W, Or the Memory of Childhood
George Perec's W, or the Memory of Childhood is an account of two stadiums converted into narrative conceit as a means of suppressing thoughts too horrific to confront. The two stadiums that don't get mentioned by name, but get invoked nevertheless, are the velodrome in Drancy, and the national stadium in Chile, the latter used by Pinochet as a prison camp as he rounded up Allende socialists after the coup in 1973. Early in the book the narrator says his mother was "interned at Drancy on 23rd January 1943, then deported on 11 February following, destination Auschwitz." At the end of it he says: "I have forgotten what reasons I had at the age of twelve for choosing Tierra del Fuego as the site of W. Pinochet's Fascists have provided my fantasy with a final echo: several of the islands in that area are today deportation camps." The conceit behind the book rests on a man (more or less Perec himself) who says he has "no childhood memories". "My childhood belongs to those things which I know I don't know much about." He is a product of History with a capital H...the war the camps." The H is history but it is also of course the Holocaust, a word rarely offered in the lower case when describing the deaths of six million Jews in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau and others.
Perec is a writer famous for his numerous literary experiments. From writing a novel without the letter E (A Void), and a five thousand letter palindrome, to bilingual poems, and heterogrammatic poetry. An example of the latter would be 'Ulcerations', a poem written using only the letters of its title. Perec wanted literature to absorb within it the facetious and the ludic, to find new forms to escape stale narration. Yet Mark Ford in theLondon Review of Books says that Perec "found in their intense difficulty nothing compared to the horrors attendant upon any attempt to write poetry freely."
What might we glean from such a statement within the context of W, a work of autobiography in some ways, and a work of fertile imagination on the other? If Perec could not face certain memories and here replaces them with a fantastic world of Olympic feats, then is this the equivalent of the writer who will write about dungeons and dragons, sci-fi fantasy or general generic thrills? One thinks not, as the fantasy world Perec generates, in chapters interspersed with the more apparently autobiographical, increasingly resemble the very camps that are the black hole he cannot directly confront. Initially we hear about an island where "most of the population of W is concentrated in four settlements simply called "villages"...on W, a village is roughly the equivalent of what might be called elsewhere an "Olympic Village", of what in Olympia itself was called the Leonidation or, alternatively, of the training camps, where sportsmen of one or more nations limber up before major international events." Before the end of the book we hear how terrible these camps really are. "There are competitions every day, where you Win or Lose. You have to fight to live. There is no alternative. It is not possible to close your eyes to it, it is not possible to say no. There's no recourse, no mercy, no salvation to be had from anyone."
Throughout, Perec details the rigorous logic that says more about his reasoning procedures than those of the island, but this counts for little next to the degeneration that takes place there. As the narrator says: "from the ranking heats come 264 names, 66 for each village, corresponding to the three front runners in each of the 22 events contested. The four local championships provide four times 66 more, that is to say, another 264, and the two selection trials supply a further two times 66, or 132". Perec gets to indulge his fascination with numbers and calculations. But by the end we hear how "veterans who are expelled from their team and do not get posts, the ones who are called packmules, have no rights and no protection at all...they gather in clusters nears the dustbins, they loiter at night by the gallows, trying, in spite of the guards who shoot them down on sight, to tear the morsels of flesh from the rotting corpses of the losers who have been stoned and hanged." It is a degeneration familiar to those who know anything about the death camps, as if Perec's interest in rigour and control can't quite match the nihilistic will of the Nazis: that Perec's fascination for control and order cannot equal an environment possessing a will to power so complete that finally no reason can be extracted from it. By the end of the book we can be in no doubt that the island resembles the camps, evident in the German used and "piles of gold teeth, rings and spectacles, thousands and thousands of clothes in heaps, dusty card indexes, and stocks of poor quality soap..." Perec finds a means within the form to collapse the form, to offer some equivalent of the terrors of free verse as the Olympic ideal as narrative form disintegrates into human chaos.
All works of autobiography are probably fictions, as the memory cannot easily separate the fictional from the factual: the whole point of Borges's story 'Funes the Memorious'is that a character who remembers everything cannot really think: he has no way of shaping the material based on memory and forgetting. The most 'honest'; autobiographies are not those revealing salacious gossip and heartfelt confession; they are the ones most willing to acknowledge the fragility of the episodes recounted: works like Knausgaard's A Man in Love, Coetzee's Youth or Handke's account of his relationship with his mother, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Some offer a narrative that makes us wonder whether the work is fictional or not (A Russian Novel by Carrere;Summertime by Coetzee), but if Perec's W, or the Memory of Childhood is so interesting it rests partly on the acceptance of memory's fragility replaced by what turns out to be the fragility of the fictional. In French, history and story fall under the same word (histoire) and so we can think again of the narrator's remark about History with a capital H. As the narrator says shortly afterwards: "when I was thirteen I made up a story which I told and drew in pictures. Later I forgot it. Seven years ago, one evening in Venice, I suddenly remembered that this story was called W and that it was, in a way, if not the story of my childhood, then at least a story of my childhood."
In the same, brief chapter he talks of the "snares of writing...Once again I was like a child playing hide-and-seek, who doesn't know what he fears or wants more: to stay hidden, or to be found." This is the conundrum perhaps of most writers, but few have so obviously palindromically, ludically and provocatively sought the truth whilst creating fictive absurdity. There is the pain of the autobiographical and the escape into the fantastic, but by the end the fantastic is just as cruel, if not crueller, than the autobiographical: the hiding becomes unavoidable seeking.
If most of the great nineteenth century fiction came in the form of narration, do many great works of the 20th and early 21st century reside in confession as a problematic? The status of the work is neither quite fiction nor fact, but hovering between the two places. Flaubert may have said that "I am Madame Bovary", but this is a very different thing than Proust saying I am Marcel. The first is a provocation, and nineteenth century attempt to suggest the writer is no mere narrator of tales, but someone who puts their soul into the characters they create. If Flaubert is Madame Bovary this is the craft of the writer devoting years of his life to literary creation, but Bovary remains a major fictional character: like Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights, Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, the titular Anna Karenina. Bronte, Austen, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy could all say I am Heathcliffe etc. but it would remain within the realm of the fictional craft. Proust more than anyone turned that statement into a confessional question of being over a provocative question of creativity.
Let us think of how many 'modern' writers could say I am my character: Kafka with K, Updike in the Maples stories, Roth with Zuckerman, Hesse in Kingsolver's Last Summer, even Steppenwolf. It is captured well in the aforementioned Peter Handke's belief that "with my greatest effort I can expand myself. I can continue to expand myself. This is my only epic ability." (Studies in Twentieth Century Literature), and lightly theorised by Kundera in The Art of the Novel when he talks of experimental selves: of creating characters that are not there chiefly to serve narrative ends, but instead ontological needs. If 19th century fiction asked us to lose ourselves in the book, much of the most interesting literature since has asked us to find a notion of self in the material.
Perhaps central to the Oulipo group, which Perec joined in the late sixties, was this escape from both 19th century fiction and 20th century narratives of self-expression and self-exposure. They chose hiding over seeking, but within the context of innovative ways to escape narrative predictability. Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino and others would write books, stories and poems that would be based more on mathematical principles: showing instead of the influence philosophically of existentialism and phenomenology that were so prevalent in continental thinking at the time the fascination in anglophone philosophy for games, for establishing a set of rules within which an act of comprehension and understanding can take place. Wittgenstein's notion of the language game becomes in the hands of the Oulipo group a question of absurdist form. It is not so much what a poem means, but what a poem does: its formal properties become visible, unavoidable.
Yet we still have Perec's fears of the horrors of free verse; and in W the horror of the camps peeking through the island narrative. As he says early in the book: "W is no more like my Olympic fantasy than the Olympic fantasy was like my childhood. But in the crisscross web they weave as in my reading of them I know there is to be found the inscription and the description of the path I have taken, the passage of my history and the story of my passage." We have here in the closing sentence a pun, antimetabole and the acknowledgement of that antimetabole in the one sentence. Antimetabole is described in the Dictionary of Literary Terms as "the repetition of words in successive clauses in reverse grammatical order", and the antimetabole here is "the passage of my history and the story of my passage", obviously more precise in French. We see here the tension is constant between the need to create and the need to reveal. Introducing two short Perec books, Things and A Man Asleep, David Bellos says: "it would be wrong to assume, just because the material of these stories resembles some of the elements in the real life of Georges Perec, that the main interest of Perec's works is confessional. Autobiography, as readers of W or The Memory of Childhood are made to realise, is always fiction, the converse is perhaps not quite as true."
Yet partly what gives Perec's work its ontological significance rests on the autobiographical, or rather autobiography as affect: as a feeling that then must take shape and give 'meaning' to the form. Discussing the Oulipo movement in theGuardian, Alan Gillespie says "it seeks to unite poetry with maths to create constrained pieces of writing defined by set structures and patterns." Yet the difference between maths and poetry is one of affect, both on the part of the creator and on the part of the receiver. Maths is a question of human absence; poetry surely of human presence. To work out that 77 equals 49 is not an act of personal creativity; it is a question of obeying a set of given rules that will inevitably lead to a given result. Even if poetry acknowledges a set of rules (the sonnet, the Haiku, the couplet) these rules do not generate a categorical conclusion. The experiments offered by Oulipo might have been influenced by Maths as the writers tried to find new structural principles to generate fresh forms of literature, but they would not lead to the assertiveness of 77 equalling 49. When Perec writes A Void without the letter e, another writer could of course do the same and create a completely different book. The options are many even if the constraint is absolute.
Gilles Deleuze (writing with Felix Guattari in What is Philosophy?), looking at how different fields of knowledge are generated, says that philosophers work with concepts, scientists with functives, and artists with percepts and affects. The artist has feelings and perceptions that become the unique art work: we can call these percepts and affects autobiographical, but that would be to ignore many questions of the aesthetic and settle for the factual details of an individual life. When we hear that everyone has a book in them, that could be a fair statement to make: that few lives are so uninteresting that there isn't at least one story in it that could make a novel. But while everyone has a life, not everyone has the affective and perceptive capacity to generate an art work out of that existence. The more original that affective and perceptive capacity, the greater the artist. Many writers, for example, can write a well-constructed sentence, even manage a few clever similes, and have a way with dialogue or description, but that still won't be enough to produce a work of much significance. But the great artist is no longer egoistically creating as subject to object, they are generating new possibilities through affects and percepts. "Memory plays a small part in art (even and especially in Proust). It is true that every work of art is a monument, but here the monument is not something commemorating a past, it is a bloc of present sensations that owe their preservation only to themselves and that provide the event with the compound that celebrates it."
So how can we explain and explore Perec's importance; how to say that his autobiography is of far less interest to us than his affective and perceptive capacity? This would not initself lie in the imaginative faculty: Perec brilliantly turns forgotten childhood memories into a grotesque Olympics, but to praise him for this initself would be to praise Harry Potter over Henry Miller: Rowling's creations over Tropic of Cancer. This isn't to say anything about Rowling specifically; more to use her as a famous contemporary example of imaginative, popular fiction. What we often admire in literature is the means by which a writer combines affects (unformed feelings) and perceptions to create the creatively singular. If literature rates Miller more highly than Rowling is it because it sees that Miller's autobiographical approach allows for a new anthropological type, while Rowling's draws much more on traditional archetypes? Miller explores a world where sex is the lowest common denominator, but a common denominator nevertheless: man as a sexual animal. There may be a place for the spiritual in Miller's work (in Quiet Days in Clichy for example) but it must pass through the sexually manifest first.
What matters, though, is not that Miller is autobiographical; it is that he is original: he helps define a mode of being in the world. When Deleuze talks of affects and percepts this will often and perhaps increasingly come from the autobiographical not because the writer is trying to more 'honest'; more that they accept, in a world that changes rapidly, the archetype gives way to new prototypes. The writer is not so much a new being in the world (we are all precisely that). No, it is that the writer comprehends the shift and refuses to fall back on accepted notions of attitudes, behaviours and motivations when they feel they are maybe no longer so readily valid. This is partly why writing a novel with all the technical flare and characterisational specificity of the nineteenth century today would be seen as aesthetically invalid: it would be in thrall to the old (the stereotype) instead of the new: the prototype. Why have a heroine like Madame Bovary in an age when the problem for women would be quite different; or if similar in some ways certainly different in others? How would one construct a figure who could reflect a similar problem of social and spiritual constraint, without falling into a type that has already been so well delineated by Flaubert?
Indeed, the contemporary version might be a book like Perec's Things - A Story of the Sixties. Here a couple have materialist desires they can never quite find the money to satisfy as Perec explores a young man and woman who start out in market research and a tiny Parisian apartment, dissatisfied to the last. They are a product of their times very literally: they are themselves things as they can't find a space of thought and feeling in their own existence without wishing for the products around them. At the end of the book they are not yet thirty, but Things gives the impression their lives are over. When they take a job in Bordeaux, the narrator says: "they will not really earn a fortune. They will not be chairmen or managing directors. The only millions they will manipulate will belong to other people. They will get some of the crumbs, for appearances, for silk shirts, for pigskin gloves. They will be presentable. They will be well housed, well fed, well dressed. They will not be wanting." This is the new prototype: the post-war figures of comfortable prosperity but always feeling as though there is something missing in their lives, with advertising the promise of a better life that they can't ever reach. Perec's book is very much of its time in the best sense: consistent with the work of Jacques Tati, Baudrillard and Lefebvre as it muses over a consumer society that consumes the spirit of those who live for its ready pleasures. Perec offers the prototypical sixties couple: a new anthropological type.
Thus whether drawing on his own childhood in W, his social time as in Things, or perhaps his own depression (A Man Asleep is an acute account of a nervous collapse), what matters isn't the autobiographical, but the writer's ability to convey a given condition of being. To find out that Perec didn't at all suffer from depression wouldn't remotely invalidate A Man Asleep, only affective and perceptual failure would do that. When Roland Barthes insisted on the death of the author it was because too often criticism would be based on prioritising the writer's life and the writer's comments about it, and there were so many more possibilities available within the text. "We now know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God), but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash." ('The Death of the Author'). Deleuze's approach would insist on prioritising not Perec the man, but Perec as a creative force within the material. It is often here where the new prototype can manifest itself, and why even Miller's autobiographically inflected works are important because they finally fall into the category of fiction. They perhaps need the final freedom that facts cannot in themselves quite reveal.
It isn't so much that W is an imaginative work, nor an autobiographical account, which makes it of importance. It is the attempt the book makes to generate a space that can accept the difficulty of accessing memory when pain is involved and forgetting deemed necessary. It is a sort of anamnesis of the imagination, a means by which to speak about the ineffable without speaking on it. After all a common notion in Holocaust literature is the difficulty of speaking about the Shoah; that it becomes an unspeakable subject because the enormity (in the twin sense of an evil and of enormousness), makes accessibility directly all but impossible. It is like trying to look directly at the sun. Whether or not this claim concerning the difficulty of writing about the Holocaust is justified, Perec works within it, finding constant ways to speak indirectly of the atrocity. We have already noted this in the reference to History with a capital H. and of course in the Olympic story he tells, but we notice it too in numerous details that play on residual acts of injustice connected to, but not always directly pertinent to, the camps. "My mother has no grave. It was only on 13 October 1958 that she was officially declared to have died on 11 February 1943 at Drancy (France). A subsequent decree dated 17 November stipulated that 'had she been of French nationality' she would have been entitled to the citation 'Died for France'". Of his parents he says: "I write because we lived together, because I was one amongst them, a shadow amongst their shadows, a body close to their bodies. I write because they left in me their indelible mark, whose trace is writing." Earlier Perec proposes: "I do not know whether I have anything to say, I know that I am saying nothing; I do not know if what I might have to say is unsaid because it is unsayable (the unsayable is not buried inside writing, it is what prompted it in the first place." At the end of the same chapter he says: "Their memory is dead in writing; writing is the memory of their death and the assertion of my life."
The notion of anamnesis is found in Plato, where he discusses the idea that we have knowledge from past incarnations; learning consists of rediscovering this knowledge within us. It is consistent with Plato's interest in the forms: preexistent ideas that merely manifest themselves in the real world. However, the modern use of anamnesia, found in Jean-Francois Lyotard, for example, isn't a priori but very experiential and psychoanalytic: it is closer to finding the means by which to recover memory from immediate life and not the eternal soul. Yet this isn't a simple psychoanalytic procedure; which is why it is especially interesting in the context of art, and some sort of answer to the problem of speaking about the camps. It isn't that we cannot speak of the Holocaust; it is how does one do so. It isn't an easy subject, but it isn't an impossible one either. It perhaps demands the imagination not of denial but of admittance, but an admittance that comes out of a suppression of fact for the purposes of fiction. It is this denial/admittance that is surely at work in W, with the facts of life more or less offered in the 'autobiography', and the fantasy world of the Olympic island increasingly presenting itself as a horror of humankind. While initially we hear of the "various trials and errors which reflected the friction between the traditionalists who wished to maintain only the events of the classical Games, or, at most, the twelve selected for the 1898 Athletic Games, and the modernists who wished to introduce other disciplines", within a few chapters Perec shows the consequences of a competitive environment. "The more the winners are rewarded, the more the losers are punished, as if the good fortune of the former were the exact reciprocal of the latters' misfortune." The Nazis ideal was Olympian too, but the consequences turned people into untermenschen: survival of the fittest leading to a race to the bottom. Perec offers a narrative that can seem like an escape from reality, only to allow it to become an apotheosis of the real. The thirteen year old who invented an Olympic-style island, at around the same time his aunt took him to see an exhibition about concentration camps, might not have made the connection between what he was writing and drawing, and the fate his mother met. However, the adult Perec, the writer of literary games playing with the truth all the better to reveal it, unavoidably sees that sometimes the best acts of denial reveal most completely the nature of a truth.
In a brief introduction, Perec says: "in this book there are two texts which simply alternate: you might almost believe they had nothing in common, but they are in fact inextricably bound up with each other, as though neither could exist on their own." Perec works very complexly here with the two forms of anamnesis we have invoked. In one, we have the Platonic forms, of knowledge already given that then manifests itself in the world. This could have been the Olympic story, with the tale exploring the ideal of man as physical specimen, of noble ideals and great courage. The other is the one invoked by Lyotard, where the anamnetic is in buried memory that has to be teased out, a crisis in being, of its fragility and failure, its weakness and fearfulness. Perec creates out of the ludic, the 'childish' desire to bury memory in fantasy, history with a capital H as history, as story and as personal history. He achieves out of these elements "the point of suspension of which the broken threads of childhood and the web of writing are caught." The result is a book that is the opposite of playful as it shows in its telling the difficulty of games when the cruelty of their application can lead to very dark deeds; ones that paradoxically require the creation of a certain type of game to find them.
© Tony McKibbin