GEORGES PEREC'S dream journal, which he kept between 1968 and 1972 and published in 1973 as La boutique obscure, is bookended by two dreams about concentration camps. The first is elliptical, disconnected, and impressionistic, a hazy vision of an experience he never knew firsthand:
There is a height gauge in the corner. I know I am at risk of having to spend several hours under it […] There is nothing holding the top of the gauge and, after a while under it, one might shrink. […] It’s clear that the threat of the gauge is enough, at first, to concentrate in itself all the terror of the camp.
The final dream, by contrast, reads like a movie treatment, with Perec and his father chased, captured, and imprisoned by Nazis in short, punchy scenes. What was at first jumbled, confused, and unstructured is now cinematic, artificial, and neatly organized. Perec’s dream becomes, in his account, “an album I am paging through, a memorial album, pretty like a theatrical program, with advertisements at the end.” When one’s own dreams are constrained, there is no unfettered imagination left to be constrained in one’s writing. Ending the dream journal where and when he did was wise. “I thought I was recording the dreams I was having,” Perec writes in the book’s introduction. “I have realized that it was not long before I began having dreams only in order to write them.”
As Perec hints, the dreams recounted in La boutique obscure chart out not just his recurrent obsessions but also a linear narrative about dreaming, telling a story about the journal itself and the pain that went into its composition, a pain that ultimately stems from the author’s loss of both his parents in World War II. By the end of the book, Perec’s dreams are crying out for him to stop writing them down.
This self-conscious examination of the unconscious is apt, given Perec’s membership in the Oulipo, the French-based literary organization, founded in 1960, which explores the use of formal constraints to create texts. In Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau told a short story of no consequence in 99 different ways. Italo Calvino used tarot cards to generate The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Perec, one of the Oulipo’s most ingenious and productive members, created one of the longest French palindromes ever, wrote a whole novel (La disparition, translated into English as A Void) without using the letter “E,” and structured his magnum opus, Life: A User’s Manual, around a knight’s tour of a chessboard.
La boutique obscure — which, after more than 40 years, has finally been translated by the Oulipo’s youngest member, the American Daniel Levin Becker — may not seem as explicitly constrained as those more celebrated Perec texts, but here, too, the play between constraint and freedom is constantly at work. The constraint imposed by a dream journal is indirect: no one can transcribe dreams directly. They exist in our heads in a form devoid of sense. We may dream that we are seeing a tree, tasting ice cream, or kissing a lover, but in fact we are dealing only with our memories and our unconscious mind’s false conviction that its confabulations are real. In actuality, what we experience in dreams are neither visions nor sensations, but merely thoughts,...read more