A review of Things: A Story of the Sixties and A Man Asleep by Georges Perec

With merciless persistence Perec pursues the crowd of shallow young men and women with their dissatisfactions which they mistake for pleasures and with their greatest goals both paltry and foolish. They have a need for one another but no loyalty, no capacity for friendship. Restless and dissatisfied, they see money as their only cure.

Reviewed by Bob WIlliams

Things: A Story of the Sixties and A Man Asleep
by Georges Perec
David R. Godine
1990, ISBN 1-56792-157-4, $16.95, 221 pages

Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Both the short novels in this book are of a kind not much known in English. Both Gide and Montherlant wrote books of this kind and so the type must be at home in France. Such books would disappoint Alice by the lack of conversations, but a more mature reader will appreciate their density and fixity of purpose.

Georges Perec was born in 1936 of Jewish parents. The father died as a soldier in the defense of France against the German invasion. Not long after, the authorities sent his mother to Auschwitz where she was murdered. Aunt Esther and Uncle David became Georges’s guardians. He early determined on writing as his vocation and Things,the product of numerous rewrites was his first book.

Things and A Man Asleep made their appearance in 1965 and 1967 respectively. Things was a popular and critical success, but A Man Asleep met with a far less favorable response. Both novels have acquired a luster as the earliest works of an author who in 1978 wrote Life A User’s Manual, a masterpiece of twentieth century fiction. But both of these early books have an independent merit.

The opening of Things makes an unidentified ‘you’ a participant – “Your eyes, first of all” begins a description of an apartment. Seen thus objectively, it is a pleasant place. But it is not so to Jérôme and Sylvie, the occupants. These two have no particular talents, but they have a great lust for material possessions, for a life free from want. They wish to live a life with style. Appropriately they are both employees of a consumer research organization. (Perec did this kind of work and Jérôme and Sylvie’s apartment is based on one that he lived in.)

With merciless persistence Perec pursues the crowd of shallow young men and women with their dissatisfactions which they mistake for pleasures and with their greatest goals both paltry and foolish. They have a need for one another but no loyalty, no capacity for friendship. Restless and dissatisfied, they see money as their only cure.

Jérôme and Sylvie find themselves more and more alone as their friends gravitate to executive positions and form new friendships elsewhere. Such ascension is inadmissible for our couple. With them, it is all or nothing. They must have fabulous wealth or the benefits of slothful leisure. Perec displays in their fantasies a garden of earthly delights maliciously underscored by the exuberance of his excess.

Unable to ignore any longer their ignoble life in Paris, they go to Sfax in Tunisia where Sylvie has gained a teaching position. Perec, having been to Sfax, again draws on his own experience. But the Paris of their unfulfilled dreams was the land of the blessed compared to Sfax – a city that is a blank surrounded by nothingness – and it becomes their purgatory. Even when confronted with luxury, the austerity of North Africa has purged them as much from want as from envy. They return to Paris, successfully exert themselves to find executive positions, and settle down to a life of comfort – and emptiness – that in their days of want they rejected.

A Man Asleep – like Things – almost immediately uses the word ‘you,’ but unlike Things, the use of ‘you’ is constant throughout. When Perec as co-director made A Man Asleep into a movie, he decided that the voice-over be spoken by a woman so as to avoid a false impression that the words spoken were the interior monologue of the male protagonist.

The unnamed young man has succumbed to apparently incurable abulia. He abandons his scholastic career, avoids his friends, and reduces his speech to a minimum. He walks and reads without pleasure. He plays endless games of patience. He studies the cracks and flaws in the ceiling of his tiny garret room.

In Life A User’s Guide he will reappear. In Life his name is Grégoire Simpson and he too will have a copy of Eighteen Lectures on Industrial Society by Raymond Aron. Both the man of Asleep and Grégoire will reach page 112 before they abandon the book.

In Asleep Perec asks to what extent a man can detach himself from his fellows and still function. In complete detachment St. John of the Cross experienced a Dark Night of the Soul. He was the only mystic to experience this. It is significant that we today, neither detached nor mystic, know the Dark Night of the Soul as at least an intermittent state. Perec here provides its roadmap.

But he will not grant his man the benefit of falling to the bottom. Others have apprehended this experience as necessary for spiritual birth, but Perec will have none of it, and in his final chapter he subjects his man to ferocious denunciations. He is, of course, tacitly admitting that the man is himself.

This book is shorter than Things, but the number of chapters is greater. Its focus is narrower but it probes more deeply and is aimed at more vital issues. The translation cannot hide the extraordinary lyrical beauty and passion of the style. A Man Asleep is unflinching and even uncompromisingly hard in the pursuit of its inquisitions, but it is an experience like no other.

The early works by a genius often occupy a special category. The more superficial Joyceans are not, for example, often familiar with Dubliners or even with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. More dedicated Joyceans know these early works well but mostly for the sake of the later masterpieces. They might even quietly admit that, except for the last three stories, Dubliners is not of consistent quality. But these first works of Perec may stand without need for apology or any conditional considerations. Recommended.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

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