Margaret Drabble: Why I was wrong about Georges Perec

It took me a long time to get to grips with Perec, but I'm glad I did.

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I am ashamed of my record with the French ­novelist and essayist Georges Perec. For years, I ignorantly associated him with the nouveau roman, which arrived in England in the late 1950s when I was an undergraduate. I took against Alain Robbe-Grillet when his work was pressed upon me and was lukewarm about Nathalie Sarraute. I preferred Sartre and de Beauvoir.

I was beginning to write fiction and the experimentalism of the new French novelists seemed to me arid and uninteresting. All I knew of Perec was that he had written a whole novel without using the letter E, an exercise that seemed to me, before I read it, to be deeply pointless: indeed, offensively frivolous. I’m afraid I sometimes made this point in public, when talking about the state of fiction. One should never speak of books one has not read.

I had never heard of Oulipo, a group of writers who believed in formal constraints and self-imposed problems, of which he was a member.

How wrong I was about Perec. I might never have read him had I not decided to write a book about the history of jigsaw puzzles, and a friend tipped me off about the greatest puzzle book ever written, La Vie mode d’emploi (1978), translated by David Bellos as Life: a User’s Manual (1987). I was enraptured by this masterpiece, which seemed to combine the virtues of two of my favourite French writers, Émile Zola and Jules Verne, and to add an extraordinary imaginative complexity of its own.

It is a vast mosaic, an enormous tapestry, a gigantic manual of jigsaw-making and solving, and an immensely satisfying narrative about Paris. It is bustling with life and interlocking stories: it is the reverse of arid. It is written to a plan, based on a chess problem known as the “Knight’s Tour”. I don’t understand chess but this did not matter at all.

I immersed myself in this novel, the unifying vitality of which soars above its formidable but playful intertextuality. I went on to read Bellos’s engrossing 1993 biography, which has what is surely one of the best descriptions of a successful psychoanalysis ever written, and his translation of Perec’s moody, atmospheric first novel, Les Choses, set partly in a morbidly quiescent Tunisia. Les Choses is as memorable as Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes is, to me, forgettable.

Perec’s passion for classi­fication, for enumeration, for lists, for patterns, for the thinginess of things, is strangely captivating and, despite an underlying melancholy, exhilarating. In this, he resembles Zola, who was also obsessed by detail, by “le saut dans les étoiles sur le tremplin de l’observation exacte”, which I take to mean “a leap to the stars from the springboard of precise observation”. The fact takes flight towards the symbol – I’m sure Zola said this somewhere, too, but I can’t find the reference. Anyway, I took this position to justify my love of a hyperrealism that reaches experimentalism and I found in Perec the most extreme manifestation of this tendency.

Eventually I got to grips with the novel without an E, La Disparition (1969), translated into English in 1994 by Gilbert Adair in a witty and inventive version under the title A Void; and with W ou le Souvenir d’enfance (1975), which descends into the world of the concentration camp and the Holocaust, to which Perec lost his mother. Nothing playful here at all, but a heroic attempt to salvage and reconstruct his past from a few fragments of memory, a few photographs, a few place names.

Georges Perec died of lung cancer in 1982 after many years of heavy smoking. His prose is punctuated by cigarettes. He often said that his life would be better if he could quit smoking, or organise his library better. He never managed to do either, but he left us some idiosyncratic and incomparable works.

Margaret Drabble is the author of “The Millstone”, “The Pure Gold Baby” and other works