- Puzzle Man
Georges Perec died of cancer at age forty-six in 1982. Only in the last four years of his life was he able to support himself as a writer. In the decade since his death, however, Perec’s fame has grown steadily in France and abroad. Translations of his books have done extremely well. Read in the original French, W or the Memory of Childhood and Things are now standard works for the teaching of twentieth century French literature in British and American French departments. December, 1993 saw a flurry of Perec activity in Paris: images of the writer, with those gentle bug eyes and the two wild mops of hair on head and chin, appeared on more than one magazine cover, in an exhibit devoted to the writer at the Centre Pompidou, and on French television. The publication of his preparatory notes and drawings for Life a User’s Manual was evidence that on a more refined level, scholarly investigations of Perec’s writing process are underway. David Bellos’s biography, appearing first in English, to be followed by a French publication in 1994, is riding the wave of this posthumous success.
Georges Perec was born in 1936 to a family of Polish Jews who had fled the pogroms for Paris in the first part of the century. His name was originally a Hebrew word spelled “Peretz” in Polish. As the diaspora scattered the family across the globe, the name mutated into “Perez,” “Peres,” “Perutz,” “Peiresc,” and in France, “Perec.” France brought uneven fortune to the Perecs. Georges’ parents settled in working-class Belleville, while an aunt and uncle achieved affluence in the pearl business and lived in the 16th arrondissement. Georges Perec’s father, Izie, died a soldier in a field hospital on June 16, 1940, the very last day of fighting before the French army caved in to the Germans. [End Page 797] The adult writer, dramatizing this terrible timing, claimed in W or the Memory of Childhood that his father had died six days later, the day of the armistice. Young Georges Perec owed his own survival to the Red Cross convoy that transported him from occupied Paris to the free zone in 1941. His mother, whose own subsequent attempt at flight from Paris failed, eked out a miserable living in a watch factory until her arrest by French police on January 23, 1943. She was taken to the transport camp at Drancy; her name appears with that of her own father and sister and 995 others on the official French “exit list” for Convoy 47, destination Auschwitz.
Like many Jewish children who were relocated in the south of France during the Occupation, Georges Perec was baptized Catholic; his last name could pass for Breton. Perec was old enough during the war years to understand that it would be dangerous to reveal his Jewish identity or speak about the world he had come from. Even during the 1950s, as Bellos recounts in one of his best chapters, the Holocaust nightmare was underlined by the cruel banality of post-war paper pushing. Perec and his legal guardians had to battle French and West German bureaucracies to prove his mother’s death so that he might receive reparation payments. Bellos observes that the horror of these experiences made of Perec “a man always puzzled by memory and sometimes obsessed with the fear of forgetting.”
Perec was a sickly child and a depressive adolescent but also an enthusiast of jazz, Woody Woodpecker, Tex Avery cartoons, and “B” movies, with a genius for close friendship that would last throughout his life. He studied semiotics with Barthes and literary sociology with Goldman but was an uneven student and would never pursue a standard academic career. Although in many ways his path to literary success bears no resemblance to the standard one involving academic distinction, the Ecole Normale, and a strictly Paris-centered literary milieu, he was deeply marked by the issues and images that surrounded him. His imagination was nourished by the consumerist ideology that reigned in the France of the 1950s and 1960s, built...