frequently: to Germany where he pioneered experimental radio programs (Die Maschine, 1972, is a kind of radio deconstruction of a famous Goethe poem), to America for work on a film documentary about Ellis Island, and finally to Australia where he became a writer-in-residence shortly before his death. Still, the aborted "places" series hovers behind that masterpiece of "multiplex constraint," Life A User's Manual.

Perec set forth on this book partly to demonstrate that Oulipian methods could be applied to an 800-page novel. Life relates, in a rather dispassionate, almost Olympian voice, the lives of scores of tenants in an apartment building at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. Each of the 99 chapters zeroes in on one of the 100 rooms in the building (a certain corner storeroom is left out), describing the furnishings and relating the histories of past or current residents. The wealthy James Sherwood collects unique items and dispenses a considerable fortune to acquire the Holy Grail; the lexicographer Cinoc goes through dictionaries eliminating obsolete words to make room for new ones; Marcel Appenzell journeys to Sumatra to research an obscure tribe, which turns out to be surprisingly nomadic -- because, he finally realizes, the people are trying to get away from him; sexy Ingeborg Skrifter works as a medium, who for a substantial fee can summon the devil for people willing to sell their souls.

These often fabulous stories -- of bicycle racers and millionaires, of autodidacts and former movie stars -- are in themselves as sheerly enjoyable as anything in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Jules Verne. But what makes Life A User's Manual so unforgettable derives from Perec's miraculous evocation of how "life goes on" -- his favorite phrase -- before and after major traumas, how crimes and scandal and heartbreak and the deepest sorrow are surrounded by decades of ordinary life. Such a revelation may surprise readers aware of the novel's elaborate scaffolding. As Bellos tells us, Perec began by constructing a grid of his imaginary apartment building; then established a system for moving among its 100 rooms based on a modified Knight's Tour (by which a knight covers a chessboard without ever landing on the same square twice). But that's only the beginning. Perec also created multiple sets of constraints, surreptitiously constructing each of the novel's chapters around elements from 40 different categories; items from these 10-count lists (of authors, paintings, furnishings, activities, food, drink, etc.) are unobtrusively and systematically distributed, in various combinations, throughout the book. For instance, one of the literary works periodically alluded to is "Hamlet": In one chapter the reader may glimpse the painting of "A Rat Behind the Arras," in another the decorated plate entitled "A Bad Joke," which shows a man pouring some liquid into a sleeper's ear. To complicate matters further, this gleeful artificer even adopts extra constraints: e.g., buried in a list of the painter Hutting's works lie the names of all the members of Oulipo (here is the partially hidden Calvino allusion: "swimming to shore at Calvi, noting with pleasure . . .").

As it happens, Perec only revealed a few of his templates and methods to the public, so Life A User's Manual has been growing increasingly rich as critics gradually uncover its secret structures (and corny jokes, like the soloist Virginia Fredericksburg.) Certainly it is the most carefully schematized book since Ulysses. Yet like Joyce's masterpiece, it remains, for all its hidden craft, extremely touching and exhilarating, both human and humane.

David Bellos's Georges Perec: A Life in Words illuminates all these matters and more. It is an ideal, if leisurely, introduction to Georges Perec's varied work, as well as a deeply engrossing biography of this troubled, unassuming, utterly unexpected genius of letters.

Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.