A Double Life: Georges Perec, W, and the Making of The Memory of Childhood

R. J. E Bacon


In 1987, five years after his death, Georges Perec's last completed novel, Life A Users Manual, was published in Britain and America to great acclaim. In the following ten years all of his completed, published, novels and his final uncompleted novel, were published in English translation plus a collection of shorter, non-fiction works. And in 2014, his first, but unpublished, novel, Portrait of a Man, was also published. Further, in 1993, the translator of many of his most significant works, David Bellos, produced an exhaustive biography called Georges Perec: A Life In Words that was highly praised and which won the Prix Goncourt for Biography in 1994. As well as garnering significant critical acclaim all of these works in translation sold well. So for a French writer, who died young, Perec probably achieved greater prominence and commercial success in translation than many French writers, if not quite reaching the household name status of a Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir, or Derrida.

On the other hand, it is also true that he remains somewhat unknown and enigmatic. And this is perhaps because he cannot be slotted into any easily recognised categories and he remained somewhat elusive as a “personality”. His final three major works – A Void, W, and Life a Users Manual – may seem, on the surface, lightweight, ludic, constructed with and round a number of self-imposed rules and constraints, and rather haphazardly put together. This surface appearance is a consequence of his membership of OuLiPo where the literary and personal content might seem subservient to the mathematical and games-playing demands and skills. And yet, at the same time, each of them deal, if somewhat elliptically, with some very intense and personally and historically significant themes – of mass destruction and genocide, of abandonment, emptiness and anomie, and of how to speak of the unspeakable. And they do so in a way that unexpectedly hits the reader with great emotional force.

Moreover, unlike his perhaps better-known near contemporary Patrick Modiano, Perec never wrote the same book twice, preferring, as he put it, to try and write in every style possible.  John Sturrock sums up the situation in this way:


Perec was a Parisian and an intellectual in many of his tastes, but too nervous and too sincerely democratic ever to have wanted to start pronouncing on this and that in the megaphone role of the of a Paris intellectual….(Like Jean-Paul Sartre and others) Perec, too, went to Left-Bank cafes, not in his case to lay down any law…but rather to play the pinball machines…Which is a more human way than most of coping with ennui. (Sturrock, 1997, px).


            All this makes him hard to categorise and so, perhaps easy to ignore or overlook. Sturrock also points out that anyone reading Perec is better off knowing the terrible facts

of his childhood, “since not knowing them will make at least some of his writings seem much less affecting than they actually are”(ibid, pxi). I hope, in what follows, that by uncovering something of what lies concealed in ‘W’, his greatest and most challenging work, that it will be easier to appreciate the depth of his skill and the extent of his importance as a contemporary writer.



psychoanalysis, literature, holocaust, memory

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1234/fa.v0i74.231

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