Georges Perec

Georges Perec (March 7, 1936 - March 3, 1982) was a 20th century French novelist, filmmaker and essayist, a member of the Oulipo group and considered by many to be one of the most important post-WWII authors.



Perec was born in a working class neighbourhood in Paris, the only son of Icek Judko and Cyrla (Schulewicz) Peretz, Polish Jews who had emigrated to France in the 1920s. Perec's father, who enlisted in the French Army during World War II, died in 1940 from unattended gunfire or shrapnel wounds, and Perec's mother perished in the Nazi Holocaust, probably in Auschwitz. Perec was taken into the care of his paternal aunt and uncle in 1942, and in 1945 he was formally adopted by them.

He started writing reviews and essays for Nouvelle Revue Française and Les Lettres Nouvelles, prominent literary publications, while studying history and sociology at the Sorbonne. In 1958-59 Perec served in the army, and married Paulette Petras after being discharged. They lived in Tunis for a few years, where Paulette worked as a teacher.

In 1962, Perec began working as as an archivist at the Neurophysiological Research Laboratory attached to the Hôpital Saint-Antoine, a low paid position he kept until 1979. A few reviewers have noted that the daily handling of records and variegated data may have had an influence on his literary style. Perec's other major influence was the Oulipo, which he joined in 1967, meeting Raymond Queneau, among others. Queneau and Perec became close friends and Perec dedicated his masterpiece, La Vie mode d'emploi (Life: A User's Manual) to Queneau, who died before it was published.

Perec began working on a series of radio plays with his translator Eugen Helmle and the musician Philippe Drogoz in the late 60s; less than a decade later, he was making films. His first work, based on his novel Un Homme qui dort, was co-directed by Bernard Queysanne, and won the Prix Jean Vigo in 1974. Perec also created crossword puzzles for Le Point from 1976 on.

La Vie mode d'emploi (1978) brought him some financial and critical success - it won the Prix Medici - and allowed Perec to turn to writing full-time. He was a writer in residence at the University of Queensland, Australia in 1981, during which time he worked on the unfinished Cinquante-Trois Jours (53 Days). He was obliged to return on account of poor health, and he died of cancer the following year, only forty-five years old.


Many of his novels and essays abound with experimental wordplay, lists and attempts at classification, and they are usually tinged with melancholy.

Perec's first novel, Les Choses (Things: A Story of the Sixties) was awarded the Prix Renaudot in 1965.

Life: A User's Manual (original title La vie mode d'emploi) is his best-known work. It takes the elevation plan of a Paris apartment, split into a grid representing the stories and rooms, and visits one square per chapter, describing the contents and events that have shaped that volume of space since the block's construction and even prior. The novel is crammed with literary allusions, hundreds of different story threads, and several key over-arching stories, with many detailed descriptions that seem to be the verbal equivalent of photographs or still lifes. The principal one is the tale of Bartlebooth, a rich Englishman who invents a scheme that will occupy his entire life and utilise his entire fortune with the aid of his butler, and yet leave no visible trace whatsoever.

"Cantatrix Sopranica L. (" is a spoof scientific paper detailing experiments on the "yelling reaction" provoked in sopranos by pelting them with rotten tomatoes. All the references in the paper are multi-lingual puns and jokes, eg "(Karybb et Scyla, 1973)".

Perec is also noted for his constrained writing: his 300 page novel A Void (La disparition, 1969) is a lipogram, written without ever using the letter "e". It has been translated into English twice, as Vanish'd (John Lee) and A Void (Gilbert Adair, 1994).

His novella Les revenentes (1972) is a complementary piece in which the letter "e" is the only vowel used. This even affects the title, which would conventionally be spelt Revenantes. An English translation by Ian Monk was published in 1996 as The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex in the collection Three.

It has been remarked by Jacques Roubaud that these two novels draw words from two disjoint sets of the French language, and that a third novel would be possible, made from the words not used so far (those containing both "e" and a vowel other than "e").

W ou le souvenir d'enfance, (W, or, the Memory of Childhood, 1975) is a semi-autobiographical work, hard to classify. Two alternating narratives make up the volume, one a fictional outline of a totalitarian island country called "W", patterned partly on life in a concentration camp, and the second, descriptions of childhood, that merge towards the end when the common theme of the Holocaust is explained.

David Bellos wrote an extensive biography of Perec: Georges Perec: A Life in Words, which won the Prix Goncourt for Biography in 1994.


Works by Perec

Selected works:

  • Les Choses: Une histoire des années soixante, 1965 - Les Choses: A Story of the Sixties / Things: A Story of the Sixties
  • Quel petit vélo à guidon chromé au fond de la cour?, 1966 - Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back Yards?
  • Un homme qui dort, 1967 - A Man Asleep - (film in 1973, with Bernard Queysanne)
  • La Disparition, 1969 - A Void
  • Petit traité invitant à la découverte de l'art subtil du go, 1969 (with Pierre Lusson et Jacques Roubaud)
  • Les Revenentes, 1972 - The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex
  • Die Maschine, 1972
  • La Boutique obscure: 124 rêves, 1973
  • Espèces d'espaces, 1974 - Species of Spaces and Other Pieces
  • Ulcérations, 1974
  • film: Les Lieux d'une fugue, 1975
  • W ou le souvenir d'enfance, 1975 - W, or, the Memory of Childhood
  • Alphabets, Galilée, 1976 (illust. by Dado)
  • Je me souviens, 1978
  • La Vie mode d'emploi, 1978 - Life: A User's Manual
  • Les mots croisés, 1979
  • Un cabinet d'amateur, 1979 - A Gallery Portrait
  • film-script: Alftred et Marie, 1979
  • La Clôture et autres poèmes, 1980
  • Récits d'Ellis Island: Histoires d'errance et d'espoir, 1980 (television film with Robert Bober) - Ellis Island
  • Théâtre I, 1981
  • Epithalames, 1982
  • prod: Catherine Binet's Les Jeux de la Comtesse Dolingen de Gratz, 1980-82
  • Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien, 1982
  • Penser Classer, 1985
  • Les mots croisés II, 1986
  • "53 Jours", 1989 (ed. by Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud) - 53 Days
  • L'infra-ordinaire, 1989
  • Vaeux, 1989
  • Cantatrix sopranica L. et aitres écrits scientifiques, 1991
  • L.G.: Une aventure des années soixante, 1992
  • Le Voyage d'hiver, 1993
  • Beaux présents belles absentes, 1994
  • Three by Perec, 1996
  • Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, 1997 (ed. by John Sturrock)

Works on Perec

  • The Poetics of Experiment by Warren Motte (1984)
  • Perec ou les textes croisés by J. Pedersen (1985)
  • Pour un Perec lettré, chiffré by J-M. Raynaud (1987)
  • Georges Perec by Claude Burgelin (1988)
  • Georges Perec: Traces of His Passage by Paul Schwartz (1988)
  • Perecollages 1981-1988 by Bernard Magné (1989)
  • La Mémoire et l'oblique by Philippe Lejeune (1991)
  • Georges Perec: A Life in Words by David Bellos (1993)
  • Georges Perec: Ecrire Pour Ne Pas Dire by Stella Béhar (1995)
  • Georges Perec Et I'Histoire, ed. by Carsten Sestoft & Steen Bille Jorgensen (2000)

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