- Falling From the Sky: Trauma in Perec’s W and Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience
1 Fear of Falling
It is not surprising to find a link between trauma and falling in an entire strain of postwar literature. It is arguably the case that, in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, a new and more aerial form of spatial perception came into prominence, one in which something or someone might reasonably be expected to fall out of the sky. Such a form of perception, vertical rather than horizontal in its orientation, is often experienced as an uneasiness directed at falling in both its physical and its metaphysical senses. That is, there is both a literal fear of falling from a height and a spiritual angst about falling, generally through no agency of one’s own, from one station in life to another.
Within the postwar French tradition, 1 the conjunction of these two forms of falling is nowhere better articulated than in Georges Perec’s semi-autobiographical novel W or the Memory of Childhood. W alternates chapter by chapter between two different forms of writing: one a fantastical narrative about the faraway island of W, in which a robust society of athletes devote their lives to an Olympic ideal of sport, and which is organized by a system that first appears like a rational utopia but by the novel’s end devolves into a terrifying concentrationary universe; the other a non-narrative, truncated, and elliptical set of references to Perec’s own Jewish wartime childhood (Perec’s father died fighting for France in 1940; his mother died after being deported to Auschwitz in early 1943; in 1942, his mother placed the young Perec, aged six, on a Red Cross convoy headed toward the French Free Zone). In the autobiographical section of W, Perec gives several versions of his departure from his mother. In what follows are two of these versions, followed by Perec’s subsequent analysis of this memory.
Of particular interest is the way that images of falling or suspension, here in the form of the parachute, punctuate this memory and take on their meaning precisely at the later [End Page 44] moment when Perec finds himself parachuting from the sky.
The only surviving memory of my mother is the day she took me to the Gare de Lyon, which is where I left for Villard-de-Lans in a Red Cross convoy: though I have no broken bones, I wear my arm in a sling. My mother buys me a comic entitled Charlie and the Parachute: on the illustrated cover, the parachute’s rigging lines are no other than Charlie’s trouser braces.
My mother took me to the Gare de Lyon. I was six. She entrusted me to a Red Cross convoy leaving for Grenoble, in the free zone. She bought me a magazine, an issue of Charlie, with a cover showing Charlie Chaplin, with his walking stick, his hat, his shoes and his little mustache, doing a parachute jump. The parachute is attached to Charlie by his trouser braces.
A triple trait runs through this memory: parachute, sling, truss: it involves suspension, support, prosthesis almost. In order to be, you had to be propped. Sixteen years later, in 1958, when the haphazard fate of military service made me into a short-lived parachutist, I was able to read, at the very instant of jumping, one of the decoded texts of that memory: I was thrown into the void; all the threads were broken; I was falling, alone and without support. The parachute opened. The canopy unfurled, a fragile and firm suspense before the controlled descent.[55, translation modified]
These two memories of Perec’s departure from his mother, as well as the third decoded reading dating from 1958, might be viewed together as the story of a trauma that, with characteristic belatedness, is only readable after the fact. Moreover, the motif of falling, in this instance figured by the recurrence of the parachute, provides the key to deciphering the memory of the trauma. The last—and lasting—memory of the mother is that of her buying Perec...