The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Georges Perec Day *

* (restored)

‘Georges Perec was born, the only son of Icek Judko and Cyrla (Schulewicz) Peretz – Polish Jews who had emigrated to France in the 1920s – in a working-class district of Paris. 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 La Nouvelle Revue Française and Les Lettres Nouvelles, prominent literary publications, while studying history and sociology at the Sorbonne. In 1961, Perec began working at the Neurophysiological Research Laboratory attached to the Hôpital Saint-Antoine as an archivist, a low-paid position which he retained until 1978. 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. Perec dedicated his masterpiece, La Vie mode d’emploi (Life: A User’s Manual) to Queneau, who died before it was published.

La Vie mode d’emploi (1978) brought Perec some financial and critical success – it won the Prix Médicis – and allowed him 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 53 Jours (53 Days). Shortly after his return from Australia, his health deteriorated. A heavy smoker, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died the following year, only forty-five years old.

‘The Association Georges Perec was founded in 1982 in order to promote the work of Georges Perec internationally and to establish public archives. The Perec archives in Paris have almost all editions of Perec’s work published both in France and abroad, as well as a weath of secondary literature on the author. The association is open to visits once a week in the Arsenal library. It organises a monthly seminar at Paris VII Jussieu university where researchers present papers on Perec. It also publishes its own biannual Bulletin Georges Perec with details of the latest editions and secondary literature published worldwide, and the Cahiers Georges Perec with articles on Perec’s work.’ — collaged



Georges Perec, Oulibiographer
by Bernard Magne

‘There are facts: Georges Perec has been a member of the Oulipo since March 1967.

‘There are photographs: in the group’s “official” photo, taken in 1975, Georges Perec occupies the eleventh position from the right (counting the head of André Blavier on the table).

‘There are rules: despite his death on March 3, 1982, Georges Perec is still a member of the Oulipo—which, as we know, makes no distinction between living members and deceased ones.

‘There are statistics: “I consider myself a genuine product of the Oulipo. My existence as a writer is 90% dependent on my knowing the Oulipo at a pivotal point in my formation, in my literary work,” Perec has declared.

‘There is, above all, the complexity of a body of work so rich and so diverse that it seems impossible to reduce to a label—whether grandiose or grassroots is anyone’s guess.’

(Read the rest)



The Infra-Ordinary
In an essay written in 1973 (“Approches de quoi?” “Approaches to What?”), Georges Perec coined the term “l’infra-ordinaire” (the infra-ordinary) for those minimal aspects of reality which he hoped to zero in on. Perec asks himself: “What is the real in people’s life, what is the real in people’s consciousness? What real still belongs to them?” For him, the real is not what merits inclusion in History, but instead what is likely to be forgotten, what is fleeting, inconsequential. The anthropologist’s task is to rescue things from their opacity: “what we call quotidian is not evidence, but opacity” – writes Perec – “a kind of blindness, a sort of anesthesia.” In order to free oneself from such blindness, phenomenologists prescribe the bracketing of the world as a necessary precondition to understanding. Similarly, Perec’s first step is to detach himself from contingency, yet for him the process of bracketing focuses on what is the narrative material for other writers or journalists, evidence itself. He will scrupulously avoid any “interesting” detail; instead he will launch himself into a diligent analysis of the most trivial aspects of the here and now:
‘What happens everyday, the banal, the quotidian, the evident, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual; how can one account for it, how can one question it, how can one describe it?’

‘Trains begin to exist only when they are derailed, the more passengers are dead, the more trains exist; planes have access to existence only when they are hijacked; the only meaningful destiny for cars is crashing into a sycamore: fifty-two weekends per year, fifty-two totals; so many dead and all the better for the news if the figures keep increasing! […] In our haste to measure the historic, the meaningful, the revealing, we leave aside the essential.’

‘What really happens, what we live, all the rest, where is it?’

‘It is of no importance to me that these questions here are fragmentary and simply hint at a method, or, at the most, a project. It is of great importance to me, on the contrary, that these questions appear to be futile and trivial: it is precisely that which makes them as essential as, if not more essential than, so many other questions through which we have vainly tried to capture our truth.’

— taken from The Ali Baba Project

— Read Perec’s full essay ‘The Infra-Ordinary’ here.



Georges Perec Thoughts on the Art and Technique of Crossing Words

‘The construction of a crossword consists of two operations that are quite different and in the end perfectly independent of each other: the first is the filling of the diagram; the second is the search for definitions.

‘The filling of the diagram is a tedious, meticulous, maniacal task, a sort of letter-based arithmetic where all that matters is that words have this or that length, and that their juxtapositions reveal groupings that are compatible with the perpendicular construction of other words; it is a system of primary constraints where the letter is omnipresent but language is absent.’

(Read the rest of an extract here)

— Read the entirety in the March 2007 issue of The Believer



Georges Perec’s 10×10 Knight’s Tour
‘The following 10×10 Knight’s Tour was used by Georges Perec to descibe the rooms of a Paris apartment building in his masterpiece: Life: A User’s Manual.

Perec: “it would have been tedious to describe the building floor by floor and apartment by apartment; but that was no reason to leave the chapter sequence to chance. So I decided to use a principle derived from an old problem well known to chess enthusiasts as the Knight’s tour; it requires moving a knight around the 64 squares of a chess-board without its ever landing more than once on the same square… For the special case of Life A User’s Manual, a solution for a 10 x 10 chess-board had to be found… The division of the book into six parts was derived from the same principle: each time the knight has finished touching all four sides of the square, a new section begins”

‘Perec’s 10×10 Knight’s tour is reproduced below. Notice that the tour is not accurate, because of the incorrect knight move between squares 65 and 66. A more accurate knight’s tour can be seen further below.’

— taken from The Borders Chess Club Website



Georges Perec A Void

A Void (La Disparition) is a novel in the form of a lipogram in which the letter e does not appear. In English this deprives one of an essential article (“the”) and about two thirds of the words in the language; in French it is even worse, leaving one with about an eighth of the lexicon. My initial feeling was that this was a gimmick which might be amusing in a poem or a short story but which must surely be ridiculous in a novel, but I soon realised I was wrong.’

Excerpt: ‘Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I’d try to pun it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp – fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? – a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord, a whiplash of a cord, a cord that would split again and again, would knit again and again, of words without communication or any possibility of combination, words without pronunciation, signification or transcription but out of which, notwithstanding, was brought forth a flux, a continuous, compact and lucid flow: an intuition, a vacillating frisson of illumination as if caught in a flash of lightning or in a mist abruptly rising to unshroud an obvious sign – but a sign, alas, that would last an instant only to vanish for good.’

— Read ‘Anton Vowl,’ the first chapter of Perec’s A Void, here.



Georges Perec and classification
Oct 23rd, 2006 by maxine
from LibraryThing’s ideas blog

‘The brilliant, eclectic French writer Georges Perec is best known for his unconventional novel Life: A User’s Manual. Others may know him as the guy who wrote a novel, La disparition, without using a single e–which is at least as hard to pull off in French as it is in English—and followed it up with the shorter Les Revenentes, which used e as its only vowel! (La disparition was translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void; Les revenentes hasn’t been translated.) He wrote a 5,000 word palindrome—much harder to do before computers—and a fake paper on the “yelling effect” produced when a soprano is pelted with tomatoes.
‘What does any of this have to do with classification? Well, for much of his life Perec worked as a archivist and classifier for a scientific laboratory. He thought deeply about classification and its consequences, a topic which appears often in his essays and other (unclassifiable) short pieces, published in English as Species of Spaces. “Think/Classify” is (intentionally) an unordered grab bag of thoughts on the topic—Sei Shonagon’s lists, French place-names, the organization of the 1900 World’s Fair, his personal filing system, etc. “On the art…” aligns nicely with what Thingamabrarians say about what really happens when you try to put your books in order. Some choice bits:

“Disorder in a [personal] library is not serious in itself; it ranks with ‘Which drawer did I put my socks in?’ … Opposed to this apologia for the sympathetic disorder is the small-minded temptation toward an individual bureaucracy: one thing for each place and each place for its one thing, and vice versa. Between these two tensions, one which sets a premium on letting things be, on a good-natured anarchy, the other that exalts the virtues of the tabula rasa, the cold efficiency of the great arranging, one always ends by trying to set one’s book in order. This is a trying, depressing operation, but one liable to produce pleasant surprises, such as coming upon a book you had forgotten because you no longer see it and which, putting off until tomorrow what you won’t do today, you finally re-devour lying face down on your bed.”

“So very tempting to want to distribute the entire world in terms of a single code. A universal law would then regulate phenomena as a whole: two hemispheres, five continents, masculine and feminine, animal and vegetable, singular plural, right left, four seasons, five senses, six vowels, seven days, twelve months, twenty six letters. … Unfortunately, this doesn’t work, has never even begun to work, will never work. Which won’t stop us continuing for a long time to come to categorize this animal or that according to whether it has an odd number of toes or hollow horns.”

“Taxonomy can make your head spin. It does mine whenever my eyes light on an index of the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC). By what succession of miracles has agreement been reached, practically throughout the world, that 668.184.2.099 shall denote the finishing of toilet soap, and 629.1.018–465 horns on refuse vehicles; whereas 621.3.027.23, 621.436:382, 616.24—002.5—084, 796.54, and 913.15 denote respectively: tensions not exceeding 50 volts, the export trade in Diesel motors, the prophylaxy of tuberculosis, camping, and the ancient geography of Japan!’”

— taken from OWL’s (omnipresent Wisconsin librarian) Librarian’s Place Blog



Georges Perec Métaux
R.L.D. [Robert et Lydie Dutrou], 1985; edition of 135

‘Robert Dutrou, one of the most important French printers, founded the RLD studio in 1973. In 1985 they published seven poems by Georges Perec: Métaux. The book contained seven engravings by Italian artist Paolo Boni. In addition to his well known novels, Perec wrote so-called ‘heterogrammatical’ poems, written with a limited number of letters: a, e, i, l, n, o, r, s, t, u, adding one other letter of the alphabet for each poem (the so-called ‘joker’). The author therefore uses a special alphabet of only 11 letters for these poems. The poem is presented in a square of 11 x 11 letters, in which the letters he uses may only appear once in each line and each column. For clarity’s sake, the poem is also presented in more traditional form, with the addition of punctuation marks, accents, spaces and blank lines. In 1976 Perec published 176 such poems under the title Alphabets. He changed his spelling rules for Métaux: these are seven poems for which he used a 14-letter alphabet: 12 regular letters (a, d, e, i, l, m, n, o, r, s, t, u) with one additional letter for each poem, and another ‘joker’ letter.’

— See sample pages from Métaux and read more about the book here.



Three authors’ anagrammed versions of ‘Vocalisations’ by Georges Perec
‘These are all simultaneous anagrams and approximate English translations of Vocalisations by George Perec, a lipogrammatic rendering of Rimbaud’s poem Voyelles omitting the letter E. Note that this constraint is present at two levels: the poem elides the parts of Rimbaud’s original that talk about E, as well as avoiding the letter itself.’


A noir, (Un blanc), I roux, U safran, O azur:
Nous saurons au jour dit ta vocalisation:
A, noir carcan poilu d’un scintillant morpion
Qui bombinait autour d’un nidoral impur,

Caps obscurs; qui, cristal du brouillard ou du Khan,
Harpons du fjord hautain, Rois Blancs, frissons d’anis?
I, carmins, sang vomi, riant ainsi qu’un lis
Dans un courroux ou dans un alcahool mortifiant;

U, scintillations, rond divins du flot marin,
Paix du pâtis tissu d’animaux, paix du fin
Sillon qu’un fol savoir aux grands fronts imprima;

O, finitif clairon aux accords d’aiguisoir,
Soupirs ahurissant Nadir ou Nirvâna:
O l’omicron, rayon violin dans son Voir!

Read the authors’ anagrammations here.

— taken from The Anagrammy Awards Home Page



from Georges Perec’s History of the Lipogram
‘Exclusively preoccupied with its great capitals (Work, Style, Inspiration, World-Vision, Fundamental Options, Genius, Creation, etc.), literary history seems deliberately to ignore writing as practice, as work, as play. Systematic artifices, formal mannerisms (that which, in the final analysis, constitutes Rabelais, Sterne, Roussel…) are relegated to the registers of asylums for literary madmen, the “Curiosities”: “Amusing Library,” “Treasury of Singularities,” “Philological Entertainments,” “Literary Frivolities,” compilations of a maniacal erudition where rhetorical “exploits” are described with suspect complaisance, useless exaggeration, and cretinous ignorance. Constraints are treated therein as aberrations, as pathological monstrosities of language and of writing; the works resulting from them are not even worthy to be called “works”: locked away, once and for all and without appeal, and often by their authors themselves, these works, in their prowess and their skillfulness, remain paraliterary monsters justiciable only to a symptomology whose enumeration and classification order a dictionary of literary madness.’

— taken from Attempts: A reality-based blog by Stephen Frug



The system inside Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual

‘In keeping with Oulipo objectives, Perec created a complex system to construct the novel Life: A User’s Manual which would generate for each chapter a list of items, references or objects which that chapter should then contain or allude to. He described this system as a “machine for inspiring stories”. There are 42 lists of 10 objects each, gathered into 10 groups of 4 with the last two lists a special “Coupl
es” list. The way in which these apply to each chapter is governed by an array called a Graeco-Latin square. The lists are considered in pairs, and each pair is governed by one cell of the array, which guarantees that every combination of elements is encountered. For instance, the items in the couples list are seen once with their natural partner (in which case Perec gives an explicit reference), and once with every other element (where he is free to be cryptic). In the 1780s, the great mathematician Leonhard Euler had conjectured that a 10×10 Graeco-Latin square could not exist and it was not until 1959 that one was actually constructed, refuting Euler. To further complicate matters, the 38th and 39th list are named “Missing” and “False” and each list comprises the numbers 1 to 10. The number these lists give for each chapter indicates one of the 10 groups of 4 lists, and folds the system back on itself: one of the elements must be omitted, and one must be false in some way (an opposite, for example). Things become tricky when the Missing and False numbers refer to group 10, which includes the Missing and False lists.’

Wikipedia has a decent thumbnail explanation of the novel’s systems, and you can read it here.



George Perec’s Last Healthy Days in Australia
by Joseph K.

In 1981 Jean-Michel Raynaud, then lecturer in French at the University of Queensland, invited Perec to Australia for two months, and later documented the writer’s stay in Pour un Perec, lettré, chiffré (Presses universitaires de Lille, 1987).
Throughout that September, Georges Perec was resident writer at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, where his duties consisted mainly in running a weekly Oulipian poetry workshop for students and staff. Perec had hoped that, while in Australia, he would be able to concentrate on Fifty-three Days, the novel that was still unfinished when he died; but progress was slow, as he found himself busier than expected.
October was spent giving lectures and interviews in Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney, some of which were duly recorded. Things, his first novel and the only one then available in English, was already on the syllabus of many universities and, as a result, Perec gave several lectures on this book. He also talked at length about poetic writing and the work of Oulipo. Unfortunately there is no trace of the lecture in English entitled “Fiction and Autobiography” that Perec was scheduled to give at Flinders University, Adelaide, on 2 October 1981.
A few days before Perec’s departure for Australia, Kaye Mortley recorded a long conversation with him in English in Paris for The Listening Room, an Australian literary radio programme. This proved to be the last formal interview of his life, as he died of cancer not long after his return to France. Here are three of Perec’s answers:

– ‘At the end of my life, I would like to have used all the words of the dictionary. That’s impossible. And not only to … use all of them but to create some. That’s my ambition. That’s why I write and how I write, at the same time.’

How do you situate yourself in relationship to your readers…?

– ‘I represent myself as something like a chess player playing [a game of chess] with the reader. I must convince him, or her, to read what I wrote, and he must begin the book and go until the end. If he doesn’t, I miss my aim.’

So you regard him as a sort of alter ego who reads, who is reading?

– ‘Not exactly… yes, at the end. But I mean during the process of reading, I consider him like a chess mate – somebody who is playing a part with me. The model for that kind of thing is the detective novel, all detective novels. When you read a detective novel, you don’t care really about who kills the victim and who is the murderer and… you care only about… you wonder why you don’t find. And it’s very interesting because in a novel you try to play with what is true, what is false, what to think, what to… – just to keep an aura of suspense, in a sense like Roland Barthes uses it. Something is suspendu – hanging – and it’s a way of dreaming, of going elsewhere through the process of fiction. What is most important in a novel, it’s… I could say it’s not written. It’s something which is… behind the words and which is never said.’




p.s. Please welcome back Georges Perec Day, thank you. As for the p.s., it will see you again on Saturday.

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  1. A couple of years ago, the 80s lo fi experimental work of musician twin sisters From Nursery To Misery was featured in a Gig day on this blog. I just saw a great short film that catches up with them in 2015, still living together in a small house in the woods near to the Welsh city of Swansea. If you’ve not seen the film yet, it’s very highly recommended.

  2. Dennis,

    I always love reading and studying the Oulipo. Good creative fun but just a bit mad!

    If I recall, you liked the selected Bill Knott, yeah? I thought it was far more digestible than the white “phone book” of collected poems that Knott put out himself. I bought that that when Dubie first told me about him and I just sort of flip through it like an oracle and read random pieces every so often. I liked the Selected, but something about the structure of relative lengths of poems or something left me a bit wanting? I’m not sure.

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  1. Poesie Elettroniche – Verba

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