A review of W, or the Memories of Childhood by Georges Perec

This is a book of complexities and difficult issues. It finds an imaginative path into the abyss of man’s failure to be human. It is therefore a horror story, but one with unflinching honesty and an ability to extract poetry from ultimate desperations. Like the facts that it expresses, it cannot be overlooked.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

W, or the Memories of Childhood
by Georges Perec
David R. Godine
1988, ISBN 1-56792-158-2, $16.95, 164 pages

W was the name of the fantasy country with whose imagining Perec amused himself as a child. In a brief opening statement Perec describes the book. It is two stories told in alternating chapters. He writes of “the distant light they cast on each other” and they say “in their fragile overlapping” what cannot be fully expressed in either story. To keep the two stories distinct, I will use 
for the fantasy and Memories for the autobiography.

The narrator recounts his early history and speaks of the death of his father when the narrator was almost six. This resembles Perec’s own situation more or less. He was born in 1936 and his father died a soldier’s death in 1940. The narrator makes no mention of his mother. Perec’s mother died at Auschwitz, murdered by the Nazis. Perec’s silence is significant of this tragedy. He could never properly mourn one whose death resided in unthinkable enormity.

Perec is unreliable – and he admits it – in his account of his childhood: for example, his Aunt Esther did not adopt him as he says; she and her husband David became his guardians.

At the end of Part One Perec has brought Memories up to his early school years, and his flight, without his mother, to a safer region of France. He records all that did happen and some of what could have happened. He admits that, true or false, none of the vitality of this part of his life is recoverable. In W the protagonist narrator is a young man, a deserter from the French army, who has fled to Germany. He is found by Otto Apfelstahl, representative of a maritime rescue organization. A boy of ten with the same name as the deserter has been lost at sea. The name? Gaspard Winckler. The name is thus triply mysterious since Perec has already used it once and will use it again.

The narrative mode for in Part Two is different. Winckler is no longer the narrator and the story gives way to a sociological analysis of a society on an otherwise unexplored island off the tip of South America. The settlers were all of Nordic stock and reflecting the passion of Wilson, their leader, the society is governed and organized by a fanatic devotion to sport. In Memories Perec finds no continuity in his recollections as he moves carefully though an alienated and alienating world.

The interplay between and Memories is indeed a “fragile overlapping.” A child accepts almost any kind of a world. The joys of childhood are exaggerated in recollection. Its many sorrows can be endured only if the child can put them at a distance. Memories reflects this. Perec records his childhood, and wonders that it provokes so little feeling in him. is the world about which feelings are possible but Perec is careful to express none. If W is dedicated to sport, it could be an amiable commonwealth in an otherwise troubled and vicious world. It is not so. Dedication to a single ideal has warped a society that consists of a capricious ruling class and their victims. Perec thus creates two worlds, but they are the same whether we see them as the plight of a child or the prison of a dystopia.

Perec unites W with reality at the end. The reality of W is the Nazi concentration camp. There is no attempt to unite the W of Part One with that of Part Two. The fiction of Winckler and of a lost society where sport rules are the likely limits of the twelve-year-old Perec’s fantasy. The nightmare ferocity of a cruel society governed by sadism and caprice is the forceful vision of the older Perec.

The presence of Winckler repays attention. As a significant personage he commanded major attention in Perec’s creativity. He appears as the protagonist villain of one of the several versions that led to Things, his first published novel (1965: W, or Memories of Childhood was published in 1975.) The later Gaspard Winckler (Life A User’s Manual, 1978) is a different man from any prior Winckler. In Life he has died before the opening of the story, and he is, if no longer a criminal, a mysterious figure capable of trickery tinged with malice. In his last incarnation he is a master puzzle maker, a role as natural to Perec as to Winckler.

This is a book of complexities and difficult issues. It finds an imaginative path into the abyss of man’s failure to be human. It is therefore a horror story, but one with unflinching honesty and an ability to extract poetry from ultimate desperations. Like the facts that it expresses, it cannot be overlooked.

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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