Thursday, September 10, 2009

Georges Perec: Statement of Intent

[For those of you familiar with Georges Perec, you'll be excited to learn that we have just released a newly-revised edition of David Bellos's translation of his masterpiece, Life A User's Manual, the 700-page novel that deserves every accolade it's ever earned, from being named to Rolling Stone's "Hip Reading List," to winning the Prix Medicis. Interviewed shortly after the novel's publication in 1978, Perec stated that his intention for the book had been to tell "stories which one devours, stretched out on one's bed." And the novel delivers; it's a page-turner and far more. In conjunction with Life A User's Manual, we have also just released Thoughts of Sorts, a collection of Perec's essays, and the first collection of his writings to be published posthumously in 1985. The selection was made by Marcel Benabou, a fellow Oulipian and friend of Perec's. Available now for the first time in English translation by David Bellos, Thoughts of Sorts is a window into the comically classifying mind of Georges Perec. We've reproduced here the first essay, "Statement of Intent," in order to give you an idea of the nature of these writings, as well as a key to understanding Perec's diverse and numerous works, all available now in English translation from Godine. For those of you who haven't heard of Perec before but have read this far, the "Statement" below is a great place to start. I recommend then that you read his first novel Things, A Story of the Sixties; it's short and poignant, and I guarantee you'll be hooked from then on and thankful for the prolific output of Perec's sadly abbreviated life. — Susan Barba, editor]

“Statement of Intent” by Georges Perec

When I attempt to state what I have tried to do as a writer since I began, what occurs to me first of all is that I have never written two books of the same kind, or ever wanted to reuse a formula, or a system, or an approach already developed in some earlier work.

This systematic versatility has baffled more than one critic seeking to put his finger on the “characteristics” of my writing, and in all probability it has also disheartened some of my readers. It has earned me the reputation of being some sort of computer or machine for producing texts. As I see it, I should rather compare myself to a farmer with many fields: in one field he grows beets, in another wheat, in a third alfalfa, and so on. In like manner, the books I have written belong to four different fields, four different modes of questioning, which, in the last analysis, perhaps address the same problem, but approach it from different perspectives, each of which corresponds, for me, to a specific kind of literary work.

The first of these modes could be called sociological: it has to do with looking at the ordinary and the everyday. It is this mode of questioning which underlies texts like Things, Species of Spaces, Tentative de description de quelques lieux parisiens, and the work done by the team at Cause Commune under the direction of Jean Duvignaud and Paul Virilio. The second mode is of an autobiographical kind: W, or The Memory of Childhood, La Boutique obscure, Je me souviens, Lieux où j’ai dormi, etc. The third is the ludic mode, which relates to my liking for constraints, exploits and “exercises”, and gives rise to all the work based on the notions and devices gleaned from the Oulipo’s experiments: palindromes, lipograms, pangrams, anagrams, isograms, acrostics, crosswords, and so on. The fourth and last is the novelistic mode, and it grows from my love of stories and adventures, from my wish to write books to be read at a gallop: Life A User’s Manual is the obvious example.

This is a rather arbitrary distribution, and it could be greatly refined. Almost none of my books is entirely devoid of autobiographical traces (for example, an allusion to one of the day’s events in a chapter in progress); likewise, almost none is assembled without recourse to one or another Ouli­pian structure or constraint, even if only symbolically, without the relevant constraint or structure constraining me in the least.

Actually, beyond these four horizons which define the compass of my work – the world around me, my own history, language, and fiction – I think my ambition as a writer would be to run through the whole gamut of the literature of my age without ever feeling I was going back on myself or treading ground I had trod before, and to write every kind of thing that it is possible for a man to write nowadays: big books and small ones, novels and poems, plays, libretti, crime fiction, adventure stories, science fiction, serials and children’s books. . . .

I have never felt at ease in talking about my work in theoretical or abstract terms. Even if what I produce seems to stem from a long-worked-out programme, from a long-standing plan, I believe far more that I find my direction by following my nose. From the books I have written, in the order I have written them, I get the sometimes reassuring and sometimes uneasy feeling (uneasy because it is always suspended on a “projected” work, on an incompletion pointing to the unsayable, the desperate object of writing’s desire) that they map a path, mark out a space, signpost a fumbling route, describe the specific staging posts of a search which has no why but only a how: I feel confusedly that the books I have written are inscribed and find their meaning in the overall image that I have of literature, but it seems to me that I shall never quite grasp that image entirely, that it belongs for me to a region beyond writing, to the question of “why I write”, which I can never answer except by writing, and thus deferring forever the very moment when, by ceasing to write, that image would visibly cohere, like a jigsaw puzzle inexorably brought to its completion.

excerpted from Thoughts of Sorts
translated by David Bellos

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