Scenes from the Resistance: Georges Perec’s “La boutique obscure”

By David AuerbachMarch 6, 2013

La boutique obscure by Georges Perec

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 Beckermay 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, emotions, and concepts. We may dream of looking at a painting by Rembrandt, but surely our minds lack the capacity to reproduce a Rembrandt in all its detail. A dream, like a drug hallucination, is an exquisite form of lying to oneself, inflating psychic residue into insubstantial mirages. Language is designed to negotiate reality, not the confused recesses of our mind; and, in its translation into words, the dream is inevitably transformed into something else: a story, one which claims to relate to the real world, not to the illogical assemblages of the subconscious. 

What happens over the course of La boutique obscure is that the effort of Perec’s translation process starts to affect how he dreams. His dreams begin to become more compatible with his writing, more story-like. Far from revealing the author’s soul, this change disconnects Perec from his own unconscious. The book’s index gives the first clues as to the cul-de-sac into which Perec enters. Consider the very idea of an index, in which an author selects certain elements of his text to emphasize over others. Already having translated his dreams into a few lines of text, Perec now transforms bits of them even further, elevating them to the status of entries in the index. Which bits does he choose? Objects more often than people, and generalizations over specifics. (Perec is not a visual thinker; like Kafka, his writing is full of processes more than descriptions.) Thus, “Acceleration” appears in the index, but not “Jules Verne.” “Maitre d’” has five subindices, but there is not one entry for any of the many named people who recur, usually referred to by initials. (“P.” and “Z.,” both lovers or ex-lovers of Perec, are the most prominent.) “Anxiety” has an immense number of unclassified entries, though “Despair” only has three. “Food” and “Money” are carefully catalogued, while “Sex” is passed over in favor of only “Nudity” and “Love in Public.” “Men” and “Women” do not appear in their own entries, but only as subentries under the indices for “Two” and “Three.”

This arbitrary but rigorous approach to categorization, of course, sounds like an archetypal Oulipian exercise. But there is something odd about applying Oulipian procedures to dreams. Applying words and rules to dreams constricts their inchoate possibilities. In our lives, reality has already constrained our perceptions. In dreams, there’s no external check. Something can be both pretty and ugly, two words can be spoken simultaneously (as happens several times in La boutique obscure), and plenty of other things can happen that elude being expressed in plain language. Indexing objects in dreams pins them down, restricts them, and limits them to particular interpretations.

And indeed, the urge toward classification eventually begins to weigh down Perec’s own dreaming. From early on, there are hints that the descriptions aren’t quite matching up to the dreams. In dream #28, “The Epidemic,” Perec narrates from the third-person point of view of “[t]he dreamer (this whole story is like a novel in the third person).” And #52 bafflingly begins, “’Twas a story replete with twists and turns.” How did he dream such a rhetorical gesture?

As the journal proceeds through the first two years, the dreams gradually become more vivid, better assembled, like carefully encapsulated little stories. One memorably tells of Perec being shocked to find a number of e’s in the text of A Void, and wondering how the critics missed them. The horrific dream #77, in which he kills his wife and sells her as “quality meat,” deserves a more probing psychoanalysis than I can give here.

In the climactic dream #85, “Balls and masks,” the journal’s recurrent imagery of prisons and concentration camps (sometimes masked as hotels, or associated with Rue de Boulangers, the street of bakers and their ovens) lucidly merges with Perec’s present-day Parisian life. The hotel is now also a prison, serving for torture and sadism. Perec’s dreaming self is left powerless in the face of, among others, a group of gamblers. He wins a fair amount from them, but then loses a small sum, and realizes, “This seems to mean: We can make you win but we can also make you lose when we want and don’t you forget it.

After this traumatic point of fear and impotence, a calculated retreat begins. In the following dream (#86), Perec finds himself crossing a bridge that breaks, only to be saved by the hand of his friend L. “O, precious symbolism!” he cries out — in his dream. Symbolism and cinematic distance are what allow him to process such horrors in a dissociated way, as a spectator rather than as a participant.

From there on out, Perec’s dreams increasingly collapse into artifice, aesthetic distance outweighing psychic terror. Generic narratives and structured genre plots take the place of the free-floating, and far more frightening, conceptions of the earlier dreams. By #99, his memories of the occupation have turned into a movie, containing “Scenes from the resistance” — no further details are given. In #116, he finds himself in a melodramatic confrontation with the police, but observes, “I know this is only a scene from Duck, You Sucker!” (referring to Sergio Leone’s 1971 Western film). And as the action becomes more artificial, the abstractions become less sinister and more playful, more carefully controlled and secure from psychic intrusion — more Oulipian. #103 reads like the working out of private word games: “the pun is a bear to get my bearings: a glass of bear!”

This is not to say that Perec is any more aware that he is dreaming. It only means that what he experiences in his dreams increasingly seems less real. I can only speculate on Perec’s reaction, but if my dreams constantly underscored their artificiality while still appearing not to be dreams, I would be extremely disturbed and fear for my engagement with the world and my connection with my own psyche. This, perhaps, is what dream #114, baldly titled “The puzzle,” is about. The impossible puzzles Perec encounters here are unusual in having infinite permutations:

As proof, somehow, of this nearly limitless permutation, I take a piece from the side of one of the fragments (which are, I forgot to say, like the puzzle, not square or regular like most puzzles, but somehow “sideless,” without a rectilinear border) and turn it over for a few moments, then replace it at the side of another fragment, where it fits immediately. 

Dreams, like Perec’s fragments, are emphatically not jigsaw puzzles. The lack of definite structure means that any piece of a dream can fit with any other (Freud’s great sin being that of limiting interpretations to those he perceived to be the “correct” ones). With a dream, there is no final picture, no puzzle to be solved, only nearly limitless permutations. Yet as Perec’s dreams become increasingly orderly, the individual “sideless” pieces form more definite shapes that necessarily limit their assemblage. The dreaming process becomes a linear classificatory process, straitjacketing Perec’s unconsciousness and finally his consciousness as well. His dreams are becoming puzzles, and are thus ceasing to be dreams. 

Critics and readers have long wondered what motivates the writers of the Oulipo, whose works can seem like sterile inventions to the uninitiated. But their formal constraints must ultimately serve some end other than themselves; art does not come out of the constraints themselves, but of the vital and painful clash between control and chaos. Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, for instance, explicitly portrays the Oulipo mechanisms as a form of avoiding, confronting, and ultimately accepting the premature death of his wife. 

Perec worked out of a similarly tragic sense of loss. At the same time as he was keeping this dream journal, he was writing his memoir, W., or the Memory of Childhood, which alternates between brief memories of his parents, both of whom he lost in childhood (his father to German soldiers, his mother to a concentration camp), and a grim description of a totalitarian state where a seemingly structured system of athletics turns out to degenerate into carefully planned arbitrariness, with athletes manipulated, rules broken, and the referees dispensing sadism and unfairness. The rigging of the games is designed, as it was in ancient Sparta, to cultivate greater uncertainty, determination, and achievement in the competitors. Justice is sacrificed to chaos in the name of the collective. This world — the world of the Nazis and of the camps — gives the appearance of order while actually being nothing but a more fully institutionalized system of arbitrary cruelty.

This revelation of naked sadism behind a facade of apparent order is horrific, and it occurs repeatedly in La boutique obscure (as, for example, in the gambling sequence of #85, described above). For a voracious mind like Perec’s, always seeking reason and understanding, the salve of fixed, immaculate puzzles, set for one’s self and solved, holds a great appeal. The rules of Oulipian games are explicit and impartial, determined by chance alone; they are implacable, but they are not rigged. That is why they are a comfort and a refuge. The danger, as Perec found, is in dissociation from life and from one’s self, from the arbitrary and cruel chaos of dreams and reality alike. 


LARB Contributor

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer. His book Illogical Operator: A Life in Code is forthcoming from Pantheon. He lives in New York.


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