MAY 20, 2014
GEORGES PEREC resists you. Don’t be offended; it isn’t personal. He resists himself. He resists as a means of drawing in, an elaborate tease. Georges Perec was born in 1936 and died, of cancer, in 1982, a stupendously prolific author of prose, poetry, crossword puzzles, palindromes, archival lists, narrative flow charts, film scripts, radio plays, and much in between, and he never took the straight line when the crooked one would do. Or the oblique. Or the dotted. This is a man whose second novel, A Man Asleep, was composed almost entirely from sentences written by other authors. The only way to approach Perec is to move away from him. The farther you go, the closer you get. Perec logic.
In Nikolaus Pevsner’s An Outline of European Architecture, the term “Horreur vacui” makes its appearance on page 283, illustration 239, which shows a heavily ornamented window frame set amid a blank wall. Pevsner employs the terms “frenzied,” “rankly overgrown,” and “barbarically scrolled” to describe the window frame, while entirely passing over the blank wall.
The longer the image rests with you, though, the more you realize it’s not the window frame (Pevsner: “the wildest of all orgies of over-decoration”) but the blank wall that is the subject of the image. The window is an assault — sudden, and suddenly over — while the wall lingers. And in this lingering it becomes, like eternity, something without inflection, shape, or relief. The desert of the real. An unreasonable silence. The residence of nothingness. Which is to say, horreur vacui.
Perhaps the most widely known observation on the vacuum, an area of space devoid of matter, was made by Aristotle: nature abhors one. Abhorrence, in a backhanded way, is acknowledgment of the vacuum’s existence. Nature abhors the vacuum because the vacuum is always at its heels, threatening to swallow up what nature takes such care to create. A symbiotic relationship exists: the proliferations of nature and the negations of the vacuum; the vacuum as nature’s equal and opposite twin.
This was possibly what Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher, was thinking about when he refined Aristotle’s proclamations through a series of experiments he called La vide dans la vide (“The void of the void”), which proved the existence of the vacuum. Pascal had turned a test tube of mercury upside down in a bowl filled with mercury and found that at the top of the upside-down test tube there was an empty space. Based on this, he declared that nature does indeed support a vacuum but — in sympathy with Aristotle — stated that human nature cannot.
For us, Pascal said, emptiness is intolerable. So with an amputation comes the phantom limb. With the shock of sudden blindness comes Charles Bonnet syndrome, which generates visual hallucinations. Experiences that have receded beyond conscious memory are reintroduced through dreams. And nearly 50 percent of the newly widowed strongly feel the “presence” of their departed spouse. Pascal observed that while we spend our lives hurtling through the vacuum that is outer space, we do everything not to think about it. “Humans are equally incapable,” he said, “of seeing the nothingness from which they emerge and the infinity in which they are engulfed.”
So we abhor the void — this much is clear. We “cover the abyss with trance,” as the poet Emily Dickinson put it. And, when we feel daring, we co-opt it. Thus the white-cube contemporary art galleries, the new social anxiety syndromes, the 50-foot-tall billboards that only display a company logo. But like the case of the fecund window frame, the horreur vacui in these spaces is only a flash of emptiness, because as soon as it appears it is remedied by the latest artworks, miracle drugs, consumer products. The message is: “You’re safe, we’ve brought you back from the edge.” All the while the real vide de le vide bides its time, knowing that “covering” is not “getting rid of,” and that ignoring or deferring the void is merely a way of testifying to the irresistible power of nothingness. Absence can never be filled.
This is what sets Georges Perec apart. His work does not cover, ignore, or defer. It embraces, submits, activates. It contemplates horreur vacui in all its horreur and vacui.
Perec’s emblematic work is La Disparition (published in 1969, translated into English as A Void). It’s the story of man named Anton Vowl who has disappeared, and of the search for Vowl by his companions — Douglas Haig Clifford, Olga Mavrokhordatos, Amaury Conson, and Arthur Wilburg Savorgnan — each of who, in the course of the search, also disappears. The first sentence is typically winding:
Today, by radio, and also on giant hoardings, a rabbi, an admiral notorious for his links to masonry, a trio of cardinals, a trio, too, of insignificant politicians (bought and paid for by a rich and corrupt Anglo-Canadian banking corporation), inform us all of how our country now risks dying of starvation.
You may (but likely not) notice that between the title, the names of the principal characters, and the first sentence, there is not a single E. Nor is there an E on any of the 312 pages that follow. Not in English, not in the original French. Now go back to the beginning of the paragraph and check. Three, two, one … you’re under.
Georges Perec’s E-less book is not mere linguistic prestidigitation. While a number of early readers reportedly missed the absence of the E, missed the clue in the protagonist’s name, and did not read into the fact that Mr Vowl had “disappeared,” for those who do see the missing E, it begins to be all they see. Words are read one by one then double-checked. Incredulity mounts. The E that is nowhere in La Disparition turns out to be everywhere. Many talk about making absence present. Perec never talks about it. He does it.
Perec often said he never wanted to produce the same kind of written work more than once, and in formal terms he never did. How could you replicate an experiment like “Two Hundred and Forty-three Postcards in Real Color,” which arranges the basic elements of a holiday postcard (At the hotel, Lovely weather, Food is good, Loads of friends, Kissy-wissies, etc.) in 243 combinations? Or write a sequel to a novel like Things, a systematic accounting of all objects in the apartment of a young bourgeois couple? Or return to the form of the palindrome after having written two 500-word palindromes that, back-to-back, make a 1,000 word palindrome (the world’s longest), where the meaning of the first half of the message is reversed by the meaning of the second half?
Perec’s variety of form, however, can only temporarily distract the reader from his maniacal focus on one and only one subject: the void. Like its cosmological incarnation, the black hole, the void turns all light into darkness by taking in everything and making it into nothing. It is not satisfied until it brings the universe under its reign.
By way of explanation, go back to that E — having been flushed from A Void, it comes back in a short story called “Les Revenentes” (meaning “the returnees,” i.e., the reappearance of those who were missing, and translated as “The Exeter Text”). Here it begins:
The seven green Mercedes Benzes resembled pestered sheep. They descended West End Street, swerved left, entered Temple Street then swept between the green vennels’ beeches, elms ’n’ elders. These trees enkernelled Exeter’s See’s svelte, yet nevertheless erect, steeples. Pecked men were pressed between the thermes’ entrees. The screened Mercedes’ secrets perplexed them:
In Perec’s stab at writing about himself, his half-fiction half-memoir called W, or the Memory of Childhood, Perec turns the E on its back to make the W of the title, an island off the coast of Chile. Like La Disparition and Les Revenentes, W, or The Memory of Childhood is also about people who have gone missing.
W begins with a character who has assumed the name Gaspard Winckler in order to evade charges of army desertion (i.e., to escape a war). This character has recently been contacted by something called The Shipwreck Victim’s Relief Society because the “real” Gaspard Winckler, a young boy, has been lost at sea. Willing to help, the fake Gaspard begins his search for the real. While this is going on, the author of W mentions that a character named Gaspard Winckler appeared in Perec’s first novel, Le Condottière.(The novel, translated as Portrait of a Man, will be released this year.) In that story, Gaspard Winckler was also on the run, this time because he has been caught out as a master forger, which is to say, a maker of copies. The echoes between W, or The Memory of Childhood and Le Condottière become louder when we learn that, in Le Condottière, Gaspard Winckler had been ushered to the Alps to escape a war and cut off from his parents as a result — two significant events that Georges Perec recounts in his memoirs. In this regard the English title, Portrait of a Man, has lots going for it. Gaspard Winckler is a copy of Georges Perec in that earlier book, just as the “Georges Perec ” who appears in W is described by the author of the memoirs as a rough sketch of a lost child — in many ways, a bad copy. In all cases, the “real” person in these works is missing.
Another missing character in W, or The Memory of Childhood is Perec’s mother. The scene where the young Georges is dropped off by his mother at the Gare du Nord in order to be taken by train into the Alps is recalled three times in the story, each time with slightly different details, as if the author were trying to get the memory just right. After the drop off, Georges never saw his mother again. Cyrla Perec was one of thousands of Jews from her part of Paris who was arrested, brought to Drancy, a town outside Paris, and deported to Auschwitz. After the war, Perec sought to confirm his mother’s fate, but because Cyrla Perec was not a French citizen she was certified by the bureaucracy not as “dead” but as “disappeared.” The last piece of evidence of his mother’s existence that the child Perec received was a form called an “Acte de Disparition.” Translated into English: vanishing act, the making of a void.
Perec’s missing mother is sometimes referred to as M, which is another kind of E, and a W turned upside-down, which is a signal of distress. As a modified form of the ever-recurring letter, she is part of the book’s dedication, which was “For E.” About that dedication: Perec told his cousin, Ela, the E stood for her; he also said it stood for her mother, Esther. In a brilliant biography of Perec called A Life in Words, Perec’s translator David Bellos sees the E as a reference to the letter inscribed in the Golem’s head that turns a lump of clay (“met”) into a living, breathing monster (“emet”). When Bellos follows Perec in turning the letter on its side, he sees a nod to Fritz Lang’s M, a movie wherein mothers lose their children (an upside-down version of the story in Perec’s W). Perhaps the most obvious meaning, however, comes when the letter E is spoken aloud in Perec’s French. In this case, pronounced “eux,” it means “them.” In W, or The Memory of Childhood, Perec tells us “them” are those who, like his mother, were killed in the Holocaust, who were extinguished in the void of the camps, which left no record of their existences. When Perec asks himself why he writes, he says it is to redress the scandal of their silence. His way of accomplishing this is to make their silence as loud as possible, to increase dimensions of the void.
Finally, amid Gaspard Wincklers — real and fake — and the memory of his mother, Perec places himself among the missing, subjecting himself to the full, destructive Perec treatment. He writes how his name is derived from “Peretz,” a Hebrew word he translates poetically but not inaccurately as “hole.” He recalls how, as a left-handed person made to write right-handed, he got into the habit of inverting his first initial, G, so it appeared as a question mark. He is a Jew, he writes, since both his parents were Jews, but he was baptized a Catholic on 30 October 1943. He tells us how he escaped occupied Paris on an orphan’s transport, though he was not an orphan. Later he explains that he survived a German raid on his school in Grenoble because his birth certificate falsely listed his parents as André and Cécile instead of Icek and Cyrla. Perec makes it evident that he has only survived the war by virtue of losing himself. By the end of W, or The Memory of Childhood, Perec has ensured that all parts of him equal nothing. He has turned a living, breathing individual, with a personal and family history, a place in the world, a record of actions and contributions, into free-floating particles of dust, like all the others.
Now that you have the legend, you can confidently venture into the world atlas of Perec’s output. The maps seem to be covering different times and places — what does the massive novel La Vie mode d’emploi (Life: A User’s Manual), the detailed description of the life of a Paris apartment block, have to do with the slim story Le Voyage d’hiver (A Winter’s Journey), the taleof a newly discovered book whose style and contents specifically predate a number of French classics? But the territory, once approached, becomes familiar. Gaspard Winckler appears in Life: A User’s Manual as a craftsman who cuts the story into 99 pieces (the 100th tantalizingly missing), and the great book at the center of A Winter’s Journey is lost during the course of the Second World War: no copies of the book, no sign to prove it existed (even if the proof is everywhere, in every book you read). Like the 100th puzzle piece, Anton Vowl, Gaspard Winckler, Georges Perec and all his work, it is lost in the void.
In An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration, the wide-ranging art and literary scholar Mario Praz makes an inventory of the crammed studio of the painter Hans Makart. Makart popularized the bouquets of dried reeds, palm fronds, and thistles that were all the rage in mid-19th century Vienna. In Makart’s studio, Praz finds:
pseudo-Romantic bronzes, musical instruments, ivories, old weapons, fragments of Baroque altars, busts, sarcophagi, coats-of-arms, velvets, metal braziers, medieval German lamps of stag’s horns ending in sirens’ busts, Oriental rugs, animals’ skins, African weapons, brackets, screens, and palms, palms, palms.
Not to be outdone by Pevsner, Praz describes the scene as “a palette smeared with an archipelago of greedy colors.” Unlike Pevsner, though, Praz did not see the profusion of objects as the story; what he saw was their failure to conquer the void. “All this was color,” he said, referring to the objects that overran Makart’s studio, “but it also meant dust.”
In Perec’s world, absence takes on the same contours as presence. Nothingness draws in everything it touches — decorated window frames, mercury barometers, Frankfurt School philosophers, the letters of the alphabet, postcards coming through your mail slot, literary theory, Tierra del Fuego, black-and-white movies, kissy-wissies, crossword puzzles. In Perec’s studio, all the world is gathered, displayed, and accounted for. At first glance, it seems everything is there. But once you look at it through Perec’s eyes, it quickly disintegrates. Our entire world is revealed as horreur vacui.