- Perec en Amérique by Jean-Jacques Thomas
In the early pages of this study, Jean-Jacques Thomas confesses that it was not his intention to write a book on Perec. Rather, he was interested in the manner in which "French Theory" had taken root in American academia in the 1960s and 1970s, enabling figures such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jean-François Lyotard, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and others to export their thought with such resounding success. During the same period, a variety of creative writers, many of them associated with the nouveau roman, became widely known, respected, and indeed influential in American intellectual circles. Gradually, Thomas began to wonder why Georges Perec failed to achieve the same sort of recognition. For initially at least, everything seemed to favor his success: he had been significantly influenced by American culture (and particularly American cinema) at an early age; he had expressed the desire to experience daily life in America; and his own artistic vision was in some ways closer to New York avant-garde aesthetics than to those encountered in mainstream Parisian culture. Thomas argues that Perec saw in America something akin to a Foucauldian heterotopia, "a reservoir of intellectual and vital energy" (14, my translation, as elsewhere) and a place that welcomed the kind of unconventional literary experimentation that he sought to practice. All the more surprising, then, that where so many others traversed the Atlantic in broad and apparently effortless leaps, Perec himself failed to do so—or at least during his own lifetime.
Thomas was likewise surprised to find that, despite all of the work involving the details of Perec's biography, relatively little attention had been accorded to his trips to the United States and Canada. There were five of them in all between 1967 and 1979, and they constitute the center of Thomas's focus here. "I feel it is necessary," he states, "to try to understand comprehensively how the themes of fictional imagination, the different modes of composition, and the constant manipulation of media resources articulate in Perec's case, in order to see how his rich and complex relation [End Page 123] with intellectual and artistic America in the 60s and 70s modifies and amplifies his writerly project, affording it another dimension, close to more contemporary creative tendencies" (23). He suggests that Perec's work should be received as a "synopsis of a biopic" (13), a work-in-progress, a prolegomenon to something more detailed and definitive. His own aspiration, expressed modestly enough, is to "complexify" the accepted portrait of Perec, which has often suffered, in his view, from reductive, commonplace ways of thinking about the man and his work.
Thomas provides a great deal of interesting material concerning the publication history of the English translation of Perec's first novel, Les Choses. When the book appeared in France in 1965, it became a success practically overnight, and was awarded the Prix Renaudot; it would eventually sell more than 100,000 copies in France. In New York it attracted the attention of no less an individual than Barney Rosset, the legendary owner of Grove Press, arguably the most forward-thinking publishing house in America during the second half of the twentieth century. Thomas offers a compelling account of both Rosset and Grove here as a way of staging Perec's first encounter with American publishing. To all appearances, the stars seemed well aligned for that encounter: Grove had already published new work from France to very considerable acclaim, ranging from Beckett to Ionesco, Fanon, Genet, Duras, and Robbe-Grillet, and on the face of it, their catalogue seemed like a perfect fit for Perec. The translator whom they engaged for the project, Helen Lane, was an established figure with a solid record of accomplishment. Perec was represented by the Borchardt Agency, founded in the 1960s by Georges Borchardt, whose mother, like Perec's, had been murdered in the Holocaust. Yet contrary to all expectations, the English translation of Les Choses was largely a washout, selling a mere 7,500 copies. Thomas...